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.

 

 

Foraging St John’s wort

Hypericum perforatum  (St Johns wort)

Hypericaceae family

This summer-flowering medicinal plant grows wild and free throughout many areas of Britain. With a liking of numerous settings it will be easy for foragers to find St John’s wort, and with unique observable characteristics, it is simple to identify. You can find out more about plant identification on my foraging walks and courses.

The scientific name for the genus, Hypericum, is thought to originate from the two Greek words – hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning ‘picture’.

The bright yellow flowers, which many centuries ago were felt to be symbolic of the sun, or spirit, were placed above religious pictures, specifically St John, to help ward off evil spirits during the celebrations of the midsummer Christian festival. Church leaders placed their festival onto the ancient summer solstice festivities (since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this has traditionally been celebrated on 24th June, previously falling on or around the 5th July).

The extractable red flower oil was previously meant to symbolize the blood of St. John. The species name perforatum is derived from the Latin word meaning perforated. Visible translucent perforations on both the leaves and the petals are visible with the naked eye.

The blood red stems of young spring growth on Hypericum perforatum.

Botanical description of St John’s wort

St Johns wort is a native British perennial, from a genus containing over 400 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials; deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs and trees. This plant grows throughout Europe.

St Johns wort is a clump-forming perennial which can grow to a height of up to 90 cm in flower. Re-appearing each year from its crown, it produces numerous red stems that eventually branch towards their upper parts. The stems bear small and hairless leaves, which are opposite and mostly oblong, but always sessile. The leaves typically grow to 3-4 cm long.

If you hold the stems up to the light, close inspection will reveal the leaves have numerous translucent glands, as well as a few dark ones at the edges on the undersides. The lanceolate petals and shorter sepals in the flower are also marked with dark dots.

The presence of the dark oil bearing glands, as well as the slight, opposite ridges on its round stem are crucial identification factors between this and one of more than half a dozen other Hypericum species that populate Britain.

The bright, glossy yellow flowers are similar in size to a buttercup. They have five petals and are borne on a corymb inflorescence. These types of flowering displays are often referred to as umbel-like.

When in full display, the shiny, showy blooms are noticeable for having more than fifty stamens spraying out from the centre of the flower. These are fused in the lower part into three bundles.

Hypericum perforatum flowers

Flowering Period

The flowering period for this plant is usually lengthy, and occurs between June and September, with the seeds ripening from late July to October. The self-fertile flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.

Soils and Habitats

St Johns wort absolutely delights on calcareous (alkaline) soils, as will be seen by the propensity of it when visiting chalk grasslands such as around Winchester and in West Sussex on the South Downs. It’s not a completely fussy plant, so will also be found on mildly acidic ground.

It can do well on waste-ground and some woodland edges, and is often seen happily populating pastures, as well as roadsides and occasional hedges. This is a lowland plant, so will be found at maximum altitudes up to around 480 metres.

St Johns wort can grow in the semi-shade of light woodland, or will be even more happy in full sun. The large tap-root helps it to flower right through the summer, even during periods of drought.

Although the plant can set viable seed, regeneration also occurs through its creeping lateral runners, arising at various points on the rootstock.

Parts used Leaves, flowers.

Harvest In summer (Flowers only for an infused oil).

Key constituents Hypericin; pseudohypericin; flavonoids (including hyperforin, kaempferol, luteolin, quercetin, rutin); phenolic acids (including caffeic acid, ferulic acid, chlorogenic acid); xanthones; mono-amine-oxidase-inhibitors (MAOIs).

Actions Anti-depressant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, mild astringent.

Pharmacology and uses The chemical composition of St. John’s wort has been well studied, especially in the last thirty years. Documented pharmacological activities include anti-depressant, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. These provide supporting evidence for several of the traditional uses stated for St John’s wort.

In terms of the recent history of British herbal healthcare, St Johns wort has had a somewhat meteoric rise to prominence. Many of its pharmacological activities remain unclear, although a number of actions have reportedly been attributable to hypericin and the flavonoid constituents.

Evidence from a number of randomised controlled trials during the 1990s, highlighted and confirmed the efficacy of St John’s wort extracts over placebo’s, in the treatment of mild-to-moderately severe depression.

St. Johns wort and extracts of it have been shown to be effective against short-to-medium term mild depression, but not long-term or severe depression. As with a lot of plant medicines, there is a need to further assess the efficacy of St. Johns wort, compared with that of standard anti-depressants.

Although the anti-depressant actions of this plant were only elucidated during the last 40 years or so, this plant had an acknowledged ability throughout history to relieve melancholy, as was noted by Gerard in his Herbal (published 1597). Folk medicine records also show many lay-people knew of its power to cure nervousness and low spirits, so it was also used it as a general tonic.

St John’s wort and mono amine oxidase inhibitors

St Johns wort contains molecules known as MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors). As their name suggests, the MAOI action is an inhibiting one. These molecules are known to increase the availability of mono-amine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin in the brain (thereby helping to combat feelings of depression). This plant is known to increase deep sleep and can be useful in cases of insomnia. 

Hypericin – a weak MAOI, but exerting effect on other neurotransmitter sites.

Interestingly though, the MAOI in this plant are weak and have been shown not to be responsible for the anti-depressant effect of St. Johns wort! However, what scientists do know about hypericin and the flavonoids are that they exert a number of effects on both the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) and Glutamate receptor sites in the brain. These neurotransmitters are directly involved are in feelings of well being and in helping our central nervous system relax.

A number of concerns have been raised by allopathic practitioners over possible dangerous interactions between St John’s wort and certain prescribed medicines (including warfarin, ciclosporin, theophylline, digoxin, HIV protease inhibitors, anti-convulsants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), ‘triptans’ and oral contraceptives).

Medical advice in Britain and America usually states that patients taking the aforementioned medicines should not take, or stop taking St John’s wort! Before embarking on a course of St Johns wort, and especially when on other medication, you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or another healthcare professional with detailed knowledge about these potentially dangerous adverse interactions!

Concentrating on the anti-depressant substances in St Johns wort could detract somewhat from the many other traditional applications for which this plant has been used.

Interestingly, a book by Gabrielle Hatfield and David E Allen, titled ‘Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland’, which was published almost 10 years ago, suggests that the reputation St. Johns wort has for healing cuts, grazes, and more serious wounds and burns, is likely to be more attributable to all of the Hypericum species found in Britain, rather than the one species under discussion in this monograph.

A different Hypericum species on a limestone cliff in the Gower, south Wales

Moreover, St John’s wort is a name given to more than one Hypericum species, and judging by maps of the British flora, H.perforatum won’t be found in all the areas that records of ‘St Johns wort’ use has been documented.

In their fascinating book, pieced together using information from before mass public travel and transportation, and sourced notably from unconnected areas of the UK and the Isle of Man, the authors report that various Hypericum species have been used, and seemingly with much effect.

St Johns wort oil has long been known of, for its topical pain relieving and soothing action on burns and scalds, ulcers, inflammations, and various forms of muscular pain.

Tutsan – Hypericum androsaemum. Likely to have been used medicinally in lieu of St Johns wort.

The red-coloured infused oil, extractable from the petals, has been used for these and other related complaints. St Johns wort can be usefully employed to treat conditions such as neuralgia, fibrositis, sciatica, excitability, anxiety, and as a general nerve tonic.

St Johns wort also aids the regeneration of granular tissue during healing of wounds. Indeed, Nicolas Culpeper, described in the 1640’s that it was “a singular wound herb” and that “it closes up the lips of wounds”.

Today, St Johns wort is a well known species and one of our most widely used herbal remedies. Contemporary uses have built on the fragments of traditional folklore collated from these islands. It is one of the staples of any Materia Medica here in Britain, and due to it being so common, one you can easily harvest, process and store each summer.