Get the sleep you need naturally: gentle, soothing herbs deliver
slumber by Steven Foster, Mother Earth News > March, 2005
Sleep is essential to optimal health, helping our bodies and minds to
recharge, re-energize and successfully navigate the day's activities.
amount of sleep needed for a person to best function varies among
individuals, with eight hours being the average. It is said that Thomas
thrived on only four hours of sleep each night, but that Albert
12 hours for a good night's rest.
But if there's one thing we probably all have in common, it's that we
more sleep. With the stress of modern, busy lifestyles, it's not
have a hard time falling asleep or getting enough rest. Sleep
third as a common complaint for individuals seeking medical advice,
behind headaches and the common cold. Each year, a third of Americans
reportedly suffer at least occasional difficulty in falling asleep, and
10 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population has habitual or severe
difficulty in falling asleep.
More women are affected by sleep disturbances than men, and,
sleep disturbances are known to increase with age. With little or no
sleep disturbances can evolve into an increased risk of physical and
disorders such as depression.
When most of us think of problems associated with sleeping, the word
"insomnia" often comes to mind. Insomnia refers specifically to
asleep, staying asleep or both. It can manifest in different patterns,
awakening frequently during the night, waking up too early in the
just poor sleep quality. To describe insomnia, herbal practitioners
phrases "sleep disturbances" or "sleeping difficulties.
Call it what you will--anxiety, stress or just plain excitement--the
downs of daily life can lead to sleep troubles. As a result, many
people turn to
prescription medications, which are potent drugs that may involve
including habit-forming behavior and even overdose. These drugs may
react with alcohol, as is the case with barbiturates, or lead to
drowsiness the next day. Over-the-counter drugs are available, too, but
also may cause side effects such as grogginess, dry mouth and
For many consumers who do not need a physician's attention, herbs may
successfully help them achieve better sleep without unwanted side
THREE TYPES OF INSOMNIA
Transient insomnia often results' from lifestyle or situation changes
environment, or extra stress in our lives. Travel is a good example.
people have a difficult time sleeping on an airplane, especially during
flight, with the anticipation of arriving at a new location or because
nervousness from flying. This excitement keeps the brain overactive and
makes it difficult to relax. Transient insomnia usually lasts for one
Short-term insomnia typically lasts one to three weeks and can be
by severe stress, such as a divorce or the loss of a job. It can
long-term or chronic insomnia if not treated.
Long-term/chronic insomnia can last as little as three weeks, but the
can stretch into years for some individuals. Chronic insomnia can
physical problems such as pain from arthritis, angina pectoris or
respiratory problems including asthma and bronchitis; or specific sleep
disorders including sleep apnea, where breathing stops during sleep.
Substance abuse, including abuse of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine, also
lead to chronic sleep problems.
Herbal remedies can provide a low-risk and proven alternative to
counter sleep aids, barring any physical or psychological problems
more involved profession al treatment.
Herbs used for the treatment of insomnia generally produce a depressant
effect on the central nervous system. According to Varro Tyler, Ph.D.,
book Herbs of Choice, agents used to treat anxiety or insomnia are
by numerous names, including "sleep aids, sedatives, hypnotics,
antianxiety agents, anxiolytics, calmatives and minor tranquilizers."
fall into any of the above categories are often ambiguously called
The best-known and best-researched herbal sleep aid is valerian
officinalis). Other herbal sleep aids include hops (Humulus lupulus),
passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
lemon balm (Melissa ojficinalis). All are easy to grow in home gardens
regions of the United States.
VALERIAN: WELL RESEARCHED
Valerian is the best-documented herbal sleep aid. Over the past 20
more than 200 studies of valerian have been published in scientific
especially in Europe, including more than 10 controlled clinical
Experimental data indicate a rational scientific basis for valerian's
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study
a 2000 issue of the journal Pharmacopsychiatry evaluated the effects of
valerian extract in 16 patients, when given a single dose of valerian
a multiple-dose treatment for four weeks. The German researchers
both objective and subjective parameters. They assessed subjective
parameters including sleep quality, morning feeling, daytime
perceived duration of sleep latency (time it took to fall asleep) and
period (total length of time asleep). Objective parameters included
stage analysis and arousal index.
After a single dose of valerian, no effects on the patients' sleep
observed. After multiple-dose treatment for four weeks, however, sleep
efficiency for those who took valerian showed an increase in comparison
baseline measures. Researchers confirmed significant differences
valerian and the placebo for parameters describing slow-wave sleep
REM, or nondreaming, sleep, which occurs earlier than REM sleep and
makes up much of the sleep cycle). In comparison with the placebo,
participants fell asleep much more quickly after long-term
Valerian also had a very low number of adverse reactions. The authors
concluded the valerian treatment demonstrated positive effects for
patients, and therefore could be recommended for patients with mild
One of the most appealing aspects of using valerian as a sleep aid is
does not interact with alcohol and does not leave the user with a
in the morning.
Another study by German researchers, published in a 1999 issue of
Pharmacopsychiatry, evaluated the effects of a valerian root extract on
reaction time, alertness and concentration. The randomized, controlled,
double-blind trial involving 102 volunteers found that single and
evening doses of 600 milligrams of valerian extract did not have a
impact on reaction time, alertness or concentration the morning after
the extract. It is reported, however, that some individuals may
stimulant effect or develop a headache from the use of the herb. If
used as a
sleep aid, a dose equivalent to 2 to 3 grams of the herb should be
dinner and another equal dose one hour before bedtime. (For home
preparations, you may want to consider buying a gram scale. They are
available and prices start at about $20.)
HOPS: NOT JUST FOR BEER
Hops are the fruiting bodies of Humulus lupulus, a vine grown
in the Pacific Northwest for flavoring beer. Hops have traditionally
to stimulate digestion, but use of hops as a sedative is possible, too.
condition called hops-picker fatigue has been identified, in which hops
pickers were observed to tire easily, presumably because of contact
plant's resin or perhaps from inhaling its essential oil. Sedative
been attributed to a volatile compound in hops, which provides a
basis for the traditional use of hops-filled pillows to help aid sleep
to Make a Hops Pillow," Page 136).
In Germany, the herb is approved for discomfort from restlessness,
and sleep disturbances. The suggested dose is 0.5 grams of the fruits
as strobiles). Or, an effective hops delivery form might just be
drinking a good
beer--that is, if you can avoid getting up in the night to go to the
this case, however, one must beg the question: Is it the hops in the
beer or is it
the alcohol that helps one calm down and get a good night's sleep? More
research needs to be conducted on hops to confirm its utility as a
PASSIONFLOWER: FOR ANXIETY
Passionflower is a vine common in the southeastern United States.
regulatory authorities cite passionflower as a potential help for
nervous anxiety." The degree of effect is dependent upon the dose. The
experience of numerous medical practitioners in Europe helps confirm
plant's safety and efficacy.
A clinical study reported in a 2001 issue of the Journal of Clinical
and Therapeutics adds to the scientific evidence for passionflower's
general anxiety disorders. Iranian researchers compared a passionflower
extract, the drug oxazepam (a tranquilizer sold under the trade name
and a placebo in a double-blind randomized trial. The study was
on 36 outpatients diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Eighteen
were randomly selected to receive 45 drops of a passionflower extract
placebo) per day, and the other 18 received either 30 milligrams of
or a placebo. Patients in both groups over the four-week trial period
similar positive results in the reduction of anxiety, with no
differences in effects between the comparative treatment groups.
patients in the passionflower group had significantly fewer problems in
performance compared to the oxazepam group. This led the researchers'
conclude that the passionflower extract was effective for management of
general anxiety disorder, warranting a larger controlled clinical
Another recent study looked at differences in anti-anxiety effects of
passionflower leaves, stems, flowers, whole plants and roots.
found the flowers and roots had much less activity than the stems and
suggesting the roots and flowers should be removed prior to
product. The German health authorities list the proper dosage of the
herb at 6
grams per day in an infusion (tea). Passionflower makes a good additive
ingredient when combined with chamomile tea before bedtime.
CHAMOMILE: A PERENNIAL FAVORITE
If I've had a big evening out on the town, with a trip to a favorite
followed by a stop at a local coffee shop for an espresso and dessert,
only have an overstimulated central nervous system but an
digestive system as well. Back at home, I'm looking for two results:
mind and calm my stomach. To solve both needs, I turn to a warm cup of
chamomile tea before bed.
The most widely used chamomile is the annual herb known as German or
Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recuriga). The German name of chamomile
translates into "capable of anything," and indeed in Western Europe
chamomile is as highly regarded as ginseng is in China. An infusion of
2 to 3
grams (a heaping tablespoonful) of dried chamomile flowers steeped in a
of water makes a good tea of this soothing medicinal herb.
Traditionally, chamomile is used to treat mild sleep disorders,
children. Although its use as a sleep aid is not well supported by
studies, pharmacological studies do show it has a mild sedative effect.
study by Italian researchers showed that chamomile extracts had mild
nervous system depressant activity.
A 1995 study by researchers in Argentina looked at the effects of
flowers on mice. They found a low dose (3 milligrams per kilogram of
weight) had virtually no sedative effects, but a high dose (30
kilogram) had a slight sedative effect. The scientific jury is still
out on whether
chamomile's traditional claims as a sleep aid are valid, but a cup of
chamomile tea before bed could be like the proverbial warm glass of
bedtime--soothing and relaxing, no matter what its medicinal activity
I like it, and it works for me.
LEMON BALM: PLEASANT & CALMING
Lemon balm is another favorite herb for a soothing bedtime tea.
the herb was used to treat anxiety and to relieve insomnia. Recent
and traditional use have suggested that lemon balm and its essential
play a role in improving cognitive disorders.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in a
issue of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior looked at the herb's
cognitive effects in 20 healthy volunteers. The study found that a
of 300, 600 or 900 milligrams of a lemon balm extract at seven-day
produced a feeling of calmness. Even the lowest dose created a feeling
calmness, helping to support traditional claims.
Lemon balm should be taken after an evening meal and once again just
before bedtime. Add about 2 teaspoons of the ground leaves to a cup of
steaming hot water. Then sweeten the tea with a little honey, if
Lemon balm's pleasant, warm, lemonlike flavor makes it a delicious
How to Make a Hops Pillow
Hops-filled pillows are fun and simple to make, and their aroma
gentle sedative effects. To make a hops pillow, mix together the
1/4 cup dried hops 1/8 cup dried chamomile flowers 1/8 cup dried
flowers 3 drops lavender essential oil
Set the mixture aside. Cut 2 pieces of fabric, each about 8 inches
sew around the edges to make a pillow, leaving enough room to insert a
tablespoon. Spoon the herb mixture into the pillow and sew it shut.
hops pillow under your regular pillow for a good night's sleep.
Considered an authority on herbal medicine, Steven Foster specializes
medicinal and aromatic plants.