Ayurvedic Rx: Two Herbs for Nervous System Support

July 9, 2016    BY Kathryn Templeton

There are two best friends in the ayurvedic pharmacy, ashwagandha and brahmi, who hold hands on the herbal playground as they calm and support your mind. In my recent journey of reclaiming myself from grief, I rediscovered the sweet support of a daily abhyanga (self-oil massage) with these two herbs. Let me share why you might consider incorporating this herbal duo into your daily routine as well.

Ayurvedic herbology is a vast topic. It’s a chemistry that involves many variables, including the qualities, or gunas, of the herbs, and the shakti (energy) of how a remedy is prepared. Another aspect to consider is how a prepared herbal remedy will be used: as a tea, medicated oil, paste, in tablet form, or raw with honey or milk.

In ayurveda, we generally look at adjusting diet and lifestyle habits before looking to herbs. But what to do when the samskaras (deep habitual impressions) of the mind run your nervous system into a burning fire of overstimulation? Or you become mired with undigested experiences, thoughts, and feelings (what we call ama, or “goo” in ayurveda)? That “goo” can be from grief, trauma, or just the byproduct of an overextended to-do list. It can produce a general dullness or numbness in the mind, and even exacerbate symptoms we associate with a depressed mood. Then we need to bring in a bit more help, and that is where ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha and brahmi get called to action!

With respect to ayurvedic herbology, abhyanga with these two rejuvenative tonics is a safe and simple practice that does not require a consultation with or recommendation from an ayurvedic practitioner. 

The nervous system impacts every breath, feeling, decision, and experience in our lives. Most of us tend to focus our attention on the imbalances of the physical body, yet ayurveda points to the mind as the root of all our imbalances. Generally, we want to keep the mind and the nervous system in a state of balance. This means first bringing awareness to the stress in our system, then doing practices that bring a sense of spaciousness and ease to our system. Offering ourselves daily practices like abhyanga generates awareness and feeds us nourishment to keep our mind and nerves resilient and adaptable. 

Most of us tend to focus our attention on the imbalances of the physical body, yet ayurveda points to the mind as the root of all our imbalances.

First let’s meet our herbal warriors of nervous system support: ashwagandha and brahmi. 

Ashwagandha aids our nervous system by bringing warmth, vitality, and strength. The plant is sturdy and strong, with a thick woody stem and big, hearty leaves. The root is the part that’s most often used in herbal preparations to support the nervous system. 

The meaning of the herb's name, ashwagandha, gives us a hint as to the effect of the herb. It is a combination of the word ashva, meaning horse, and gandha, meaning smell, so translated it means “smell of a horse” or the essence of a horse, alluding to the fact that it can give us strength and stamina just like a stallion! 

This herb is commonly called an “adaptogen.” An adaptogen not only helps us to increase our resistance to adrenal surges and stress, it supports our general well-being and physiological functioning. Adaptogenic herbs are natural aids for the nervous system, helping us to maintain the vigor to process stressful experiences, supporting our concentration, and helping to fuel our bodies with the energy needed to run the nervous system. Ayurvedic doctors often recommend it for mood stabilization. 

(Other uses in ayurvedic medicine for this herb include rejuvenation of the nervous system and brain cells, memory support, combatting stress, stabilizing blood sugar, and immune support).

Unlike her BFF ashwagandha, brahmi is more cooling in nature yet also an excellent tonic for the nervous system. She is a low-spreading plant or creeping vine that has a lovely little white flower that looks like Queen Ann’s Lace to me. The name, brahmi, has a few meanings in Sanskrit. In regard to this herb, it refers to the goddess of creative potential, one of the seven Matrikas (Divine Mothers). It is said that the ancient Vedic scholars took this herb to help them memorize lengthy sutras to the Divine Mother.

Brahmi, like ashwagandha, is also an adaptogen that helps our nervous system to withstand emotional stress and improves our capacity to focus. However, she brings more support to our mind’s ability to learn and remember! Brahmi is bitter, light, and oily in nature. In ayurveda, this means it has a general “building” or brahmana quality, which makes it a wonderful rejuvenator for the nervous system, immune system, and the mind. 

Brahmi, like ashwagandha, is an adaptogen that helps our nervous system to withstand emotional stress and improves our capacity to focus.

These two beautiful herbs will each offer the nervous system the strength to stay focused. The combination of pungent and bitter qualities support concentration, learning, memorization, and mood stabilization. There are ayurvedic remedies that combine these two herbs, such as “Stress Ease" or "Tranquil MInd" (made by Banyan Botanicals), but I personally feel most comfortable recommending that my clients start with a daily oil massage with one of these beautiful herbs. 

I have found these herbs to be of great use in both my professional work and personal life. When dealing with grief, depression, or anxiety, a daily massage with ashwagandha or brahmi sesame seed oil has helped me to feel more at ease, supported my nervous system, and provided a sense of deep compassion and nourishment for my mind, body, and soul. I will alternate these with the seasons: brahmi in the summer and ashwagandha for winter and spring. Another option is to change the base oil seasonally; example: coconut oil with brahmi for summer and ashwagandha in sesame oil in the winter and spring. 

Abhyanga is commonly practiced before bathing. Ayurvedic professionals recommend dry brushing the skin (you can use a dry wash cloth if your skin is sensitive) and rubbing long on the long bones (like the femur and tibia in your legs and the humerus and radius in your arms) and round on the joints and torso to prepare the skin to receive the oil. While dry brushing, warm your bottle of oil by placing it in a sink of warm water before applying it to your skin. After you complete your head-to-toe dry brushing, put some of the warm oil in your hands and apply with a kind and nurturing intention to your body: long strokes on the long bones and round on the joints and torso. Once complete, let the oil absorb into your skin for 10 to 20 minutes, then rinse off in the shower or bathtub.

If you have additional questions about ashwagandha, brahmi, or abhyanga in general, please speak with an ayurvedic health counselor, ayurvedic practitioner, or ayurvedic doctor to get more information.

Kathryn Templeton
Kathryn Templeton, MA, RDT/MT, E-RYT 500, is an Ayurvedic practitioner who has devoted her life to the health of others. A psychotherapist for more than 30 years, Kathryn is a master teacher in the field of Drama Therapy and continues to work both clinically and as an educator specializing in the treatment of individuals with complex trauma. As an E-RYT 500, NAMA Certified Ayurvedic practitioner and senior Para Yoga teacher, Kathryn has worked to develop specialized treatments integrating the... Read more>>