This article is a brief guide to the adaptogens and nervines and how we could go about combining them. They are two powerful classes of herb useful for many problems. Although, it is best to use them after developing a detailed understanding of their traditional indications.
It is thought adaptogens operate through gently modulating the sympatho-adrenal or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axes of the endocrine system (Reviewed by Panossian, 2017), which are related to stress response, to adapt the organism to dealing with stress. These herbs are known as the Qi tonics or rasayana herbs in traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine, respectively. They are called Qi tonics because they all have this characteristic of increasing a person’s overall energy or Qi. However, they are not simple stimulants like coffee, they also have a relaxing property to them which makes them so unique. Nervine herbs on the other hand, aside from the nervine stimulants, act to relax the nervous system to differing degrees. We may also define additional actions for nervines and adaptogens. For instance, the nervine American skullcap is also a nervine tonic and is thought to be effective for restoring normal sleep patterns. While the nervine lemon balm is also an effective carminative suited for reducing excessive digestive gas.
As well as herbal actions, adaptogens and nervines also have specific indications and affinities for different systems of the body. For example, astragalus and reishi are potent immune stimulators and so are suited for protecting against infections, while he shou wu and ashwagandha have an affinity for the male reproductive system and may improve sexual performance and drive. One common characteristic to adaptogens is they tend to be quite multi-purpose, like an herbal swiss army knife. Importantly, adaptogens and nervines also have different energetic properties, which relate to how warming, cooling, drying, or moistening they are on the individual’s constitution.
(above) American skullcap, a nervine tonic and sedative. Best in a fresh tincture form.
We have learnt from knowledge passed down through the generations that herbs, including adaptogens and nervines have certain energetic properties (i.e. warming, cooling, moistening, drying) (Figure 1). These should, ideally, be taken into account when selecting an adaptogen or nervine. A common finding, for example, if taking a drying herb like prickly ash, is that certain people who tend towards dryness (i.e. dry skin, constipation) tend to get dried out skin. This would be especially true for the vata constitution in Ayurveda (cold and dry). I observed this for the first time when testing prickly ash on myself, being a vata constitution dominately, I was interested to see the skin almost immediately dry out and parts turn red on my hands after taking small doses of this potent herb (5-10 drops). Some time later, I also observed after taking a little too much ashwagandha, I got too warm and started sweating. Ashwagandha is a warming herb in Ayurveda. I have also found it drying, in excess.
Although some people still do not believe in herbal energetics, the same system of medicine based on heating, cooling, drying, or moistening herbs is found within ancient Greek, Ayurvedic, and traditional Chinese medicine. Perhaps, it is one of those things you must see for yourself first hand. David Winston provides more detailed information on energetics which are related to the taste of the herbs in his book, Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief (Winston, 2007).
Figure 1. Energetic properties of common nervine and adaptogen medicinal herbs.
The nervous-endocrine system spectrum
Another way of viewing adaptogens and nervines is to examine how stimulating they are to the nervous system (Figure 2). Certain adaptogens, such as Asian ginseng tend to be more stimulating and may cause insomnia, while ashwagandha tends to be more calming and therefore potentially useful for sleep. Young people are usually more suited to less stimulating adaptogens as they often have more energy or Qi, while for older people the converse applies. More stimulating adaptogens may be taken in the morning only.
Adaptogens combine well with the nervine herbs because they may reinforce their relaxing activity, mitigate insomnia, and allow a more complex combination of herbal actions. For instance, combining a calming adaptogen such as ashwagandha with the nervine tonics, milky oat seed and American skullcap, amplifies the calming activity of ashwagandha and creates a relaxing formula for the nervous system. This simple triplet is well suited for those persons suffering with nervous over excitation like, insomnia and or anxiety.
Figure 2. The nervous-endocrine system spectrum.
Typical considerations when choosing herbs for a formula that mixes adaptogens and nervines are; constitution (e.g. pitta, vata, kapha), diseased tissue state (e.g. hot (inflamed), cold, wet, dry, tense, relaxed), actions, affinities, and specific indications of the herb. It is also appropiate to consider when using an adaptogen that some people are more prone to insomnia and are very sensitive and so may respond better to a calming adaptogen such as ashwagandha or holy basil. Equally, some people may have a lot of dry skin going on and therefore a moistening nervine like hawthorn or milky oat seed may be more appropiate. I recommend studying Matthew Wood’s The Earthwise Herbal books for a more complete explanation of constitutions and tissue states (Wood, 2009).
A more simple way widely practiced is to just pick an herb by its action, e.g. nervine sedative. Although there is room for a variety of different ways of deciding which herb to use, I think it is good to learn from the ancient traditions of the world such as Ayurveda and TCM.
We will now turn to examine some specific indications from traditional knowledge and (mostly preliminary) scientific studies. These indications have been collected from mining traditional text books and scientific studies, they usually come from multiple independent sources. References for specific indications are included in the herbal encyclopedia. I have also tested many of these on myself and can therefore confirm many of the indications.
Ashwagandha: Insomnia, anxiety, nerve pain, sexual/ reproductive problems, autoimmune diseases, fatigue, musculoskeletal conditions such as fibromyalgia and both types of arthritis, cognitive problems such as ADD, ADHD, and dementia.
Asian ginseng: Anxiety, autoimmune diseases, allergies, fatigue, cognitive problems, sexual/ reproductive problems in men, longevity.
Gotu kola: Anxiety, nerve pain, fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, dry scaly skin, cognitive problems, autoimmune diseases, longevity.
Holy basil: Autoimmune diseases, nerve pain, anxiety, insomnia, boosting strength of the immune system, cognitive problems.
Rhodiola: Depression, fatigue, longevity, cognitive problems.
He shou wu: Sexual weakness/debility in men, musculoskeletal conditions, constipation, inflammation of the GI tract, fatigue.
Schisandra: Anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, liver complaints and disorders, weak digestion, hypertension.
Reishi: Anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, asthma, inflammation of GI tract, musculoskeletal conditions, weak immune system, allergies, cancer, longevity.
Licorice: Fatigue, inflammation of GI tract, dry cough, constipation.
Cordyceps: Asthma, autoimmune diseases, fatigue.
Astragalus: Weak immune system, fatigue, allergies.
Shatavari: Sexual problems in both sexes (but particuarly women), fatigue, insomnia.
St. John’s wort: Nerve pain, depression, anxiety.
American skullcap: Insomnia, anxiety, nerve pain, tense muscles.
Milky oat seed: Emotionally unstable, depression, insomnia, anxiety.
Blue vervain: Muscle tension, anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy.
Kava: More severe insomnia, anxiety, nerve pain, chronic pain, muscle tension.
Lemon balm: Insomnia, anxiety, cognitive problems, excess gas.
California poppy: Nerve pain, chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety.
Valerian: Tense muscles, insomnia, anxiety.
Hawthorn: Heart weakness, hypertension, constipation, ADHD.
An example of mixing adaptogens and nervines
You can do a lot with nervines and adaptogens. This is just an example of what we might consider when formulating. Tissue state is NA because the nervous system does not have wet, cold, dry, and hot states in the same way the joints or lungs do, for example. St. John’s wort, skullcap, and ashwagandha are some of the best tonics for vata, they are only slightly drying.
Constitution: Dry cold/hot. Vata-pitta.
Condition/s: Tingling pains, insomnia. Vata aggravation.
Tissue state/s: NA
Systems/: Nervous system
Action/s: Nervine tonic, adaptogen, analgesic, nootropic, sedative
Energetics: St. John’s wort (warming, drying), skullcap (cooling, drying), ashwagandha (warming, drying)
There is, unfortunately, a lack of scientific knowledge surrounding the medicinal properties of plants compared with mainstream drugs, however, what we do have is strong traditional knowledge. I think it is best to research over multiple traditional sources when deciding to test a medicinal plant on yourself or others. If there are many different herbalists seemingly independently suggesting a plant is good for something, this is of course a good sign. It is important to remember that herbs may interact with drugs, sometimes in a dangerous manner so this must be properly researched or a doctor consulted. However, sometimes herbs may help get a person off drugs, so it may work both ways. In my own practice, I have been able to safely remove myself from the drug, lyrica, using herbs like American skullcap, milky oat seed, and ashwagandha.
Herbalism of different varieties is being more widely practiced by folk herbalists, including biohackers, who will use just about anything and are very keen on scientific studies while they often shun traditional knowledge. I think what is needed is a more balanced approach drawing from the great herbal teachers of the world as well as considering the newest science. After all science will always have an incomplete understanding of medicinal herbs, it is up to the herbalists to experiment to find new specific indications and formula.
Cautions and contraindications
Whilst adaptogens are potentially useful medicines and foods, they can cause insomnia and over stimulation in some individuals (especially the more stimulating ones; e.g. rhodiola, Asian ginseng) and depending on them for energy instead of good sleep, lifestyle, and eating habits will lead to a sleep debt and burnout. Adaptogens are traditionally contra indicated during acute illness because they are thought to increase the health of the invading organism. We recommend reading this PDF by Paul Bergner, an herbalist highly experienced with using the adaptogens if you are thinking of using them on yourself or on others (link).
Panossian, Alexander. “Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2017).
Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.
Groves, Maria. Body into Balance. Storey Publishing, 2016.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2009.