| What is it?
The leaves and flowers are the parts used in herbal medicine from Motherwort, a long-lived herb that grows upright to over a meter with striking ‘toothy’ leaves and whorls of white to pink flowers.
How has it been used?
A saying from the Middle Ages goes “Drink Motherwort tea and live to be a source of continuous astonishment and frustration to wanting heirs!”
Motherwort has an interesting range of historical indications. The name shows how It has obviously been used to help with women’s problems, perhaps most notably for pain in the womb from menstrual disorders. Motherwort has also been used when the period is out of balance, either not coming regularly or coming too often.
There is another clue to what Motherwort is for in its Latin name: Leonurus cardiaca. Motherwort has been used to help with heart problems since ancient times. It was traditionally used to treat angina on effort, high blood pressure and an overactive, racing heart rate.
The great English herbalist John Gerard recommended Motherwort for infirmities of the heart. Writing a little later Culpeper wrote 'there is no better herb to take melancholy vapors from the heart and make a merry, cheerful soul'. Culpeper mainly viewed Motherwort as an antidepressant however he also thought 'it is of much use in tremblings of the heart (palpitations), and faintings and swoonings from where it took the name cardiaca... it took the name motherwort because it settles mother's wombs in their sore travail (delivery) it also provoketh women's courses (menstruation)'
Motherwort was used to calm people with epilepsy in earlier times and Rudolph Weiss writes how Motherwort has been used in folk medicine for various nerve and heart complaints and he confirms its primarily sedative effect on functional heart problems.
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Science on Motherwort
~ In German official medicine Motherwort is recommended to treat nervous cardiac disorders and as an adjuvant therapy for thyroid disorders (Blumenthal M et al, eds: German Commission E monographs therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, Austin, 1998)
~ Motherwort contains a substance called leonurine that has been shown to encourage uterine contractions lending support to its traditional use in childbirth and as a promoter of menstruation (Cheng KF et al: Experientia 35(5):571-572, 1979)
~ Motherwort has been used in Chinese medicine to treat coronary heart disease in people with favourable results and laboratory studies in China have shown it has an anti-spasmodic action on heart muscle cells (Kuang PG et al: J Tradit Chin Med 8(1):37-40, 1988)
~ In laboratory experiments Motherwort extracts have been shown to reduce high blood pressure and to exert a mild sedative and antispasmodic effect (Arustamova FA: Izv Akad Nauk Arm SSR Biol Nauki 1963,16(7):47-52)
~ Laboratory experiments in 1990 showed a mixture of Hawthorn and Motherwort could prove an effective prevention or treatment for atherosclerosis but this has not been followed up, presumably like so many other herbal studies showing great promise for application to humans but not being able to be patented by anyone, due to a lack of funding.
Safety of Motherwort
You will see Motherwort as being advised against during pregnancy in some texts but in fact it is generally regarded as an extremely safe herb to take at any age and whilst breast-feeding or during pregnancy. The caution re pregnancy likely comes from something of an over-reaction to studies on its constituent Leonurine, which has increased tone and contractions in isolated uterus muscle. The German Commission E advises that there are no known contraindications for this herb in pregnancy.
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I have come to develop a great deal of respect for how much Motherwort can shift a stuck pattern of tension in the heart or in the smooth tissue of the womb. I think that if it is used wisely for the right person it can be a profoundly relaxing and healing herb. I've copied below at the bottom of the page an example of how I've used it in a true story I wrote for a natural health magazine in 2011.
Mostly I have personally used Motherwort for 'cardiac stress, where there are palpitations, arrhythmias etc. that are nearly always deeply unsettling to the patient. As always dosage is a critical issue to get right and in the case of Motherwort there does seem to be a considerable range of how much works and how much is too little or too much. The key point is that the relaxing effect should be palpable if you have given enough.
Sometimes smaller doses work better than large in this regard. I'm sure that sounds paradoxical but herbs are more subtle and complex than drugs and it is by no means true that more is better -- often the reverse is the case. Around 10-20 drops per dose seems about right for most people when you are looking to settle the heart (see below for a further discussion on this subject from a true story I published some years back)
In terms of its action as a women's herb, Motherwort has been come to be seen as a uterine stimulant but it has long been thought to relax the womb during pregnancy so it is by no means a simple one-sided action. If there are menstrual pains or difficulties that we are trying to use Motherwort to help then again I would suggest that if the right dose is found the effects will be quite rapid. I typically use around 2 -4 mls a day of the tincture for at least a few days to see if it may be of significant help in this case.
Motherwort combines perfectly with Hawthorn for easing a stressed heart rhythm, with Raspberry leaf to tone and strengthen the uterus and with Valerian for general nervous stress and tension.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Motherwort is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat condition A with plant/substance B.
There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Motherwort can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898
Motherwort is emmenagogue, nervine, antispasmodic, and laxative. It is usually given in warm infusion in amenorrhoea from colds; and in suppressed lochia we have found it superior to any other remedy.
The extract is recommended in nervous complaints, in irritable habits, delirium tremens, typhoid stages, with morbid nervous excitability, all chronic diseases attended with restlessness, wakefulness, disturbed sleep, spinal irritation, and neuralgic pains in the stomach and head, and in liver affections.
It is adapted to cases of nervous debility with irritation, nervous unrest, tendency to choreic or spasmodic movements, pelvic and lumbar uneasiness or pain, bearing down pains, and the irritability due to female disorders.
Personal experiences (continued)
To further describe some of my own experience of using Motherwort I am going to copy a true story here (with the patient’s name and a few other potentially identifying features changed) that was first published in 2011 in the natural medicine Journal ‘Integria’.
Anxiety: the First Step.
My dog introduced me to David. He was a human barometer that dog (now chasing celestial rabbits) the tenser the passer-by the more agitated he would become.
A few years ago we were coming back from a long walk on a weekend morning when he started barking his head off at a man coming out of his own garage.
I restrained the beast, apologised and was about to move on when the person involved actually came closer to me and said “you’re Richard Whelan, the herbalist, aren’t you! I’ve made two appointments to see you and then I’ve cancelled them both at the last minute, I’m sorry about that too!”
Well of course I couldn’t just walk off then, I asked him why he had wanted to see me and as he began to tell me the beginnings of his story from many years ago I could see in his face the torment of just how badly things were still going for him to this day.
On the spur of the moment, without thinking about it, I invited him to come to my clinic with me then and there. Equally without any hesitation, he agreed. I don’t think he stopped talking the whole time but when we came into my dispensary area I asked if I could quietly feel his pulse. It was extremely agitated, hard and edgy. It was the full, bounding pulse of someone literally sitting on the volcano of their own anxiety. These kinds of people do not suffer the same kind of innervated fatigue of depression’s bedfellow; low grade anxiety, (where the pulse can be tense but so small as to sometimes be nearly impossible to find). Rather this kind of tension drives their body to physical distraction. They always have somatic symptoms and, not unusually in David’s case, those symptoms are in turn one of the leading sources of their continued anxiety. David was convinced that he had a serious heart problem and that it was going to kill him a lot sooner than later.
I have found that whenever I see a patient who is suffering from such acute symptoms that it is essential to find a way to noticeably alleviate the worst aspects before any significant progress can be made with treating the deeper causes. Allopathic pharmaceutical medicines excel at this but then become the architect of their own misfortune when the patient sees no reason to change anything so long as they can take the drug that made their symptoms all go away! Good news for the pharmacy companies -- a sad quandary for the doctor who still believes in making a difference…
In my experience, a patient may seem open and receptive to everything you have to say but if their symptoms are compelling and disturbing enough, and they do not experience some significant relief in a timely fashion then all the fine concepts and holistic ideals that have been discussed remain naught but thoughts -- soon forgotten.
If, on the other hand, a way is found to show them that you have in your ability, in your toolkit, a way to help them feel better now then you often have, from that moment on, a person who is receptive to the point of actually taking those hard steps, those changes, which bring lasting healing. It often means doing very little at first, just the first step, but that step is nearly always the hardest one to get right.
In David’s case, listening to his bounding heart beat and hearing how convinced he was that he had a heart condition (when something hurts that badly, it doesn’t matter how many specialists tell you that you are ok, you just know you are going to die from it!) I felt that the most immediate way to help him could surely be Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). This is written up in some of the old texts as being specific for the phenomena described as ‘cardiac anxiety’ and I had found this to be true for others.
If I had just sent David away with some Motherwort there might be a remote chance it would help him sufficiently to take the first step of trust in the therapeutic relationship. Given the history (that I found out about later) I would say the likelihood of that would have been slim at best. David had tried everything and been to everyone to no avail. Now, rather understandably given that none of it had made any real difference, he was more wary of medicine than he had been before he started.
What I did instead was to get David to sit down with me and to feel his own pulse, not jumping to any dire conclusions about what any of it meant, just to feel his pulse exactly as it was.
David didn’t need any training or special ability in order to do this, nobody does, all I had to do was show him how to hold his fingers and his own body, his senses, did the rest. People know what they feel; they know it at least as much as how they can believe what they see.
Then I gave him some Motherwort, about 15 drops of one of our tinctures, no water, just straight so it would taste nice and full on!
I quietly observed David, asked him how he felt the flavours in his mouth, whether he felt it moving into his body, his throat, his chest. I was getting him to naturally go into his bodily awareness by following the taste and sensations of the herbal extract.
I believe that there is an extraordinary level of intelligence at sub-conscious levels of our being, something that can read and respond to a herb in moments.
What happened next is that I took his pulse to check it and then invited him to do the same.
The difference, compared to before, was remarkable. It was not a slight or subtle change; it was an obvious and major change from a bounding pulse to a settled one. His pulse had changed from a hard, striking ‘beat’ to a soft, pliable ‘boom’.
I am perfectly willing to accept that this reaction was entirely psychosomatic, that the suggestion of benefit, the ritual of taking the herbs, in fact the entire process, led him to believe the herb would work and so therefore it did. I have no problem with that, in fact if that is all it boils down to then go the power of the mind! Extensive similar experiences with a wide range of people, especially very small children, even animals, makes me think there is a lot more to it than that, that in fact there is this unfathomable but profoundly real ‘intelligence’ that permeates every cell of our bodies and brains…
Regardless, it is what happened next that serves to illustrate the point of the story.
David visibly relaxed and his whole demeanour and expression changed. As he felt his own pulse and confirmed to himself what he already felt happening in his body his face began to smile for the first time. I don’t think he had ever formed a therapeutic relationship in a positive way with any of the many medications that he had used in the past. I doubt he realised it at the time but now, for the first time, he could begin to have faith in something that was not based on what ‘should’ happen, but what did happen, what he himself experienced.
We went on to do some good work together, plenty of nervines, some good chats about letting go and relaxation, about facing your fears. The first Christchurch earthquake last September destroyed his home so he has now moved across town but we still have occasional contact and I know he continues to do well.
Speaking of the quakes, for ourselves, our clinic was severely bruised for a second time after the massive February earthquake but we managed to stay open, again! It was a good thing too as a great many of my old patients, many of whom I had not seen for years, came to see me in the aftermath of the big one. Many in our community have had horrible levels of anxiety, with sleeplessness, and a terrible fear of the utter helplessness that comes when the earth moves violently under your feet, or under your bed.
I saw those patients ‘pro bono’, without charge, in those aftershock weeks, and with each one I took their pulse, (and got them to feel it too). Gave them a dropperfull (or two) of a relaxing herbal formula, and listened and watched, as one after another, their faces took back their colour, their shoulders dropped, their breathing deepened, and their pulses softened, opened, and relaxed.
And to watch that little moment when they feel that gentle letting go, and confirm it in the palpable change at their wrist, when their eyes open wide, not with fear, but with a sense that there still is some magic in the world, and that nature can be kind as well as cruel -- wonderful.
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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