Written by Sebastian Pole
Life can ask a lot of us sometimes and our whole system is constantly under pressure to perform. And just as we need to train to keep fit, so we need to hone our skills at relaxing at will. Of course, some of the stress we experience is very helpful. The grounding stress of gravity keeps us on the earth. The force of the sun’s gravitational stress holds the earth in an ellipse so perfectly placed that our planet can flourish in an atmosphere ideal for life. The pressure of an important performance can heighten our senses and improve how we play. As we can clearly see in Nature, too much stress pushes any ecosystem to its limit.
And so it is with our own inner ecosystem; intense or consistent departure from the bio-rhythms, repair and rebalancing we need and symptoms are quickly felt in our sleep, skin and digestion. Stress is implicated in so many health problems from insomnia to dermatitis to IBS to overt anxiety and beyond. Ayurveda perceives this as ‘living beyond our threshold’ or ‘living beyond our means’. So, if we are living in the red we need to recredit our reserves so that we can process, absorb and purify the stresses we encounter. Nature holds many gifts for helping us to manage our daily stresses from simple breathing exercises, to soothing massage, to a spectrum of healing plants that can sedate, stimulate, nourish, feed and/or relax the nervous system.
Herbs for relaxation
I hardly ever treat anyone without including some herbs for nourishing and supporting their nervous system. Any imbalance causes there to be stress in the system. From an Ayurvedic perspective, ‘stress’ can disturb the quality of vata that is responsible for smooth flow of information and regulation of our bio-rhythms, which can cascade impacting the other doshas, pitta and kapha. This leads to chronic stress also being implicated in most degenerative diseases from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. Vata is the quality associated with change, movement and lightness. All stress involves some change, and severe stress usually involves some form of ‘shock’ to the system. To find balance means you have to digest the shock and adapt to the stress. Along with basic breathing exercises and massage, plants are of course valuable stress managers. Herbalists will usually make a tailor-made prescription to suit each individual’s needs. Some of Ayurveda’s renowned plants are:
Ashwagandha: Withania somnifera’s potent nourishing and adaptogenic abilities to help us cope with stress makes it my favourite plant to prescribe for supporting resilience. I normally dose at 2-5g/day as a powder (capsule or in some almond milk) or 10-25% of a liquid tincture prescription. I use it whenever there is any sign of deficiency, coldness or weakness leading to tiredness or debility. This makes Ashwagandha the herb of choice when there is any chronic imbalance that results in depletion and convalescence. Its grounding and stabilising effects help in insomnia, palpitations and anxiety. Its nourishing properties help stabilise weight and enhance vitality. As one of Ayurveda’s premier rejuvenating rasayana plants, used to extend the quality and quantity of life, it gives deep and enduring energy to the immune, reproductive, structural and nervous systems. By helping to support thyroid, brain, pancreatic and heart function it brings strength to the organs responsible for the foundation of our health. At a cellular level Ashwagandha enhances our Heat shock protein response to stress – meaning we can tolerate more stress for longer with less harm – as well as enhancing glutathione recovery, so essential for consistent cellular rejuvenation.
Brahmi: Bacopa monnieri is a wonderful cooling herb for the nervous system and mind. Named after ‘Brahman’ or the ‘Universal Consciousness’, it is renowned for influencing the quality of consciousness and it balances all three dosha. Clinical studies have shown that Brahmi can help increase cognition, memory and concentration whilst also greatly improving anxiety. I normally dose it at 2-3g/day as a powder or 10-15% of a liquid tincture prescription. I use it whenever there is any signs of mental or emotional imbalance resulting in nervous anxiety or debility. I specifically think of using it whenever there is nervous depletion resulting from excess work or thinking leading to anxiety and brain fatigue. Its ability to bring mental clarity make it useful when an emotional experience(s) is too difficult to digest and we can become stuck in a repetitive cycle of feelings potentially leading to depression. Its impact of the 5-HTP and serotonin pathways are valuable here . Its effects on improving cognition, enhancing learning and memory as well as regenerating brain cells indicate its use in Alzheimer’s, ADHD and autism, but also in any form of mental illness from depression to eating disorders. All of this helps bring vitality and energy back, which is also shown in its impacts on the thyroid. It is also a useful addition to formulas used to heal hot skin conditions from acne, eczema to psoriasis which if they aren’t caused by any nervous system imbalances can ceryainly cause them.
Gotu Kola: Hydrocotyle asiatica’s greatest asset is its ability to penetrate deeply into the circulatory system and carry its consciousness enhancing properties into the brain. I give it at 3-10g/day as a powder (or capsules) or 10-25% of a liquid tincture prescription. Whenever a client needs relaxing in order to think clearly I will consider Gotu Kola. It relaxes the channels of circulation, allowing more blood to flow whether this is needed for nutrition or wound healing. Either way, it reduces the stress of ’trauma’ caused by a wound, shock, skin disease, inflammation or mental fog. As it balances all three dosha it removes the ‘shock’ of doshic imbalance. Commonly used in Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, spasmodic disorders, skin inflammations associated with stress and joint inflammations. It is also used to help prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis. By normalising the cell adhesion molecule function it enhances cellular communication and promotes cellular intelligence. Gotu Kola is true food for the mind.
Tulsi: Ocimum tenuiflorum (syn. sanctum) or Holy Basil is one of my favourite nervines. Its light aromatic scent is wonderful for lifting the spirits and alleviating a tired mind, even mild depression. I include it in a mix as 2-6g powder per day or as herbal tea or at 5-15% of a liquid tincture prescription. It is packed with essential oils that help to open the lungs, and relax tension. It is very useful for headaches, allergic irritation, nervous digestion and when taken as a strong herbal infusion, the physical ache associated with ‘flu and colds. Its become considered as an adaptogen in some circles with its ursolic acid content showing potent cellular repair and cortisol regulating effects.
Vacha: Acorus calamus is used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine for ‘opening the mind’ and bringing clarity whenever there is sluggishness and mental fog. Its pungent and bitter flavour helps it penetrate its healing potential deep into the mind. This warming quality ‘cooks’ and scrapes accumulations that are obstructing clear thinking. Used at 1-3g/day (powder) or 5-7.5% of a liquid tincture prescription. It has a strong acrid taste and so should be used at a low dose. And not just because of the dose. It contains B-asarone at various levels depending on the country of origin due to its chromosomal make up so just use short term at a low dose. Its ability to aromatically awaken digestion and clear mucus from the body indicates it whenever there is ‘stuck’ behaviour leading to depression, speech impediments and emotional stagnation with a heavy kapha type or cold vata type person. Called vacha meaning ‘speech’ in Sanskrit, its traditional use speaks volumes for the insights our ancestors discovered about plants for such specific uses.
A 43 year old woman presented with anxiety, ‘butterflies’ and poor sleep following a bout of intense stress. Her appetite is good but her digestion has become erratic resulting in bloating, constipation and general abdominal discomfort. Whilst she isn’t usually an anxious person, she has been fixed in this place for a while can’t stop her mind dwelling on the issue and is anxious about its impact on her health and mood. She is now regularly fatigued and has developed restless legs and the occasional palpitation at night. She has a fast, thin and thready pulse high in vata quality with a pale tongue with teeth marks. A recent healthcheck showed Blood pressure and thyroid levels were all fine with no other symptoms of note. Otherwise she has a good diet- bar a bit too much sugar and coffee. Diagnosis is vata imbalance with nervous system (majja dhatu) involved with vata. So we decided to calm vata, strengthen the nervous system and nourish digestion:
- Home made relaxing tea with chamomile, fennel seed, gotu kola, licorice and ashwagandha
- Home self-massage with warm sesame oil with patchouli and boswellia.
- Daily breathing practice of rhythmical breathing.
- We had a full discussion on the importance of supporting the digestive system and ‘feeding the fire’ agreeing on a diet of less coffee and sugar and more warm foods including almonds, nutmeg, hemp seed oil, ghee, rice pudding and saffron. Ensuring the herbs and spices are visible and tasty in each meal.
- Tincture (but it could have been a powder mix) 1-2 tsp 3x/day in warm water
- Ashwagandha root 25
- Gotu kola leaf 15
- Brahmi leaf 15
- Tulsi leaf 10
- Vacha root 5
- Motherwort aerial parts 10
- Rose flower 5
- Fennel seed 5
- Licorice root 5
Taken as 5 ml (1 tsp) 3x/day before food in a little warm water
The ashwagandha, gotu kola, brahmi all help to settle anxiety and calm tension. Vacha’s moving pungency is a specific for enkindling digestion and opening consciousness, combining well with the tulsi. Gotu kola and brahmi help with repetitive thoughts. Motherwort, rose and ashwagandha are good for palpitations. They are also excellent for healing emotional trauma with vata aggravation. The vacha and fennel strengthen and warm digestion and help to move the aggravated rising vata energy downwards. Sweet licorice builds endurance and combines very well with ashwagandha as a tonic to reduce vata anxiety.
After a couple of months she felt more settled and her digestion was much more reliable. We moved onto just the herbal tea and some ashwagandha powder with the breathing and massage becoming integral parts of her regular routine.
Bradwejn J, et al. A double-blind placebo-controlled study on the effects of gotu kola on acoustic startle response in healthy subjects. J Clin Psychopharmacol 2000;20:680-4.
Cesarone MR, Belcaro G, De Sanctis MT, Incandela L, Cacchio M, Bavera P, Ippolito E, Bucci M, Griffin M, Geroulakos G, Dugall M, Buccella S, Kleyweght S, Cacchio M. Effects of the total triterpenic fraction of Centella asiatica in venous hypertensive microangiopathy: a prospective, placebo-controlled, randomized trial. Angiology 2001;52(Suppl 2):S15-18.
Cesarone MR, et al. Evaluation of treatment of diabetic microangiopathy with total triterpenic fraction of Centella asiatica: a clinical prospective randomized trial with a microcirculatory model. Angiology 2001;52(Suppl 2):S49-54.
Dadkar VN, Ranadive NU, Dhar HL (1987) Evaluation of antistress activity of Withania somnifera. Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry 2, 101-108.
Davis L, Kuttan G (2000) Immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 71, 193–200.
Mishra LC, Singh BB, Dagenais S. Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Altern.Med Rev. 2000;5:334-46.
Pointel JP, et al. Titrated extract of Centella asiatica (TECA) in the treatment of venous insufficiency of the lower limbs. Angiology 1987;38:46-50.
Russo and F. Borrelli Phytomedicine, Bacopa monniera, a reputed nootropic plant: an overview . Volume 12, Issue 4, 20 April 2005, Pages 305-317.
Russo A, Izzo AA, Borrelli F, Renis M, Vanella A. Free radical scavenging capacity and protective effect of Bacopa monniera L. on DNA damage. Phytother Res. 2003 Sep;17(8):870-5.
Sharma R et al: Efficacy of Bacopa monnieri in revitalizing intellectual functions in children; J Res Edu Indian Med pp 1-12, Jan-June 1987.
Singh RH, Singh L: Studies on the anti-anxiety effect of the Medhy Rasayan drug, Brahmi (Bacopa monniera Wettst.) – Part 1; J Res Ayur Siddha 1 pp 133-148, 1980.
Stough C, Lloyd J, Clarke J, Downey LA, Hutchison CW, Rodgers T, Nathan PJ. The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001 Aug;156(4):481-4.
Ayurvedic Medicine: Pole
Ayurvedic Pharmacology: Gogte
Database on Medicinal Plants Used in Ayurveda
Major Herbs of Ayurveda: Williamson
The Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India