Cultivating Nervous System Resilence
The nervous system is our interface with the world. Everything we see, touch, taste, hear and smell comes through the nervous system. It orchestrates every function from the thoughts we think, down to the ebb and flow of the breath. In short, the nervous system influences our entire perception of life. If someone is constantly on edge, frazzled and uptight- their world will be filled with alarming signals and hostile encounters. If someone is relaxed and present in their body- it is filled with intricate relationships of meaning.
This year has been hard for so many people and frazzling to say the least. Now more than ever, we’re all needing to take care of ourselves. Supporting the nervous system doesn’t mean that life’s stressors will disappear, but that when they arrive there’s a greater capacity to deal with them. This is what I consider to be nervous system resilience. It’s unrealistic to expect that things will always be okay, but learning to be okay even when the world around you isn’t will change everything. I believe the difficult, messy and painful aspects of life are where we learn the most. Post-traumatic growth is possible.
I write about the nervous system as someone who has struggled for years with chronic anxiety. My journey has been in understanding the roots of these feelings and making peace with the uncomfortable aspects of life. After all, the nervous system is first and foremost a messenger.
Here’s the thing about the nervous system- the majority of nervous system deregulation ultimately comes down to the concept of “evolutionary mismatch”. Homospaiens are estimated to be around 300 000 years old. Around 12 000 years ago the agricultural revolution occurred and only a little over 200 years ago the industrial revolution took place. The phase we’re currently in could be considered the “technological revolution”. These events all resulted in a dramatic change to how we live as human beings upon the earth.
For the majority of human history we were nomadic hunter/gatherers, living communally and in relationship to the land and the seasons. Now we live largely sedentary lifestyles, alone in houses, sometimes in areas with little green space and exposure to light even in the dark of night. There has been a large influx of 22 000 new synthetic chemicals put in circulation between 1982-2012 with little testing for their impacts on human health. Not to mention the reality that conventionally produced foods are not as nutritious as they once were. It’s no wonder our bodies are in distress. This may actually be a normal and even healthy response given the circumstances.
Rosemary Gladstar writes the following words in her book Herbs for Stress and Anxiety:
Panic attacks may be a sane reaction to life in an insane world, the body’s attempt to sound a loud, clear alarm.”
In my own life, I have absolutely found this to be the case.
What we put into the body plays a huge role of the function of the nervous system. There are over 100 million neurons located in the gut called the enteric nervous system. Gut health and nervous system health are inseparable. When working with herbs, this connection becomes obvious. Many of the herbs which are digestive bitters or carminatives also help to relax the nervous system.
Eating processed foods and refined sugars provides a sure way to feel crappy. With food sensitivities like with gluten or lactose intolerance an emotional response can be triggered when they’re eaten since these foods are quite literally triggering the body’s internal alarm. Consuming alcohol while facing depression will push someone further into that depressed state. Similarly, consuming caffeine or other stimulants when anxious can act as a trigger. There’s an incredible interplay between the foods we eat and the way we feel! Starting a food journal to track how certain foods influence mood can be an eye opening process.
There are specific nutrients which are supportive to nervous system functioning. Without these basic building blocks, the nervous system won’t fire as it’s supposed to. Some of these nutrients include B vitamins, Omega 3 Fatty Acids (best as DHA or EPA), calcium and magnesium. Sourcing these nutrients from whole foods is ideal. Including nutritional yeast, fermented foods, cold water fish, free range eggs, blue green algae, leafy greens, seeds and seaweeds in the diet will provide the body with a wide variety of nutrients for overall health.
Herbs for the Nervous System
Milky oats, Avena sativa
The humble oat plant is a classic herb for supporting the nervous system. Although eating oatmeal does support the nervous system nutritionally, the immature seed heads called “milky oats” are the most potent medicinally. They fall into the category of nervine trophorestorative. This means that they help to restore healthy function to the nervous system. The classic saying about milky oats is that they “feed the nervous system”. They contain minerals including silica, calcium, chromium and magnesium. Milky oats also carry an uplifting, antidepressant quality stemming from specific alkaloids and saponins found during the “milk” stage. The demulcent quality of oats makes them particularly soothing to frazzled nerves and the mucus membranes (remember the gut/brain piece!). Oats are especially indicated for rebuilding energy and vitality after illness.
Motherwort, Leonaurus cardiaca
This bitter mint family plant happens to be my favourite herb for panic attacks. It’s important to note that it works best if taken as a tincture directly on the tongue. Part of how motherwort works is by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to “rest and digest” through the bitter taste stimulating gastric secretions. Along with this, motherwort relaxes the musculoskeletal system to let go of the physical tension accompanying the panic. Many of the herbs suggested for anxiety like valerian tend to be quite sedative in nature. Although motherwort is a relaxant nervine, it doesn’t sedate the anxiety away. I find motherwort increases my capacity to feel the emotions behind the anxiety. Think of motherwort like a mother’s embrace, holding the space to face your fears.
California poppy, Eschscholzia californica
Sleeping deeply really is an essential pillar of a healthy nervous system which is why California poppy can be so supportive. A cousin to the opium poppy, this herb shares the similar sedative and pain relieving qualities- only it is much gentler, non addictive and safe enough even for small children to use. California poppy promotes relaxation for ease falling asleep and sleeping more deeply. While high doses are quite sedative, low doses simply help with relaxation. These lower doses can be supportive for anxiety and hyperactivity. The pain relieving qualities are supportive for pain associated with migraines and headaches.
Below is a recipe for a lovely nerve nourishing tea blend. The act of slowing down to drink a cup of tea does as much for the nervous system as the herbs in it! With each sip comes an opportunity to breathe in the aromatic steam. It carves the quiet space to relax as you drink. With the nervous system, often doing less is doing more. The modern world is often very fast paced. Drinking tea is a way to embrace stillness.
Nerve Nourishing Tea
Combine equal parts of chamomile, rose, tulsi and milky oat tops. Prepare with 2 teaspoons of dried herbal blend per cup and steep covered for 15-20 minutes. Strain and enjoy!
National Geographic. (2019, April 5). What was the Neolithic Revolution? https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/neolithic-agricultural-revolution/
Strickland, A. C. (2017, June 8). Oldest Homo sapiens fossils discovered. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/07/health/oldest-homo-sapiens-fossils-found/index.html#:%7E:text=(CNN)%20The%20oldest%20fossil%20remains,the%20journal%20Nature%20on%20Wednesday
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Gladstar, R. (2014). Herbs for Stress & Anxiety: How to Make and Use Herbal Remedies to Strengthen the Nervous System (Storey Basics) (2nd ed.). Storey Publishing.