Botanical Treatment Strategies for Herpes: Nervines

Herpes simplex virus outbreaks can be precipitated by stress. Nervines are therefore an important part of the treatment protocol in patients in whom stress is a chronic underlying factor. Not surprisingly, this may be the case for many individuals. Therefore, herbalists routinely include herbs that nourish the nervous system — nervous trophorestoratives (nervines) — with the aim of reducing stress, improving sleep, and promoting a sense of well-being in herbal protocol to prevent recurrent herpes simplex virus. Nervines work more directly on the nervous system than adaptogens, which improve stress response through their actions on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. A combination of adaptogens and nervines is excellent for both short- and long-term tonific-tion of the nervous system. The herbs in this section are discussed more thoroughly in chapters on anxiety and insomnia, as well as in Plant Profiles. A brief description to help differentiate when each nervine might be selected follows.

California Poppy

California poppy is the most sedating of the herbs in this section. Traditionally, it has been used to treat pain, neuralgia, anxiety, stress, depression, migraines, and to promote sleep. It was used by medical practitioners in the late nineteenth century for its soporific and analgesic effects, with a liquid extract sold as a product by Parke-Davis. A hydroethanolic extract has demonstrated affinity for the benzodiazepine receptor, and the sedative, anxiolytic effects of the herb were inhibited by a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist. It should be considered when there is the need to promote sleep during periods of serious stress that threaten to precipitate a herpes outbreak. It also can be used as a muscle relaxant for general aches and pain during a primary herpes outbreak. It can be taken as a tea, but is commonly prescribed as a sedative in tincture form to be taken in small repeated doses every 15 to 30 minutes for 2 hours prior to attempting to sleep. California poppy is not addictive and does not cause the adverse effects associated with opiates.


Damiana is a nervine tonic with an affinity for the reproductive system. A South and Central American native herb, it has been used traditionally as an herb for nervous debility, an aphrodisiac, for menstrual disorders, an emmenagogue, and for bladder irritability. It should be considered when there is nervousness, anxiety, and depression as well as sexual dysfunction. It is a mild stimulating tonic for the nervous system. It was official in the National Formulary from 1916 to 1942 as a stimulant and laxative. It was described by Ellingwood as a valuable nerve tonic, particularly when there is sexual debility, and by Hoffmann as an excellent tonic for the nervous system. No clinical studies on this herb have been identified.


Lavender has a long history of use as a gentle sedative and antispasmodic, used to treat nervousness, restlessness, nervous exhaustion, sleep disorders, depression, and headache. In Tibetan medicine, the flowers are used for the treatment of psychosis. Aromatherapy uses lavender oils to promote calm and relaxation, in forms available for inhalation including diffusers, pillow sprays, and bath oils. Herbalists may employ it in its aromatherapy forms alone or in combination with either tea, in which it is pleasant tasting, or tincture form. Lavender is commonly combined with chamomile and lemon balm for a gentle but effective calmative tea. In higher doses, a tincture combination of these same herbs is more sedating and can promote a relaxed sleep.

Lemon Balm

This herb has been used historically to lift the spirits, hence its nickname “the gladdening herb. Surprisingly, little research has been conducted on its calming, sedating effects. The German Commission E supports the use of lemon balm for nervous sleeping disorders. ESCOP lists its indications for internal use as tenseness, restlessness, and irritability. Given its antiviral effects, it is commonly included in general formula for internal use in addition to topical use for treating herpes simplex virus.

Milky Oats

Milky oats are considered a nervine tonic to be used when there is nervous exhaustion and related conditions including insomnia, chronic anxiety and stress, excitatory states, general debility, and depression. Herbalists use milky oats to calm and regenerate the nervous system. A number of clinical trials demonstrate efficacy in the treatment of nicotine and opium addiction using extracts of the green milky oats. It is typically taken for several months for maximum effects, and is considered nourishing rather than sedating. Tinctures should be made from fresh milky oats rather than dried tea.


Motherwort is widely regarded for its quick action as a calmative when there is nervousness, irritability, and anxiety. The German Commission E supports its use for nervous cardiac conditions and thyroid hyperfunction; however, its use as a nervine is derived from empirical and historical use. Herbalists specializing in women’s health favor it for irritability associated with hormonal changes, for example, in the treatment of PMS or postnatal irritability, suggesting possible use for irritability and stress associated with menstruation, a known combination of precipitating factors for herpes outbreaks.

Passion Flower

Passion flower is a highly valued calmative nerve, used for nervous relentlessness, as a gentle sedative for sleep difficulties, and to reduce anxiety, neurasthenia, and nervous disorders. It is gentle enough to be favored for use in children. ESCOP supports its use for tenseness, restlessness, and irritability with difficulty falling asleep. Animal experiments corroborate traditional use for its sedative activity and extracts have demonstrated effects on EEG that support sedative action; however, because the herb is nearly always used in combination with other sedative herbs, no single-herb studies have been conducted that give proof of its efficacy as a monopreparation. The herb may be taken as a tea or tincture, the latter preferred by herbalists for maximum efficacy. Numerous preparations containing passion flower, both as monopreparations and combinations, are available as sedative formulas in Germany. It is commonly combined with valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) and hops strobilus (Humulus lupulus).


Hoffmann describes skullcap as perhaps the most relevant nervine available to us in the Western materia medica. It an excellent nervous trophorestorative used to soothe tension and restore calm. It is not immediate acting, and is generally used long term (up to 6 months) for optimal effects, in the treatment of nervous conditions associated with exhaustion, and in the treatment of PMS. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of healthy subjects demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects. The identification and quantification of the flavonoid, baicalin in a 50% ethanol and its aglycone baicalein in a 95% ethanol extract, as well as the amino acids GABA in aqueous and ethanol extracts and glutamine in an aqueous extract was performed using HPLC suggests anxiolytic activity because baicalin and baicalein are known to bind to the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor and because GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter. Skullcap is generally recommended as a tea or tincture, usually in combination with other herbs such as lavender, passionflower, and lemon balm; however, it also may be taken singly.