Herb Basics: Stress

Freshen a room with strewing herbs

| March/April 1999

  • Lemon balm
    M. Wall

Medieval Strewing Herbs

In medieval Europe, herbs were not only sown near ­ gardens, but also brought inside to cover floors with a sweet, refreshing blanket of strewing herbs. This custom was introduced to Europe by the conquering Romans and the Persians before them. Banquets and processions were occasions for scattering herbs and flowers for officials to walk on. The aroma was so pleasing that chamber rooms and parlors were soon covered with fresh herbs when visitors arrived. The coronation of Tudor kings and queens began with the strewing of sweet flag and meadowsweet. Church floors and pews were laced with local flowering herbs for fragrance and to reduce disease. Herbs were also burned to repel insects and reduce the stench from the lack of sanitation.

Today, herbs can be simmered in an open pot to freshen a room or strewn on the carpet before vacuuming. A few drops of essential oil can be dropped on a moist sponge or cotton ball to quickly freshen a room. Cooking angelica, anise, or fennel seeds in an ungreased frying pan will also quickly release a purifying scent. Bowls of fresh herbs can be placed in spring water near entrances and in the kitchen and bathrooms for a refreshing finger bath.

Herbs for Stress

In Western herbalism today, it’s common to differentiate between three kinds of herbs that act on the nervous system: nervine tonics, nervine relaxants, and nervine stimulants.

In cases of shock, stress, or nervous debility, nervine tonics can strengthen and restore nervous system tissues. One of the best remedies is common oats (old-fashioned whole oat groats, not instant or rolled). Other nervine tonics include ginseng and Siberian ginseng.

Nervine relaxants help alleviate stress and tension. These herbs are the closest natural alternative to tranquilizers, but they should always be used holistically—too much tranquilizing, even from an herb, can deplete the nervous system. This category includes black cohosh, California poppy, chamomile, hops, lady’s slipper, lemon balm, passionflower, rosemary, St.-John’s-wort, and valerian.

Nervine stimulants usually are not needed; it’s generally more appropriate to stimulate the body’s innate vitality with nervine tonics or digestive tonics, which have a deeper and longer-lasting effect than stimulants. When direct nervine stimulation is indicated (such as in cases of abnormally low blood pressure), the best herb to use is kola, though coffee, yerba maté, and black tea may also be used. These stimulants have a number of side effects and can themselves cause minor psychological upsets that can lead to anxiety and tension. Some herbs that are rich in volatile oils are also valuable, the most common being peppermint.

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