Heartbreak spares no one. Sooner or later, we all get to know that particular emotion which, for us, might show up as sadness and despair, or anger, or numbness. Our heartbreak might show up in the body as sleeplessness, a lack of concentration and focus, diminished appetite, or even physical pain.
Our herbal forebears were no strangers to heartbreak. In the mid-17thcentury, Robert Burton published an epic, multi-volume text,The Anatomy of Melancholy, drawing on a range of disciplines, including medicine. In it, he pointed out that melancholy is not only grief, but can also encompass sorrow, fear, shame, envy, anger, or a desire for revenge—and that botanicals were one of the best ways to support a broken heart.
Heartbreak—a particular shade of melancholy—is complex and reflected by the many ways we can work with herbs to nurse a broken heart. The ending of a relationship is one of the most stressful experiences a person can have, both physically and emotionally. In lots of ways, the stress of heartbreak is no different than any other major life stressor. It can affect the harmonious flow of neurotransmitters (including epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine) and stress-related hormones (like cortisol). Over time, this kind of stress can impair the function of the nervous, immune, and digestive systems, not to mention the effect it has on our emotional lives. (Check out herbalist Howie Brounstein’s excellent article about heartbreakfor more on this.)
This is why herbs that are calming, uplifting, and nourishing—nervines in particular—can play an important role in the mending of a broken heart. Let’s look at a few herbs that can help support a broken heart.
Many herbs are calming and relaxing, but for heartbreak, skullcap stands out. Why? It is a nervine tonic and gentle anxiolytic with a unique ability to help nip circular thinking in the bud. If you’ve even been heartbroken, you might recognize the tendency to think and rethink about what we could have done differently, the endless nitpicking of ourselves and our faults, or a train of thought that returns over and over again to happier times. Circular thinking is a natural reaction to one’s heart being broken, but it extends our misery—and also disrupts our sleep and ability to pay attention to other factors in our lives, including the positive ones.
In my practice, I’ve found that cool, moist, nourishing skullcap is helpful when strong emotions (like heartbreak, despair, or anger) do not serve but lead to more suffering. One of my favorite teachers, James Snow, describes skullcap as an ally to those who find themselves feeling raw and overexposed in their grief. When everything is justtoo much—colors look too bright, everything sounds too loud, and one wants to retreat from the world—skullcap can be a good choice. When the pain of a broken heart won’t allow us to sleep, larger doses can be hypnotic.
For centuries, lavender has been used to support a broken heart. In the 17thcentury, herbalist Nicholas Culpeper described lavender as a fierce and piercing herb, useful when the blood is hot and excessive and helpful for “tremblings and passions of the heart” (Culpeper, n.d., p. 210). Aromatic and moving, lavender was traditionally rubbed on the temples, added to floral waters, or included in cordials to help gladden and lighten the heart and dispel emotional darkness. In her classicThe Modern Herbal, Grieve (1931) cites a recipe from an old family book for a lavender flower water (which also included rose, orange blossom, and musk) said to help in cases of “languor and weakness of the nerves, lowness of spirits, faintings, etc.” (p. 473).
Lavender is warm, dry, and moving. Its strong aromatics call us back from worry or rumination to the present moment. While lavender is a sedative and hypnotic herb, also capable of relaxing the nervous system, it also has an affinity for the gut (making it helpful when the heartbroken cannot eat, or has nervous indigestion). Lavender can also help support your immune system (in a roundabout way, by suppressing the effects of illness-causing pathogens on the system) (Ngozi, 2012).
Lemon balm has been cited for centuries as a specific remedy for melancholy and also as a tonic herb for the nervous system, increasing memory, brain function, and longevity. Paracelsus, writing in the 15thand 16thcenturies, noted that its regular use would “completely revivify” a person (Grieve, 1931, p. 76); his choice of words implies a return of liveliness, a key notion of gladdening the heart. The 17th-century diarist, John Evelyn, is frequently quoted as writing that, “Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy,” and that, when steeped in wine, “comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness” (Phaenouf, 2005, p. 213).
In 1633, the herbalist John Gerard wrote that borage was “used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow, and increasing the joy of the mind. The leaves and flowers of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness, and melancholy, as Dioscorides and Pliny affirm. Syrup made of the flowers of borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the frantic and lunatic person” (Wilkinson, 1858, p. 147).
Traditionally, the blue-lavender flowers of borage were preserved in sugar or made into a cordial remedy for the heart and spirit and for recuperating from long illnesses. The cooling, mucilaginous leaves and even the seeds were said to be useful for strengthening the physical heart as well as driving away sadness (Culpeper, n.d.). Borage can also help us to remain heart-centered and brave in difficult times—Roman soldiers were said to have consumed borage wine before going to war, chanting “Ego borago / Gaudia semper ago,” (“I, borage / bring always courage”) (Prater, n.d.).
The theme of sweetness shows up constantly in remedies for heartbreak—lots of syrups, cordials, elixirs, and preserves. When we feel deprived of life’s sweetness, it’s a natural response to seek it out in any way we can get it. Not only that, but whole foods and herbs that are naturally sweet tend to have energetically and physically nourishing qualities—much needed at this time. This simple-to-make infused honey can remind us of the sweetness in life while calming and soothing the heart.
As profoundly painful as a broken heart can be, it can help to keep in mind that heartbreak is simply a part of the human experience. We will all have our hearts broken in some way, but we can remember that a broken heart is a temporary state. Herbs have been used for ages to ease us through the dark and painful passage of heartbreak and are a beautiful way to lift the spirits, calm the heart, and strengthen courage.
Ngozi, A. (2012).Gladdening the heart: Historical perspectives.Journal of the American Herbalist Guild, 11(1).
Phaneuf, H. (2005).Herbs demystified: a scientist explains how the most common herbal remedies really work. New York: Marlowe & Co.
Prater, A. (n.d.). The beauty of borage.Healthy beginnings. Retrieved on 02/06/17 from http://hbmag.com/the-beauty-of-borage/
Wilkinson, C.C. (1858).Weeds and wild flowers: Their uses, legends, and literature London: John Vam Voorst.