So if you are a novice to herbs you are going to see a lot of terms that may be new to you. Herbalism is a language and while you don’t have to be fluent in it, its helpful to know some of the words used to describe how herbs work. In this section, I go through some of the major terms for mental health herbs. These are
Lets take a look:
This category of herb is a relative newcomer to western herbalism and comes yto us via the old Soviet Union. In the 40’s and 50’s the Soviets became increasingly interested in the properties of herbs that had been used for centuries by traditional peoples. They started to test these plants and do research that quantified the effects on different subject groups. What they found is that certain herbs did indeed boost stamina, resiliency, lowered stress levels and improved cognitive function, memory and alertness in a number of studies. They named these herbs adaptogens with the definition that these plants had a non-specific and non-toxic effect tonic effect that helped people to develop resiliency and adapt to stress more easily.
The term has stuck and is now used fairly liberally by herbalists these days. The term is generally associated with a number of Chinese and ayurvedic herbs that have long been used as tonics, but also include a few herbs that grow in Europe and the Americas as well. Here is a short list of some main common adaptogens.
Amla, Aralia, asparagus root, astragalus, american ginseng, ashwaghanda, asian ginseng, codonopsis, cordyceps, devil’s club, eleuthero, goji, guduchi, he shou wu, holy basil, maitake, rehmannia, reishi, rhodiola, schisandra, shatavari, shilajit, shitake.
Of these a number of them are fairly gentle and can be offered more easily to most folks. These include amla, astragalus, codonopsis, cordyceps, goji, holy basil, maitake, reishi, shilajit and shitaki.
There is quite a bit of confusion about the use of this term however, as each of these plants have a really unique effect and grouping them together blends them so that differences are not as readily apparent. Some commercial herbalists will simply throw a bunch of these adaptogens into a formula without thought of specific differences and unique considerations about each plant.
Traditionally in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, these tonic herbs were offered depending on their temperature (warming, cooling) and effect (moistening, drying) as well as their supplementary features (calming, stinulating, etc). Within these considerations it would not be smart to offer a very heating adaptogen such as Asian ginseng to someone who was already hot and dry. And moistening herbs such as shatavari generally would not be offered to someone who already had a lot of “dampness” (edema, mucous, moisture) in their system. These subtle distinctions are key and often lost in our rush to just offer an adaptogen for someone who is stressed.
There is a further issue in that adaptogens may work to build resiliency and lower stress levels but may not help an individual address the concerns that caused a person to be so stressed out in the first place. When one thinks of the Soviet Union, one can only imagine the government working individuals at a maximum pace with little break, causing rapid depletion and deterioration in many. While an adaptogen may prop people up, it misses the point that overwork, stress, trauma and oppression are the real culprits that should be addressed instead of just trying to push an individual to work harder with the help of an herb.
So please remember, when working with this category of herb, each plant is unique, has different properties and like most health considerations, the underlying issues need to be examined and resolved instead of just covering up underlying distress. Just like coffee doesn’t replace good sleep, adaptogens don’t replace taking care of underlying poor health.
An herb that is analgesic is one that reduces pain. There are a number of ways that herbs reduce pain. They can act directly on pain receptors such as kratom or poppy (opioid receptors), they can act as anti-inflammatories such as turmeric, can help move the blood via circulation such as ginger, cinnamon and clove or act as antispasmodic herbs such as kava and cramp bark. Finally there are a number off anxiolytic herbs and sedative plants that can be used in conjunction with analgesic herbs to help reduce pain.
Because herbs act in a variety of ways they can be helpful widely different types of pain. This is especially important in light of the strong problems associated with many types of pharmaceutical pain relievers such as NSAIDs and opiates. While NSAIDs can lead to severe hepatic problems, gastric distress and bleeding ulcers, synthetic opiates such as oxycodone and vicodin are implicated in severe addiction issues and overdoses leading to death.
Because of these issues, there is increasing reason to study and integrate herbal pain relievers as part of pain relieving protocols. At the same time, herbs act in different ways and some can be quite potent and addictive in their own right and each herb should be judged on its own merits. Finally, it is key to not address pain just symptomatically but look for underlying causes that could be causing the pain. Some of these issues include injury, disease, obesity, stress and trauma and dietary choices. Here is a list of analgesic herbs with some of the variations mentioned above. There are a great deal of variation in effect and potency in many of these plants so please do not think of them as interchangeable in any way.
Anti-inflammatory: bacopa,bergamot, cats claw, devil’s claw, feverfew, geranium, guduchi, helichrysum, honeysuckle, jasmine, lemongrass, licorice, meadowsweet, willow, st. john’s wort, turmeric
Antispasmodic: anemone, bee balm, betony, black cohosh, blue cohosh, bupleurum, calamus, camphor, cannabis, caraway, cardamom, catnip, clary sage, cramp bark, cumin, graviola, jamaican dogwood, kava, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lobelia, marjoram, mint, mugwort, myrrh, oregano, peony, pedicularis, rose, rosemary, sage, self-heal, skunk cabbage, solomon’s seal, thyme, vervain,
Circulatory stimulants: angelica, cardamom, cayenne, cedar wood, cinnamon, dong quai, ginger, gingko, gotu kola, jyotishmati, turmeric,
Directly targeting pain receptors: akuamma, bleeding-heart, california poppy, cannabis, corydalis, kratom, poppy
This section includes recipes for herbs that improve mood and wellbeing by being uplifting in some way. Mood lifting herbs should not be thought of as primarily stimulating herbs. Many of the plants in this category generate pleasure without being overly stimulating (Lavender, jasmine). These herbs can target specific pleasure receptors (poppy, cannabis), neuroreceptors (kanna, St. John’s Wort), act as non-specific tonics to improve mood (adaptogens like american ginseng and rhodiola), or act as stimulant antidepressants (cacao, coffee). There is increasing research that herbs that are anti-inflammatory and help promote circulation can also improve mood and wellbeing (turmeric, cinnamon). So there is no unifying singular way that plants elevate mood and its key to offer herbs specific to an individual’s needs. Here are some examples:
Adaptogenic antidepressants: aralia, ashwaghanda, eleuthero, ginseng, holy basil, nettle seeds, reishi, rhodiola, zizyphus
Aromatic antidepressants: bergamot, cedarwood, clary sage, douglas fir, frankincense, geranium, hawthorn, hibiscus, holy basil, jasmine, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon verbena, linden, mint, neroli, oregano, pine, rose, saffron, sage, sandalwood, sweetgrass, vetiver, ylang ylang
Circulatory Stimulant Antidepressants: Bacopa, basil, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, gotu kola, holy basil, nutmeg, pine, rosemary, sage, spruce, thyme, ylang ylang
Targeting neuroreceptors/pleasure receptors: Poppy, Cannabis, St. John’s Wort, mimosa (albizzia), borage
Stimulant antidepressants: cacao, coca, coffee, kanna, khat, kola nut, mate, tea
Relaxant antidepressants: black cohosh, blue lotus, kava, kratom, passionflower, wild dagga
The common traditional term for anxiolytic herbs is a “nervine.” But the word nervine is somewhat ambiguous, historically meaning a plant that acts on the nerves to good effect. That can mean both acting as a relaxant, a stimulant or as a tonic to the nerves in general. Because of the ambiguity I have decided to use the simpler term anxiolytic, which simply means a substance that reduces anxiety. In this case I have divided up anxiolytic herbs into gentle relaxants and strong relaxants.
Gently relaxant: asparagus root, ashwaghanda, bee balm, bergamot, bleeding-heart, california poppy, catnip, chamomile,chrysanthemum, citrus, clary sage, cramp bark, douglas fir, frankincense, gingko, hawthorn, helichrysum, hibiscus, holy basil, honeysuckle, hyssop, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon verbena, linden, magnolia, mimosa, motherwort, neroli, palo santo, passionflower, reishi, rosewood, sandalwood, shatavari, skullcap, vetiver, violet, wild lettuce, ylang ylang, zizyphus
Akuamma, anemone, betony, black cohosh, blue cohosh, bupleurum, calamus, cannabis, corydalis, clove, graviola, hops, jamaican dogwood, kava, kratom, pedicularis, peony, poppy, skunk cabbage, valerian.
This is a bit of a challenging category because so often this term gets misused. Some think that this is a term for herbs that will then make one want to jump into bed with the nearest partner. Really herbs in this category tend to bring relaxation, greater blood circulation, feelings of pleasure and stimulation. But aphrodisiac herbs can never replace the importance of intimacy, foreplay, greater presence and the heart to heart connection that underlies really good lovemaking.
They can also not repair underlying issues that are sometimes at the core of libido issues. These often include depletion, exhaustion, overwork, trauma, intimacy issues and underlying issues between partners.
That being said, some of these herbs are really amazing at heightening the experience of sex, improve erectile function, stimulating mood and desire. Each herb is unique and they are not at all interchangeable.
I divide this category up into a number of categories.
Adaptogenic aphrodisiacs: Ginseng, schisandra, shatavari
Entheogenic aphrodisiacs: Cannabis
Relaxant aphrodisiacs: Kava, passionflower
Stimulating aphrodisiacs: Cacao, coffee, damiana, ephedra, horny goat weed, kola nut, maca, muira puama, munica
Warming aromatic aphrodisiacs: Clove, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom
Floral uplifting aromatic aphrodisiacs: jasmine, lavender, neroli, patchouli, rose, ylang ylang
This next category of herb is entheogenic plants. Literally
meaning “finding the God within”, this refers to various plants and fungi that have overpowering hallucinogenic effects that utterly transform and fragment consensual notions of reality and tend to cause a deep introspection where non-ordinary and often gnostic understanding and key insights arise that bring greater meaning to one’s life experience. These are plants and fungi that have often been perceived as sacred by indigenous cultures and have been used in the context of ceremony and healing rituals where one can gain access to spiritual planes and otherworldly entities.
In the context of mental health, many people are exploring the use of these plants in helping to heal deep emotional and spiritual wounds. Since the late 60’s and 70’s there has been an enormous movement in the West towards exploring these entheogenic plants and fungi. While much of it is an admirable exploration of the potential for plants to heal us at a fundamental level, some of the seeking has come at a cost to indigenous cultures who feel exploited and ripped off by mostly white folks coming to try and find healing after hundreds of years of acting as colonizers. There is also potential to exploit and harm the habitat of these plants and fungi. Cacti like Peyote are increasingly rare in the wild and over harvesting endangers the traditional communities of this plant as well as the people who work with this plant for spiritual communion.
Finally, the industrialized world has long placed prohibitions on these plants as dangerous and those caught possessing and distributing them face severe penalties and jail time. We have outlawed the very substances that have played a key spiritual role in the lives of indigenous peoples. This is a travesty and we are only starting to undo the damage starting with legalizing cannabis. By the way, concerning cannabis, I am placing that herb in this category even though it does not act strictly like an entheogen. At low doses and in moderate amounts cannabis does not elicit severe distortions in reality. But in large doses, often in edible form and especially for those with little experience withe plant, cannabis can act as strong as any potent entheogen.
These plants should be treated with utmost caution and respect. For many folks it is just not a good idea to partake of these plants and fungi. They are simply too strong, cause such massively distorting and mind bending effects that it can cause great anxiety, distress and can be counterproductive to healing. But for those who are strong in constitution, and want to work with plants that can be immense teachers at a very deep soul level, there is nothing like entheogenic plants. There is increasingly research being done that show that these substances can cause profoundly positive life changing experiences, can help to heal anxiety and depression and can be helpful at end of life to help process the grief of dying. Entheogens tend to reach us at a core level and for some they can provide intense (and at times overwhelming) insight into our lives, our habits and help us to live a more rich and meaningful life.
I say this on a personal note as well. Entheogen were both incredibly valuable and then incredibly destructive in my life. Because of my personal disrespect and overuse of entheogens, I experienced a psychotic breakdown in my early 20’s that required years of work and healing to help repair. I have also seen entheogen elicit psychotic reactions in others, especially those who tend to be sensitive and “edgewalkers.” That being said, I deeply value my work with those plants and if I were to do it again, I just would be a hell of a lot more respectful. These are a few.
Cannabis, cubensis mushroom, iboga, peyote, psilocibe sp., San Pedro
These are herbs that can elicit a great deal of pleasure and at times can be divided up into stimulating euphoric and relaxant euphorics. Humans have used plants for pleasure and celebration for millenia. Some of these plants are illegal and most should not be used habitually in large doses as they will start to unbalance the system with their excessive use. Most of the plants can also cause greater psychological disturbance or addiction in a percentage of users.
Blue Lotus, cacao, cannabis, coca, ephedra, kanna, kava, khat, kola nut, kratom, poppy, wild dagga, yohimbe
A nervine is an herb that has an effect on the nervous system. Often the term is used for herbs that are relaxants but the term is also used as a catch all to describe herbs that are also tonic or stimulating to the nervous system as well. Because of the ambiguity of the term I have decided to describe herbs as either stimulants, anxiolytics (anxiety reducers) or tonics of some sort. I know old school herbalists who love the term may balk, but I think its better to be more specific with terminology.
This is a category of plants that are useful for improving cognitive function, alertness, memory and general mental acuity. These are often suggested as preventative herbs to elderly people who potentially face the perils of dementia or alzheimers.
Like many conversations around herbalism, its key to address any issue that would be leading to cloudier thinking, confusion, lack of mental acuity and memory issues before just reaching for an herb. Poor diet, stress, physical and emotional trauma and illness patterns can also underly mental acuity issues.
Bacopa, bhringaraj, gingko, ginseng, green tea, gotu kola, lions mane, rosemary, white peony, polygala, rhodiola
This is a pretty straightforward category of herbs that
increase feelings of stimulation, alertness, energy and often brighten the mood and are generally anti-depressant. I have divided up this category into gentle stimulants and strong stimulants. Strong stimulants such as coffee or kola nut have the capability of being used in excess and causing overstimulation, a racing heart, hypertension and anxiety in some. Generally the more a plant is processed and active constituents are isolated, the stronger the stimulant becomes- think cocaine from the coca leaf.
Most traditional medicine practitioners warn against overuse of stimulants but lets be honest- humans love stimulants and use them in traditional and modern settings throughout the world. From the khat leaf in Eastern Africa to kanna in South Africa, mate in South America, tea and coffee throughout the world we are a species that loves stimulation and the bright cognitive effects they offer. In a world where productivity and accomplishment is praised, stimulants are even more valued. The downside of most stimulants is that they can make us feel anxious, burnt out and depleted. They don’t really create energy out of nothing and strong stimulants tend to cause our bodies to produce increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline that eventually can lead to a host of health and mental health issues. Finding that sweet spot where we use stimulants without causing these types of problems is key for many of us stimulant users. By the way, sipping a nice cup of mate as I right this.
When thinking about gentle stimulants, one of the most important plant families is the Mint family of Lamiaceae. This family is filled with plants that are often both stimulating and relaxing at the same time. Think of a nice cup of spearmint, lemon verbena or holy basil tea. These herbs give a gentle lift but also help us to feel more calm and relaxed, a nice dual action.
In this list I have avoided adding the entheogenic plants as their form of stimulation is quite unique and they are generally consumed under special circumstances.
Gentle Stimulants: American Ginseng, bacopa, basil, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, gotu kola, holy basil, lavender, lemongrass, mint, oregano, nutmeg, pine, sage, spruce, thyme, ylang ylang
Strong Stimulants: Asian Ginseng, cacao, high THC Cannabis, coca leaf, coffee, ephedra, guayusa, kanna, khat, kola nut, mate, tea, tobacco, yohimbe
This category of herb refers to plants that are generally nutrient and mineral rich and strengthen people who appear weak, pale, listless and exhausted. Again it is key to address the concerns that led to this state that often include a poor diet, trauma, overwork, stress and oppression. But within the context of a plan to heal, these are some of the best genre herbs to taken a regular level. In essence they are most like food and have a low side effect profile and have few contraindications. They are often seen as blood builders and at times have an “alterative” action. This is an old school term that means the herb improves metabolism, assimilation and excretion of waste particles so that the body functions more optimally. Dandelion and burdock are considered digestive and hepatic alteratives. Other herbs have special affinity for certain organ systems. Oat straw and skullcap are both nervous system tonics. Hawthorn is a cardiac tonic. Astragalus is an immune tonic with an affinity for the respiratory and digestive system. Here is a list of some of the main gentle tonic herbs.
Amla,astragalus, alfalfa, borage, burdock, dandelion,elderberry, goji berry, hawthorn berry, Lion’s mane, maitake, mimosa, moringa, nettles, oatstraw, red clover, reishi, shitaki, skullcap, zizyphus