My goal is to help you understand the nervous system better and particularly, to share with you something I figured out a few years ago that had puzzled me for a decade ore more. The dilemma started 20 years ago when some friends of mine formulated some trace mineral supplements mixed with essential oils. NSP marketed these formulas for a while, so if you’ve been with NSP for more than 20 years, you might remember them. They were called Aromin Day and Aromin Nite.
The Day blend contained essential oils that stimulated the sympathetic nervous system and was supposed to be taken in the morning for energy. The Nite blend contained essential oils that stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system and was supposed to be taken in the evening to help you relax. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it?
The problem was that about 10% of the people who took it experienced an opposite reaction. The Nite blend energized them and the Day blend had a calming effect. The problem bugged me for two reasons. One is that I couldn’t figure out why some people were reacting backwards to the products and secondly, I had no way of telling who was going to react in what way.
Later I learned that both children and adults who suffer from true ADHD have this problem. Herbs like valerian and lavender, which are supposed to help you relax, will energize a person with ADHD and can even make them feel more stressed and anxious. For instance, there are people who have taken valerian before bedtime to help them sleep and wound up staying up all night.
In contrast, these same people would find that an herb like Chinese ephedra or using caffeine-bearing plants like coffee, tea and kola nut have relaxing effects on their nervous system. In fact, that’s what Ritalin, a drug used to treat ADHD is, a stimulant. And why a stimulant would calm some people down was a mystery to me and to everyone I talked to. In fact, many professional herbalists were aware that some people reacted “backwards” to nerviness, but no one knew how to tell who was going to react this way.
When I figured it out, it was so simple! And, with the help of Kimberly Balas, I also figured out how to tell how someone was going to react to nervine herbs just by glancing in their eyes.
Why Some People Appear to React Backwards to Nervines
To understand the solution to this dilemma, you need to understand a few facts about the two branches of your autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the branch of your nervous system that “winds you up.” It get’s your motor racing. It’s activated by the fight or flight response, but it’s also activated when something interests or excites us.
The sympathetic nervous system makes our muscles tense, our digestion shut down, our heart rate faster and our breathing more rapid and shallow. It also raises our blood pressure and inhibits elimination. Most people associate this branch of the nervous system with stress, but it’s also associated with excitement. When a guy sees that “gorgeous girl” across the room or a woman sees that “big hunk” that racing heartbeat is a sign the sympathetic nervous system is in action.
The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect. It turns on digestion, slows the heartbeat and makes our breathing slower and deeper. It lowers our blood pressure and helps us “let go,” which helps us detoxify. Most people associate it with being relaxed and easy-going, but I’m going to let you in on the secret—it’s balance in the nervous system that helps us feel good. Being too far in either direction will make you feel stressed.
In other words, a person who has an overactive parasympathetic nervous system can feel just as nervous and anxious as a person who has an overactive sympathetic nervous system. They are just stressed in a different way.
The sympathetic nervous system helps us focus, which is why I think many people wait until the last minute to “cram” for exams. The stress of know the test is tomorrow, helps them focus.
So, a person who has too much parasympathetic activity and not enough sympathetic activity can’t focus. This means they also can’t filter things out. Every little noise, sensation, image or smell is a distraction. Because they can’t tune anything out, they feel constantly “bombarded” by their environment. They’re chronically stuck in sensory overload.
Most herbs we associate with relaxation help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and sedate the sympathetic. This includes hops, valerian, skullcap, lavender, passion flower and formulas that contain them, like Stress-J and Herbal Sleep. This works great for people who are in sympathetic overload and need to shift the balance towards the parasympathetic nervous system, and since this is the situation with 90% of the population we see these herbs as relaxing.
Unfortunately, 10% of the people have the opposite problem. They are in parasympathetic overload. Their nervousness, anxiety and agitation come from exactly the opposite problem. That’s why they appear to react backwards to traditional nervine herbs. If someone is already in parasympathetic overload, taking something that further stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system takes them further out of balance.
When a person stuck in parasympathetic mode takes something that stimulates their sympathetic nervous system, it restores balance. That makes them feel more relaxed and calm. A person experiencing sympathetic overload is over stimulated by substances that further stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, so these remedies would make them feel more nervous and anxious.
So, the children and adults with ADHD and the other people who experience parasympathetic overload only appear to react backwards to nerviness. They aren’t really reacting backwards, they just have the opposite nervous system imbalance that the rest of us tend to have.
How to Tell If a Person is Excess Sympathetic or Parasympathetic
So, now that we know the problem, how do we tell which kind of nerviness to use? Well, remember what I said about lovers pupils getting larger? That’s because the sympathetic nervous system dilates (enlarges) the pupil. This happens when we’re excited or scared or anxious and our sympathetic nervous system is dominating.
So, if you see a person acting nervous, stress and anxious and you look into their pupils and see they are enlarged, you know that herbs like valerian, kava kava, hops, skullcap, passion flower and other traditional nerviness will help restore balance to their nervous system. So, you’ll give them Stress-J, Nutri-Calm or Herbal Sleep to stimulate their parasympathetic nervous system and calm down their sympathetic nervous system so they will be more in balance.
In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is overactive, the pupils will be small. That’s because the parasympathetic nervous system contracts the pupil. If you see someone who is nervous, anxious or stressed and their pupil is small, you won’t have a happy customer if you give them products like Stress-J or Herbal Sleep. You need to give them stimulants instead.
We used to use Chinese ephedra for this purpose, but it got taken off the market. So now we use ENERG-V, caffeinated green tea, organically grown coffee, yerba mate and kola nut to help these people calm down. Small amounts are all that is needed in most cases. Red meat (especially for breakfast) and supplements that boost the thyroid (and iodine levels) are also helpful, such as Thyroid Support, Thyroid Activator, Liquid Dulse or Concentrated Black Walnut.
So, if you want to avoid getting on people’s nerves (by giving them the wrong remedy), just look into their eyes.