Nervous system

Herbs, just like conventional drugs (though not as directly), can affect the nervous system via specific cellular receptors on the outside of nerve cells. Many herbs have therefore been shown to stimulate various nervous system chemicals, such as serotonin, adrenaline or dopamine. However, holistic medicine considers the nervous system from a wider perspective.

The nervous system is just one part of a highly complex control system in the body – the other two parts being the hormonal (endocrine) and immune systems. These systems are in constant interaction and account for almost all physiological processes (an area of study called ‘psycho-neuro-endocrino-immunology’).

Gut bacteria, stress, diet and environmental toxins all affect the proper functioning of the nervous system. Nervines (herbs that work on the nerves) are also prescribed for a wide range of conditions and are specifically chosen to suit a person’s character and needs.

Below I look at herbal treatment for migraines, pain and depression/anxiety.



Migraines are very common and can occur either with or without an aura. The classic picture is of a one-sided headache, behind the eyes, that lasts for 4-72 hours and is not easily relieved by paracetamol or ibuprofen – however, people will experience migraines in different ways. Sensitivity to light or sound can occur along with nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Migraines were once thought to be due to a dysfunction of blood vessels in the brain – nowadays it is treated more as a condition of the nerves. In women it is often connected with hormonal fluctuations around menstruation. Childhood migraines can be due to mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria are the energy-making powerhouses in every cell of the body), in which case supplementation with B vitamins is often very helpful.

Usually, there are specific triggers in each person – common food triggers are red wine, blue cheese, chocolate, bananas, avocados, mushrooms and soy sauce, as these contain high levels of amines (protein). Other triggers may be bright lights, strong smells, weather changes, sleep deprivation, head or neck trauma or the oral contraceptive pill.

Stress and diet have a direct effect on migraines, and in traditional holistic medicine migraines are connected to poor liver function and digestive disturbance.

Herbs that can be used include feverfew, ginger, Petasites hybridus, hawthorn, cramp bark, Corydalis, Bacopa, St John’s Wort, withania, ginkgo and bilberry. For menstrual migraines, Vitex agnus-castus is used. Migraines, however, are a very individual condition and herbs will always be chosen depending on what else is going on for that person.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):



Pain may be related to chronic conditions (sports injuries, autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis, cancer), acute conditions (injury, period pain, migraine), or be drug-induced (chemotherapy or radiation-induced pain). Herbs, used safely, have their place in the management of all these types of pain.

The herbs used will depend on the type of pain as well as the type of person – for example, men and women experience pain differently, and someone with a nervous disposition tends to have an increased pain response.

For period pain, we might look at using cramp bark, Corydalis, Anemone and ginger along with a magnesium supplement, whereas for arthritic pain herbs like Boswellia, turmeric, devil’s claw and celery seed are often used.

Vitamin D is a very important nutrient for the management of autoimmune-related pain (eg. rheumatoid arthritis), and B vitamins are very effective for nerve pain from chemotherapy treatment. Food can be both medicine and poison – for example, high carbohydrate and high sugar diets can make pain worse.

Inflammation in the body can increase substance P, a chemical that is related to pain, so any diet & lifestyle habits that reduce inflammation will help. Practices like tai chi, meditation, pilates and simple relaxation exercises are useful to consider in these cases.

For muscle sprains and strains, we also have a huge array of pain-relieving topical herbal creams – arnica, chilli, wintergreen, comfrey, mint and clove are just a few herbs we can use here. Carpal tunnel syndrome can also be successfully treated with herbs to reduce nerve entrapment and improve circulation, as can be seen below.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):


Depression & anxiety

One of the most interesting areas of scientific research in recent years has been on the link between depression/anxiety and physical inflammation. It was previously thought that depression was caused by a deficiency of the brain’s “happy chemicals” (eg. serotonin, dopamine) and psychiatric drugs were made to correct this deficiency.

However, it is now clear that this imbalance in brain chemistry is not the cause, but the result of disease processes that happen much earlier on in the body. These include inflammation, genetic changes and disruption to gut bacteria, mainly as a result of poor diet & lifestyle habits across generations. It is becoming more and more accepted in mainstream medicine that the brain and the body are intrinsically connected, and the health of one is dependent upon that of the other.

Chronic stress will increase inflammation in the body and directly effect brain chemistry, so stress management techniques are very useful in anxiety and depression. Studies have shown exercise to be as effective as anti-depressant medications, whereas fish oil, turmeric and various herbs help to decrease inflammation and increase the production of beneficial brain chemicals.

Herbs that can be helpful include skullcap, valerian, St John’s Wort, lemon balm, vervain, lavender, rhodiola, withania and kava. Digestion and gut flora often needs to be supported with herbs, diet and probiotics – nutrients like zinc and magnesium are important and food should be organic and non-processed. Professional counselling and/or anti-depressant medications may be necessary alongside herbs in more serious cases.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):