By Kary Vannice
“Nervios” is a classification of medical disorders used here in Mexico that, for us, would loosely be translated as the “jitters.” In reality, though, the symptoms go well beyond that.
The late professor Carlos Zolla Luque, an expert in Mexican traditional medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), described nervios as characterized by a “state of unrest” in which it is customary to experience “insomnia, loss of appetite or compulsive eating, anxiety, rapid pulse, occasional despair and other disorders such as hair loss, dermatitis and weakness. Any circumstances that alter the emotional state or mood are interpreted as possible triggering agents.”
Now, let’s be honest, we are all staring down the barrel of another six months of civil unrest, economic uncertainty, and social isolation – as if the past six months were not enough to make anyone reach for the Prozac.
Unlike the other North American countries, Mexicans have long recognized what modern science now calls “stress-related disorders.” Ancient folk remedies throughout Mexico always included several different plants and trees as cures to calm the nerves. In 2014, a team of UNAM scientists itemized 92 “medicinal plants for the treatment of ‘nervios’, anxiety, and depression in Mexican traditional medicine” – a great resource for getting high-strung, stressed out, insomniacs to chill out and take a nap.
In the midst of a global pandemic, regional economic crisis and racial tensions boiling over (for good reason, I might add), it’s safe to say we’re all experiencing more than a little stress in our daily lives. The good news is, here in Mexico, they haven’t lost touch with their ancient ways and some of these old folk remedies are still very much available to us today. Anyone who’s been to a traditional “tianguis” market knows there’s always at least one vendor there selling dried herbs to cure what ails ya’.
Two of the 92 Oaxacan antidotes for los nervios you’d more commonly associate with a flower shop than a pharmacy. They are a local chrysanthemum and Ipomoea stans, a variety of those lovely blue/purple morning glories you see on your morning walks. However, in their case, it’s not the flower that’s used, it’s the roots.
In other plants, it’s the bark or the leaves, or the berries that hold the power to relax one with a tense and uneasy disposition. Calderona Amarilla (Galphimia Glauca, or thryallis), for example, by far the most wildly studied of the folk remedies, uses the seeds and branches to make a soothing tonic.
Another recognizable Mexican flower, the cempasúchil, the Mexican marigold (Tagetes erecta) traditionally used Day of the Dead displays, while not reviewed in the study, has long been used to cure headaches, “fright,” insomnia, excessive crying and nervousness.
There are many other at-home treatments readily available in your local fruit and veg store. While not necessarily native to Mexico, these are well-known “medicines” for nervous Nellies.
Passionflower – There are over 500 varieties of passionflower and only some of them produce a curative effect, but you’ll often find dried Passiflora in local natural farmacías, which you can use to make a calming tea.
Ruda (common rue) – Originally from the Mediterranean, this herb has a long-standing place in Mexican households for its calming and relaxing effects. A tea can be made from its delicate leaves to reduce anxiety and nervousness.
Sage – What we think of as a nice addition to a savory dish is actually an antidote for anxiety here in Mexico. If you’re lucky, you can find it fresh in the produce section. But if you strike out there, move on to the dried herb section of the store and look for salvia.
Lavender – Oil of lavender can be put into a diffuser to create a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. The leaves can be made into a tea and flowers can be added to a hot bath.
Chamomile – You’ll often find this fresh in the herb section of most fruterías. And it is always available in the bagged tea section of the local supermarket.
Hibiscus tea – Yes, the ubiquitous agua de jamica served in cafés and street corners across Mexico is a great tonic for anxiety. So, if you’re feeling edgy, double down on this aguita the next time you have comida corrida.
Red rose – Even this iconic symbol of love and romance has calming effects. Four flowers left standing in a liter of freshly boiled water for one hour can be consumed a half-cup at a time to sooth the stomach and the nerves.
There are better days ahead, but until then, to keep from popping Prozac from a PEZ dispenser, why not take a more natural approach to calming your nervous system? It’s worked here in Mexico for thousands of years.