Foraging plants for the nervous system

Reclaim health autonomy by foraging plants to help the nervous system!

The third in the ‘reclaim health autonomy’ series, revealing how you can easily go out and start foraging plants to help with numerous ailments. This time we look at the nervous system and how foraging for and using wild plants can help many of the disorders and dis-eases of the mind and nerves.

Overview of the central nervous system 

Diagram of the nervous system. Credit: William Crochot. Reproduced under CC.

The brain, as you may well be aware, consists of billions of brain cells, called neurons. Enclosed within a fatty membrane lies what is known as the ‘blood brain barrier’. This is a layer of tightly packed cells with a role to prevent unwanted substances, such as certain drugs, chemicals, and viruses, from entering the brain.

To feed the brain, all nutrients must cross this selective membrane, as fat-soluble molecules, in order to reach the brain cells. Of all the sugars consumed in our diets, only glucose can cross the blood brain barrier.

In between the brain cells are microscopic gaps known as synapses where messages from one cell can be passed to another. These messages are relayed by the numerous monoamine neurotransmitters. They are either made by the brain/body itself from available stores, or are processed directly from diet (given the sufficient availability of zinc, selenium and magnesium together with many ‘B’-vitamins, all of which are needed by our body to process monoamines).

In effect, monoamines are always required from the diet because the brain/body will continually consume available nutrients over a short space of time. Foraging plants with a high nutrient load such as nettles and mallow, can help provide the essential trace elements into the diet.

Ageing reduces the amount of neurotransmitters produced and our bodies ability to respond to them. Estimates from America suggest that 60% of all adults over 40 years of age have some form of neurotransmitter deficiency. The actions (or lack of) by these neurotransmitters are largely responsible for a range of our moods as well as a myriad physiological processes.

Anatomically, the nervous system can be divided into the C.N.S which is comprised of the cerebral hemispheres, cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord; together with the peripheral nervous system (essentially, the cranial nerves and spinal nerves).

Aside from this classification, the nervous system can also be divided functionally into two distinct systems. The somatic, or voluntary nervous system is associated with impulses to body wall and limbs, while the autonomic nervous system is associated with impulses to the smooth muscles of the viscera (a collective term used to describe the organs within our body cavities).

The autonomic nervous system maintains the physiological equilibrium of the body, yet at the same time it is not completely independent of the C.N.S, because factors that affect higher centres may also influence some physiological functions. The effect of fear and anger, and subsequent release of adrenalin on the pulse rate, is an example of that interdependence.

The important neurotransmitters with regards our moods are the endorphins, serotonin and melatonin (made from the amino-acid tryptophan), as well as dopamine, noradrenalin and adrenalin, made from the amino-acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. They are constantly relayed between nerve cells throughout the nervous system.

To reiterate, these monoamines are themselves absolutely vital, but are of no real help to our nervous system and ipso facto our mental and physical health, unless the essential fatty acids required for each and every cellular membrane, together with aforementioned catalysing metabolic co-factors, are present in the body or diet. This can easily be assisted through foraging plants such as those  listed in the nervous system disorder section.

Some of the important mono-amine neurotransmitters

Tryptophan 

Found in many foods and converted in the body to 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP), then finally into serotonin (5-Hydroxy-tryptamine or 5-HT). The main plant foods include bananas, lentils, nuts and many seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. However, without magnesium and B vitamins to help metabolise tryptophan, then much of this amino acid may be converted into the B vitamin niacin instead.

Serotonin ‘the happy molecule’

5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is one of the most intensively studied neuro-transmitters. Commonly found in the gastro-intestinal tract where it is reportedly used to regulate intestinal movements. Some reports state that up to 80% of available serotonin is located here, as well as throughout the C.N.S.

Serotonin can also be made in the brain from the precursor amino-acid tryptophan. It is known to be associated with various moods and behaviours including reducing appetite, curbing impulses, enhancing mood and promoting sleep. Low levels of serotonin can be responsible for feelings of depression.

Adrenalin, noradrenalin and dopamine

These mood molecules are well known, especially adrenaline (almost universally known as the ‘fight or flight’ molecule.) They are derived from many foods especially the pulses, seeds and nuts. Basically these substances keep you feeling good.

They are stimulating and motivating and help the body and mind deal with stress. Dopamine is known as one of the pleasure molecules, due to it being released when we do something that makes us happy, whether that comes from food or other stimuli.

Gamma-amino-butyric-acid (GABA)

This important inhibitory neuro-transmitter acts as a counterbalance to the stimulating molecules above, helping to relax and calm you down after stress. An imbalance can make it difficult to wind down, relax and sleep

Acetylcholine (ACh)

This helps regulate the speed at which the brain processes information. Satisfactory levels help keep the brain sharp, improving mental alertness and functions such as memory recall. Deficiencies are believed to lead to Alzheimer’s disease. ACh is found in the peripheral and central nervous system. In the peripheral, it activates muscles, enabling them to contract.

Cholecystokinin

This controls the feeling of fullness or ‘satiety’ after a meal is consumed. As food is passed along the digestive tract through the stomach it reaches the duodenum before the small intestine. It is here that signals are sent to the brain telling it the stomach is full. Or at least they should be. Eating too fast can easily negate the action of this neurotransmitter.

Endorphins

These are the body’s own ‘morphine-like’ substances (endogenous morphines). They can produce feelings of euphoria and well-being, creating high self-esteem as well as a reduction in physical and emotional pain.

They are technically classed as a neuromodulator rather than a neurotransmitter by chemists; that is, endorphins modify actions of neurotransmitters through a number of effects associated with pleasure and pain.

When consumed in foods such as chocolate, and if taken regularly and in large enough quantities, a risk of an addictive relationship with the food in question can begin.

Endorphins are known to increase appetite through activating the pleasure and reward areas of the brain. It is now known that abnormal levels of endorphins in the brain can lead to depression or autism.

For example, an autistic patient may produce so much endorphin that they do not need to react to the world outside, whereas a depressed person may not produce enough endorphin to withstand daily stresses and pressures of ‘normal’ life.

Melatonin

This substance is secreted by the pineal gland and is made from serotonin. It controls our sleep/wake cycle with the amount secreted proportionate to the amount of darkness in a 24 hour period. The cycles we experience every day are known as circadian rhythms (circa=about, dia=day) and every organism on the planet regulates its own metabolism within a cyclical framework.

Histamine

This is an important substance for the body’s immune system and allergic response. It is made from histadine, an amino acid found in protein rich foods. High and low levels of histamine are associated with mental health problems.

Symptoms of excessive histamine (histadelia) have been linked with abnormal fears, addictions, compulsive behaviour, confusion, depression, schizophrenia, emotional instability, hyper-activity, insomnia, obsessions and suicidal thoughts.

Low levels of histamine (histapenia) have been found in people suffering with anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia and schizophrenia.

Foods containing high levels of histamine include: aubergines, fermented foods such as soya and sauerkraut, chocolate, pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo), spinach, strawberries (Fragaria spp), tea, and tomatoes (Lycoperiscon esculentum).

Foraging plants to help nervous system disorders

These can take on many guises. A number of different plants greatly assist the following different common nervous afflictions. They will typically have anti-spasmodic and relaxant or sedative effects on the central nervous system.

Anxieties

The various factors behind anxiety need addressing. Plants that help are hops, oat straw or grain, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, lavender, and lime-flowers.

Depression

Dietary changes may well be all that’s required for many cases of mild depressions. Cases of clinical depression need professional care and are not recommended for un-assisted self-medication. Lavender, oat straw, ginseng (Panax ginseng), valerian, lemon balm, and St. Johns wort are also beneficial for mild depression. Hops, although a relaxant, is contraindicated for depression.

Headaches

These can manifest in different ways in numerous locations. They can stem from any one of a number of psychological and physical dysfunctions, from nervous tensions and stress to digestive disorders and dehydration. Lemon balm, ground ivy, lavender, peppermint, thyme, and valerian can all be of benefit.

Migraines

These extreme headaches are particularly disabling for many people. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has proven to be a wonder herb for some people with crippling migraines. Traditionally taken as a prolonged course for a month or so, it will often clear up regular migraine headaches. Feverfew grows wild as a naturalised escape of cultivation and can be seen in numerous settings enjoying free-draining soils.

Insomnia

As we age, sleep disorders can become increasingly frequent. Foraging plants such as Chamomile, hops, passionflower, wild lettuce, valerian, oat straw, St Johns wort, and lavender can all help you get a good night’s sleep. All can be infused. Hops and lavender pillows are effective, as is a little lavender oil sprinkled on bed clothes or massaged into the chest or back. Read more on foraging St Johns wort here.

Neuralgia

This is an often debilitating nerve pain caused by trauma and through shingles, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Oats, both the grain as food and the straw as tea, alongside the topically applied infused oil of St Johns wort are both effective at repairing and restoring the proper function of our nerve endings. You can discover more about Oats in my foragers monograph.

Stress

Our nervous system can be effectively treated with plants, always dependent on the nature of the stress. Even the simple act of foraging plants can help to alleviate stress. Herbs such as oats, valerian, lavender, chamomile, lime-flowers, and borage are all recommended.  Learn all about the lime tree in this article.

 

 

Reclaim Health Autonomy!

Forage for cardio-vascular herbs and reclaim your health.

An occasional series of foraging for health autonomy begins with herbs that benefit your cardio-vascular system.

In case you were wondering…I’m no Medicinal Herbalist, but I am qualified in medicinal horticulture, including plant chemistry, plant constituents, and their actions. 

A physician is one who pours drugs of which he knows little, into a body of which he knows less” ~ Francois Voltaire

I’m aware that the majority of our pharmaceutical medicines are plant based, that approximately 80% of the world still uses plants as their primary health care medicine, and after all, I’m just a curious thinking animal like you, exploring a vast medicine cabinet growing all around me, and with access to institutions such as the British Library, where I’ve chosen to dive into and devour the knowledge and information that is freely available to all of us. 

When discussing a herbal approach to the cardiovascular system, we are well served by firstly looking at its different aspects. For example, for purposes of treatment, the circulatory system can be split into the central and peripheral circulatory system. Some biologists also link the lymphatic system with the rest of the circulatory system, because the waste products and toxins stored in lymph glands are transported for elimination by the blood. Organs of elimination include skin, lungs, urinary system, and bowels.

Overview of the system

The cardiovascular system consists of the heart, veins, arteries, and capillaries. This complex network of vessels ensures that oxygen rich blood and nutrients can reach every cell of the body. It also enables metabolic waste products, including CO2 and water to be transferred into the blood, before being eliminated from the body. 

The heart muscle weighs approximately 300 grams and is roughly the same size as a clenched fist. It is protected from the rest of the body by the pericardium membrane. The right hand side of the heart receives de-oxygenated blood from veins then pumps the blood to the lungs, where it receives oxygen into the haemoglobin of the blood cells.

Blood returns to the left hand side of the heart which then pumps it out via the arteries to the rest of the body. The left hand side of the heart is bigger than the right because it has to pump blood much further around the body.

Blood itself is comprised of four major components; plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Plasma is the fluid component, amounting to 55% of blood. The bone marrow produces red blood cells, of which there are millions in every drop.

White blood cells, otherwise known as leukocytes, are one of our body’s natural immune system components, and help protect against infection and foreign material. Platelets are small bodies in blood with sticky surfaces. Following blood loss from the body, they aggregate together, to form clots. Calcium, vitamin K and the protein fibrinogen are all vital components of platelets.

Common disorders of the cardiovascular system, with herbs to help

A few herbs come to our attention again and again when treating the cardiovascular system. Of great importance, and dealt with previously, are the powerful cardiac glycosides. Plants containing them include foxglove and lilly-of-the valley.

The important cardiac glycoside drug first found in foxglove – digoxin, will be found in every hospital in the country. However, cardiac glycosides are drugs with a narrow therapeutic window and can be extremely poisonous if consumed in relatively small quantities. They are ill-advised to be experimenting with.

Before exploring other plant medicines that can help, it’s prudent to remind anyone currently on cardio-vascular prescription medicines, and thinking of self-medicating with herbs, to consult with a doctor before embarking. Many herbs can potentially adversely interact with pharmaceutical cardio-vascular drugs. Aside fom the fact that you may be allergic to it, or simply intolerant of that particular plant species.

That said (and presuming correct lifestyle adaptations are being undertaken to the diet and other personal health issues), a number of the commonly occurring conditions of the cardio-vascular system are self-treatable.

These include: High blood pressure (hypertension), low blood pressure (hypotension), anaemia, atherosclerosis, angina, thrombosis, varicose veins and poor circulation.

High blood pressure (Hypertension)

The blood carrying oxygen and nutrients around your body is under pressure as a result of the heart’s pump action and due to the size and flexibility of the veins and arteries. This blood pressure is essential to how the body works.

Blood pressure is expressed by two numbers, for example: 120/80mm hg (120 mm over 80 mm mercury). The first number represents the systolic pressure of the contracted pumping heart. This is the maximum pressure in your blood vessels. The second number is the diastolic pressure of your heart between beats, when it is at rest and filling with blood. This is the minimum pressure in your vessels.

A rule of thumb suggests that the lower your blood pressure, the better health you are in. Although, saying this, very low blood pressure is not beneficial, leading to dizziness and feeling faint.

Currently, ‘normal’ blood pressure is accepted to be 120/80 mm hg, whilst scores up to 139/89 mm hg are classed as ‘pre-hypertension’ and figures above 140/90 referred to as hypertension.

Hypertension is often characterised by a narrowing and decline in the elasticity of peripheral arteries. Where this occurs, a reduction of blood flow and likely increase in blood pressure can result. Diseases of the kidney can also lead to hypertension.

If the artery that delivers blood to the kidneys (renal artery) becomes blocked. or if it narrows, either through plaque deposits or by a thickening of the arterial muscular wall, then this can lead to hypertension through an increase in the production of certain hormones – renin and angiotensin. This in turn causes peripheral arteries to constrict and stiffen, creating hypertension.

It has been documented that males under 45 are more prone to hypertension than females, though after 65 both sexes are as likely to suffer. Well known causal factors include: smoking, high-fat diets, diabetes, high-alcohol consumption, high-salt intake, obesity and ageing.

A number of plants are useful to alleviate some of the various ways that hypertension can manifest.

These include my personally experienced favourite for hypertension, hawthorn,covered in my Monday morning monograph series, with renowned powers to relax arteries as well as acting on the heart muscle itself. Other species include garlic, lime flowers, nettles and yarrow.

The latter herb increases peripheral blood vessels, improving blood flow. Nettles and garlic can help remove the fur from arteries, making them more elastic. Where tension is a factor, lime flowers and cramp bark can be of benefit.

If the mind needs addressing in order to help shift mental focus or where mental or emotional stresses are a factor, then oat straw, lemon balm, and chamomile can be useful alongside the herbs just mentioned.

Low blood pressure (Hypotension)

This condition is characterised by blood pressure so low that the patient displays signs or symptoms which may lead to insufficient oxygen reaching the vital organs. As a result these organs may then not function properly and can suffer temporary or permanent damage.

Unlike hypertension, this condition is deduced by symptoms rather than a specific number. This is because some patients may consistently display pressure of 90/50 mm hg, yet do not show any signs of low blood pressure, whereas other patients who normally have higher blood pressures may develop signs of low blood pressure when recording a pressure of 100/60 mm hg.

Once again, hawthorn flowers and berries will be helpful, as will garlic, as was discussed in the garlic monograph. If of a nervous origin, drinking oat straw tea and eating the grain (especially if physically debilitated) can help restore correct nervous function. Rosemary is a classic circulatory herb prescribed for hypotension and the super-food alfalfa has had a history of use here too.

Atherosclerosis, arteriosclerosis, and angina.

Atherosclerosis

This is a process where hardening of the arteries occurs due to the build up of cholesterol containing plaque. It is this condition that is responsible for many of the fatal heart attacks and strokes, and can strike seemingly out the blue (hence the name ‘silent killer’). It is well documented that many people with significant atherosclerosis have a history of elevated cholesterol levels.

Often, the initial stages of this disease include damage by free radicals to the arterial wall. It can also manifest through imbalances in levels of LDL and HDL (Readers of my foragers monograph on oats will be aware of the importance of these lipo-proteins.).

Subsequently, the site of injury attracts large white blood cells and platelets. These will then adhere to the damaged area, creating an atheroma, and over time this releases substances that stimulate accumulation of plaque as well as deposits of fats and cholesterol.

The major risk factors are:

  • Smoking

  • Elevated cholesterol levels

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Physical inactivity

  • Obesity

Garlic is the prime remedy here. Others include hawthorn berries, yarrow and lime flowers.

Arteriosclerosis

This usually develops as a result of atherosclerosis. In this condition, the artery walls become thickened and hardened, becoming less flexible and narrower, inhibiting sufficient blood flow. Oats, lime flowers, garlic, hawthorn (flowers or berries), meadowsweet, hearts-ease, and horsetail are all helpful here.

Angina pectoris

This painful condition will often result from atherosclerosis, although is classed as a syndrome rather than a disease. The term literally means ‘a strangling feeling in the chest’ and is due to a lack of blood and thus oxygen reaching the heart muscle. Hawthorn, lime flowers, oats, and hops have all been used to treat this often distressing disorder.

Thrombosis

Sometimes a blood clot may get dislodged from a damaged arterial wall and enter the blood stream. This can block smaller vessels and cause oxygen deficiency downstream.

Where this takes place in the body dictates how serious it is. When it occurs in the legs it is called phlebitis. Treatment is similar as for atherosclerosis. Inflammations are common.

Comfrey, hawthorn berries and St. Johns wort can be used externally here in a lotion, compress or poultice. Garlic contains compounds that prevent clots forming. Buckwheat and other rutin-rich herbs can strengthen vein walls. Nettle tea improves circulation as previously mentioned elsewhere, as will yarrow.

Varicose veins

Anything that reduces the circulation can cause varicose veins – the name given to veins that are twisted, enlarged and swollen. Most are usually found on the legs, often due to a weak heart unable to return the venous blood from the lower body without the leg muscles pumping. They can also appear anywhere in the body.

Horse-chestnut specifically strengthens capillaries and can successfully be used here. Diuretics such as dandelion and yarrow may be needed and have been traditionally used for this condition.

Poor circulation

Plants containing high concentrations of flavonoids are well known for their beneficial effects on the circulation system.

Hawthorn berries will help to maintain circulation to the extremities, relieving cold hands and feet. Horseradish, bilberry and rosemary are all noted peripheral circulatory stimulants. Ginger and cayenne pepper (Capsicum spp) are other more exotic specifics for this condition. Horse-chestnut’s action generally strengthens the capillaries, improving circulation. 

Rubefacient remedies increase local blood flow and are applied topically. Horseradish, garlic, and peppermint are all examples of rubefacient herbs.