Herbal Nerd Society Exclusive Article
How would you describe Passionflower? With its glorious, layered, large flowers and almost weedy, vining habit, it’s clearly an herb for those who’s energies are a little top-heavy, so to speak.
Native Medicine People of the North, South, and Central American continent relied on several varieties of Passionflower for food and medicine centuries ago. The variety with the showy flowers, P. incarnata, was a favorite for medicinal actions including sedation, relaxation, and fighting off germs or improving digestion. Passiflora edulis offered up the tastiest fruits to help gently cool and nourish through the hot late summer. It didn’t take long for European doctors and root-workers to recognize the gentle power of this prolific vine.
The Passionflower herbalist speak of today is almost inevitably Passiflora incarnata. That’s the variety who’s tops seem to offer the most clear and strong medicinal action, cooling and relaxing most notably. Early American herbalists and doctors used P. incarnata for insomnia, mental stress and racing mind, hysteria, and a variety of heart complaints and to ease spasmodic conditions.
Passiflora incarnata and Traditional Western Herbalism
One of the signs Matthew Wood notes in determining if P. incarnata is the right herb to use is a tongue with a red tip. This is because Passionflower helps to cool the heart center, easing stress-induced blood pressure and related symptoms. making it a hypotensive herb. Its action is to ease or reduce tension, thus allowing excess heat to drain downward gently, so as to create a stable foundation.
To be blunt about it, Passionflower moves excess energy from the upper body and redistributes it in the lower appropriately, giving the body a stronger rooted nature so it can thrive. That’s why Native peoples used it for conditions that included digestive upsets, like diarrhea and dysentery, particularly when they include fever and agitation. Passionflower’s antimicrobial action helps to fight off the invading germs while it cools the heat that’s built up in the Liver and Heart as a result of the body’s attempts to fight off the pathogen.
Traditional Western Herbalists like David Hoffman describe Passionflower as nervine, hypnotic, antispasmodic, anodyne, and hypotensive. It’s affinity is for the nervous system, and as such can help to calm or sedate conditions of excess there. As a pain-reliever, P. incarnata eases the overstimulation of the nerves that comes with chronic pain, making it a prime choice for conditions like neuropathy and damaged nerves. Saint John’s Wort would be a good partner for Passionflower in easing those types of painful conditions while working on healing the underlying tissues.
The anti-spasmodic nature of Passionflower’s action can help a variety of conditions, from muscular-skeletal spasms to those of the circulatory or digestive system. Digestive complaints like those associated with Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Disease (IBS, IBD), and your garden-variety flus and mild digestive upsets are all candidates for the assistance of Passionflower…most especially if tension, stress, or heat are triggers or part of the initial or root causes. In that case, both Passionflower’s nervine nature and antispasmodic action work on the body’s “second brain,” aka the digestive system, to soothe, cool, and stabilize.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Passionflower
From a Traditional Chinese Medicinal perspective, Passionflower helps to cool and harmonize the Shen by way of the Heart and Liver meridians. It can also help to cool and stabilize the associated Yang pathways, the Small Intestine and the Gallbladder, particularly when Yang energy is excessive and needs to be converted back to Yin energy.
Michael Tierra describes Passionflower as a cooling, bitter herb with affinity for the Heart and Liver meridians. The way it cools the mind is most certainly akin to liver herbs like Dandelion and Bupleurum, both of which have the remarkable ability to help individuals with excessive anger calm their minds and redirect their focus in a positive way. It can also offer assistance to the lower digestive tract, particularly when External Wind has driven up the heat and caused disruption and heated conditions in the digestive system, such as diarrhea and vomiting. That External Wind can be pathogenic in nature or stress-related, making P. incarnata a perfect remedy for folks who tend to feel their stress in their small intestine (often described as a “stomach ache” that leads to diarrhea of a most unpleasant nature) and cannot settle their minds.
Passionflower helps to improve the flow of energy along the Heart and Liver meridian pathways, letting the thoughts and energies that have gotten stuck in a repeating and swirling or overwhelming pattern to release the cycling pattern and flow along the natural pathways once again. Passionflower is far less draining in nature than Dandelion and Bupleurum, so it’s action is more one of proper circulation than of true draining. In this way, it is harmonizing to the Shen.
Ayurveda and Passionflower
As a herb for the nervous system, Passionflower’s ability to smooth the flow of energy is recognized as antispasmodic — P. incarnata helps reduce or soothe erratic or convulsive nerve impulses throughout the body. In this way, Passionflower can help to calm and cool an overheated or overstimulated nervous system. In the context of Ayurvedic practice, Passionflower supports proper flow of Vata energy while reducing excess Kapha, according to Dr. David Frawley and Dr Vasant Lad. This is helpful in a variety of nervous system complaints beyond insomnia ( especially the kind that prevents you from getting to sleep but doesn’t necessarily cause you to awake multiple times through the night). Epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, seizures, and tremors are all commonly eased with Passionflower.
The ability for Passionflower to smooth the flow of energy and reduce overall tension is not limited to the mind and obvious nervous system complaints like anxiety and insomnia. Passiflora incarnata is can be paired with Heart herbs like Hawthorn and Motherwort to help ease stress-related heart conditions including mild hypertension, irregular heart rhythms or tachycardia, and mild angina. In such formulations, Passionflower is offering support in the form of calming the system and releasing excess tension so the heart is free to function unhindered, so it is reducing excessive or particularly heavy Kapha and building Vata in a way that allows the energy to flow naturally once again.
Passionflower as an Emotional Healer
As an emotional healer, Passionflower is particularly suited to those individuals who can be described as the chronic worry-warts. They’re in their heads, allowing thoughts to race and compound on each other without rest. They may be fidgety or have a hard time being still due to the excessive energy of all those thoughts tumbling around in their minds. Often, they feel unsupported or the support they have is not enough to let them rest. The result is they carry the burden of planning and preparing or reviewing and analyzing alone. They may express their thoughts through incessant chatter or they may appear stoic on the outside, allowing few to realize the swirl of ideas and thoughts always in action behind that quiet facade. In either case, Passionflower can help to slow the mind long enough to let those individuals release the energy that’s been bound up inside so they can allow the many layers to open to the world, much like the intricate and many layered blossoms of the P. incarnata itself.
Practical Application: Passiflora Incarnata for Sleep, Insomnia, and Digestion
In my own practice, I include blend Passionflower with my Basic Slumber blend (Valarian, California Poppy, and Skullcap) when I’m working with a client who has frazzled or overstimulated nerves. Often, I find folks who are sensitive as well as those who may not be sensitive but who work or live in busy, noisy, or otherwise stressful environments are helped by P. incarnata’s ability to soothe the nerves and ground racing thoughts. I particularly look for a jittery habit or an apparent need for or addiction to stimulants such as coffee or tea during our intake.
I’ve recently started working with P. incarnata as a digestive support with folks who struggle with frequent digestive upsets, particularly diarrhea that’s explosive or sudden in nature. I’m seeing the beginning of positive results, but don’t have enough case studies yet to give you a good formulation for such complaints or a solid description of the types of clients who are especially well suited to p. incarnata for digestive complaints.
- The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine
- The Way of Herbs: Fully Updated with the Latest Developments in Herbal Science
- The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants
- Medical Herbalism: The Science Principles and Practices Of Herbal Medicine
- Breverton’s Complete Herbal: A Book Of Remarkable Plants And Their Uses