In the first article in this series, I discussed some classic painkilling herbs from our repertoire, focusing on herbs that work through opiate-like actions to reduce pain and tension.
In this article, I’ll dive even deeper into tension-relieving Spagyrics, the muscle relaxants and antispasmodics that reduce pain indirectly by lessening the tightness and tension that can create and exacerbate pain.
First, I should say that I’ve divided herbal effects into these three divisions for clarity in writing and reading, but of course, Nature doesn’t index her plants this way! So, if you look at the Spagyrics listed as anti-inflammatories, or antispasmodics, or painkillers, you’ll see the same herbs on more than one of those lists.
Black Cohosh is on all three lists, California Poppy is on two, and so on. This can be confusing if you’re new to herbalism, but I find it to be comforting evidence of the intelligence of whole plant medicine, and the flexibility we have in working with herbs vs. the single-note, limited properties of pharmaceuticals or isolates.
I am reminded of Andrew Weil’s point that conventional Western medicine disregards herbs, especially tonic ones, because their effects are so varied and wide-ranging and they aren’t comfortable with that unpredictability, instead relying on isolated chemical constituents with just one simple direction.
By contrast, he points out, Traditional Chinese Medicine considers substances with such narrow direction to be the least useful medicines, favouring tonics which heal in many harmonious ways at once.
So let’s get to these antispasmodic, relaxing herbs and the ways they can help alleviate pain!
Antispasmodics & Muscle Relaxants
For anyone who has ever been in pain (basically everyone!), tension is an obvious component of the suffering. Sometimes tension causes the pain, as when a muscle cramps up and hurts both in the moment and as soreness later, or with menstrual or digestive cramping causing pain.
Other times, the tension is a response to the pain, such as an injury causing you to flinch and hold an area tighter, or when the pain of injury becomes swelling that reduces blood flow and causes stiffness as your body’s own immobilizing “cast” to protect the tissues.
Some of that tension can bring extra structure that is useful to prevent further injury, but that reaction can also go too far, with the tension becoming its own source of pain and even further injury. When this happens, blood flow can be restricted which will further impede healing by blocking the removal of the waste products of tissue damage and the influx of reparative chemicals and nutrition.
At this stage, relief and overall healing can be helped by anti-spasmodic herbs, which halt the winding up of the reactive tissues into further restriction, and with muscle relaxants, which open the tension in muscles and restore blood flow and nutrient influx. These opening herbs can also help painkillers from the other two categories work better, as they allow them to be carried more deeply to the problem area.
A truly astonishing flower, this gorgeous tropical vine is used as a relaxing and even intoxicating medicine throughout the world.
It is a strong and efficient muscle relaxant, and the effects of our Passionflower Essence can be felt from one breath to the next, as the whole body settles, muscles let go of tension, the mind releases worry, and the breath and blood flow become calm and steady.
Passionflower is a sedative, as are most muscle relaxants, so it should be used with that in mind, but if tension is keeping you awake, it’s an excellent remedy to help you melt into sleep. The tension, both physical and mental, that accompanies PMS responds especially well to Passionflower, which can be used in small doses during the day, and higher doses at night to sleep well and wake refreshed.
Passionflower is also an MAO inhibitor, so it’s not compatible with other psychiatric medicines, but it will bring a lifted mood and little wave of bliss as you fall asleep. That combination of relaxation and bliss comes together in an interesting way with our Passionflower Initiatic.
In areas of South America where Banisteriopsis does not grow, the Ayahuasca brew is prepared with Passionflower as the MAOI component and Mimosa species as its complement. This variation is a good ally to work with if you’re visioning into a difficult experience or problem, or if you have fear about the journey, since it has that same energy of easing and opening, but on a psychological and spiritual level.
Another herb that combines physical and emotional release in a psychedelically beautiful flower! Elephant Head is part of a family of plants with beautiful flowers, all of which have deep relaxant properties with many applications.
As I wrote in an article when we first finished this Spagyric, we think of Elephant Head as a “letting go” remedy, as it works on physical tension and constriction, but also as it releases that, it opens up the mind to a receptive state of insight into the higher-level causes of the tension.
My favourite use for Elephant Head is in conjunction with bodywork or Yoga, and I find that, as the physical knots are untied by its energy, I remember the original causes of the issue, whether it was an argument, stressful drive, or the like. Not every physical issue has an emotional or mental cause, but for the ones that do, Elephant Head’s intelligence brings deeper and more lasting healing by working on so many levels of being.
We also find that Elephant Head’s physically-opening properties potentiate other painkilling herbs, especially California Poppy. These two work well together to reduce pain and so open resistance to the stretching and movement that will reduce injury in a more lasting way.
More familiar as an ingredient in beer, Hops is also a good antispasmodic, and the bitterness that makes it a flavouring agent for brewing also points to its affinity for the digestive system.
Hops is not a strong muscle relaxant, but it is our favourite choice for tight and crampy states in the gut. Its antispasmodic effects relax the stomach and intestinal muscles, while its bitterness stimulates healthy and efficient movement.
Hops is also somewhat sedative, so if digestive upsets are caused by or causing mental stress, or if late-night gut imbalances keep you awake, our Hops Essence can really help smooth it all out so you can sleep well and digest properly.
As a Spiritualized Essence, Hops has all these properties, combined with estrogenic effects, adding a layer of hormonal support to its energy. So, for the indigestion than can accompany the menstrual cycle or menopause, this level of Hops is a long term tonic and support for all facets of the problem. To boost this direction even more, Hops combines well with Black Cohosh, also a painkilling and calming herb as I discussed in the first article in this series.
Thanks for reading this series so far- the third article on anti-inflammatories can be found here.