This article is about the importance of herbal medicines in treating and healing nerve pain or neuralgia, I also touch briefly on diet and relate this to recent research. Personally, I have tried numerous drugs for nerve pain before herbal medicines, and from my experience and research, I have to come to the conclusion herbal medicines can treat nerve pain. I also think there are more options available in herbal medicine than using drugs like Lyrica, Amitripyline, and Cymbalta, which tend to have worse side effects.
I should first say, when approaching nerve pain, including disorders like peripheral neuropathy, small fiber neuropathy, fibromyalgia, sciatica, and carpal tunnel, the key is to always look for the underlying cause. For example, some people have a deficiency in B12 which is causing or aggravating their problem, others may have a trapped nerve and need physiotherapy or to see a chiropractor. Notably, B vitamins are key to the health of the nervous system (Watanabe et al., 1994), so the diet should include B vitamins through good quality meats or a B complex can be tried. Remember vitamin B6 can be toxic in high doses so do research and be careful if taking this (Levine et al., 2002).
Before we go into the nervine herbs, it is relevant to briefly discuss anti-inflammatory or immune modulating herbs and immune dysregulation. Certainly this has relevance in disorders like MS, however, in other neurological conditions inflammation and chronic nerve pain are actually intimately connected and we are increasingly appreciating chronic neuropathic pain as a neuroimmune disorder (Scholz and Woolfe, 2004). Although usual anti inflammatory drugs, like NSAIDs, are not effective at reducing neuroinflammation and neuropathic pain, herbs are more complex, and there is a huge range of different medicinal plants out there that have immune modulating activity. Indeed, we may find in the future through research, that medicinal herbs can treat neuroinflammation and we already know they may certainly treat autoimmunity.
Notable herbs for inflammation include reishi, boswellia, ashwagandha, and tulsi. However, most important of all is changing diet to remove pro-inflammatory foods and to eat more anti-inflammatory foods. A natural Paleo type diet (removes gluten, dairy, processed foods, and refined sugars) is a good option (Cordain, 2012). Although, I definitely prefer to avoid red meat as it is pro-inflammatory and pro-cancer and include fish, legumes, rice, and chickpeas instead (Montonen et al., 2013). There is also evidence omega3 oils may be helpful in treating neuropathic pain. In one recent study, researchers found omega3 supplementation in mice helped assist in recovery from nerve injury (Gladman et al., 2012). It is best to find a good quality supplement with high strength EPA and DHA. Also, some may find it useful to combine immunomodulating herbs with those that more specifically target the nervous system, induce a state of relaxation, may restore function, and also treat pain. These are the nervine tonic herbs, arguably the most important class of herbs for nerve pain which I will go into now.
Two key nervine tonics, that restore the nerves are St. John’s wort and ashwagandha. St. John’s wort was used by the ancient Greeks to treat Sciatica (Castleman, 2001). It’s popular use as an antidepressant is only a recent development, traditionally it was used internally to heal nerves and topically for burns and wounds. There is some scientific support of it’s ability to treat neuropathic pain in experimental models (Galeotti et al., 2010). St. John’s wort is perhaps the most important herb for nerve pain in our materia medica and it is likely best obtained in fresh tincture form with a deep red colour. Ashwagandha, is a very versatile rasayana (restorative) herb, and recent science shows it can encourage new growth of nerves when they are damaged (Nakayama et al., 2007). In my personal experience, I have found these two herbs work well together to support the nervous system and reduce pain.
Other option is a mushroom called lion’s mane, it has started recently to be widely used as a nervine tonic by herbalists (Groves, 2016), and there is preliminary scientific evidence that it can regenerate nervous tissue and encourage release of nerve growth factor (Wong et al., 2011). More traditional regenerative herbs for the nervous system from the Ayurvedic system known as the ‘medhya rasayana’ herbs, other than ashwagandha, include tulsi, bacopa, gotu kola, calamus, and ginkgo (Groves, 2016). Tonics for nerve pain from the European and North American system, other than St. John’s wort, include wood betony, blue vervain, prickly ash, and American skullcap (Groves, 2016). Finally, cannabidiol, one of 2 primary medicinal components of cannabis, has recently emerged as a popular option for nerve and inflammatory pain. Human studies strongly support the use of cannabis extracts for neuropathic pain (Nurmikko et al., 2007).
Many people with nerve pain also suffer with sleep issues. This is where good sleep habits can really help. Going to bed at the same time every day and getting up at the same time can help train the circadian clock (Roenneberg et al., 2007). Many of the herbs mentioned above may improve sleep as they calm the nervous system. Getting good sleep will assist in the healing process.
To summarise, the best approach to nerve pain is a holistic one that takes into account the underlying cause of the problem if known, and other factors in ones lifestyle. This article has given some herbs that could be used in the construction of a formula for nerve pain, for more details on formula construction, I recommend an excellent book called, ‘Body into Balance’, by Maria Groves. There is also an additional article I have written on restoring the nervous system using herbs and this free encyclopedia.
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