Get the Sleep You Need Naturally

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Sleep is essential to optimal health, helping our bodies
and minds to recharge, re-energize and successfully
navigate the day’s activities. The amount of sleep
needed for a person to best function varies among
individuals, with eight hours being the average. It is said
that Thomas Edison thrived on only four hours of sleep each
night, but that Albert Einstein required 12 hours for a
good night’s rest.

But if there’s one thing we probably all have in
common, it’s that we could use more sleep. With the
stress of modern, busy lifestyles, it’s not uncommon
to have a hard time falling asleep or getting enough rest.
Sleep difficulty ranks third as a common complaint for
individuals seeking medical advice, right behind headaches
and the common cold. Each year, a third of Americans
reportedly suffer at least occasional difficulty in falling
asleep, and between 10 percent and 20 percent of the U.S.
population has habitual or severe difficulty in falling

More women are affected by sleep disturbances than men,
and, statistically, sleep disturbances are known to
increase with age. With little or no treatment, sleep
disturbances can evolve into an increased risk of physical
and mental 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 difficulty falling asleep,
staying asleep or both. It can manifest in different
patterns, including awakening frequently during the night,
waking up too early in the morning or just poor sleep
quality. To describe insomnia, herbal practitioners prefer
the phrases “sleep disturbances” or
“sleeping difficulties.”

Call it what you will — anxiety, stress or just plain
excitement — the ups and 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 health risks including habit-forming behavior and
even overdose. These drugs may often react with alcohol, as
is the case with barbiturates, or lead to clumsiness or
drowsiness the next day. Over-the-counter drugs are
available, too, but they also may cause side effects such
as grogginess, dry mouth and constipation.

For many consumers who do not need a physician’s
attention, herbs may successfully help them achieve better
sleep without unwanted side effects.

Three Types of Insomnia

Transient insomnia often results from lifestyle or
situation changes in our environment, or extra stress in
our lives. Travel is a good example. Many people have a
difficult time sleeping on an airplane, especially during a
long flight, with the anticipation of arriving at a new
location or because of nervousness from flying. This
excitement keeps the brain overactive and makes it
difficult to relax. Transient insomnia usually lasts for
one week or less.

Short-term insomnia typically lasts one to three weeks and
can be triggered by severe stress, such as a divorce or the
loss of a job. It can develop into long-term or chronic
insomnia if not treated.

Long-term/chronic insomnia can last as little as three
weeks, but the problem can stretch into years for some
individuals. Chronic insomnia can result from physical
problems such as pain from arthritis, angina pectoris or
headaches; 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 can
lead to chronic sleep problems.

Herbal remedies can provide a low-risk and proven
alternative to over-the-counter sleep aids, barring any
physical or psychological problems requiring more involved
professional treatment.

Herbs used for the treatment of insomnia generally produce
a depressant effect on the central nervous system.
According to Varro Tyler, Ph.D., in his book Herbs of
Choice, agents used to treat anxiety or insomnia are
referred to by numerous names, including “sleep aids,
sedatives, hypnotics, soporifics, antianxiety agents,
anxiolytics, calmatives and minor tranquilizers.”
Herbs that fall into any of the above categories are often
ambiguously called “nervines.” The best-known
and best-researched herbal sleep aid is valerian (Valeriana
officinalis). Other herbal sleep aids include hops (Humulus
lupulus), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), chamomile
(Matricaria recutita) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
All are easy to grow in home gardens in most regions of the
United States.

Valerian: Well Researched

Valerian is the best-documented herbal sleep aid. Over the
past 20 years, more than 200 studies of valerian have been
published in scientific literature, especially in Europe,
including more than 10 controlled clinical studies.
Experimental data indicate a rational scientific basis for
valerian’s mild sedative qualities.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover
study published in a 2000 issue of the journal
Pharmacopsychiatry evaluated the effects of a valerian
extract in 16 patients, when given a single dose of
valerian and after a multiple-dose treatment for four
weeks. The German researchers studied both objective and
subjective parameters. They assessed subjective parameters
including sleep quality, morning feeling, daytime
performance, perceived duration of sleep latency (time it
took to fall asleep) and sleep period (total length of time
asleep). Objective parameters included sleep-stage analysis
and arousal index.

After a single dose of valerian, no effects on the
patients’ sleep quality were observed. After
multiple-dose treatment for four weeks, however, sleep
efficiency for those who took valerian showed an increase
in comparison to baseline measures. Researchers confirmed
significant differences between valerian and the placebo
for parameters describing slow-wave sleep (non-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 administration of valerian.

Valerian also had a very low number of adverse reactions.
The authors concluded the valerian treatment demonstrated
positive effects for insomnia patients, and therefore could
be recommended for patients with mild psychophysiological

One of the most appealing aspects of using valerian as a
sleep aid is that it does not interact with alcohol and
does not leave the user with a “hangover” 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
repeated evening doses of 600 milligrams of valerian
extract did not have a negative impact on reaction time,
alertness or concentration the morning after taking the
extract. It is reported, however, that some individuals may
experience a 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 taken
after dinner and another equal dose one hour before
bedtime. (For home preparations, you may want to consider
buying a gram scale. They are widely available and prices
start at about $20.)

Hops: Not Just for Beer

Hops are the fruiting bodies of Humulus lupulus, a vine
grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest for flavoring
beer. Hops have traditionally been used to stimulate
digestion, but use of hops as a sedative is possible, too.
A condition called hops-picker fatigue has been identified,
in which hops pickers were observed to tire easily,
presumably because of contact with the plant’s resin
or perhaps from inhaling its essential oil. Sedative action
has been attributed to a volatile compound in hops, which
provides a rational basis for the traditional use of
hops-filled pillows to help aid sleep.

In Germany, the herb is approved for discomfort from
restlessness, anxiety and sleep disturbances. The suggested
dose is 0.5 grams of the fruits (known 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 bathroom. In 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 sleep aid.

Passionflower: for Anxiety

Passionflower is a vine common in the southeastern United
States. German regulatory authorities cite passionflower as
a potential help for “conditions of nervous
anxiety.” The degree of effect is dependent upon the
dose. The experience of numerous medical practitioners in
Europe helps confirm the plant’s safety and efficacy.

A clinical study reported in a 2001 issue of the Journal of
Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics adds to the scientific
evidence for passionflower’s use in general anxiety
disorders. Iranian researchers compared a passionflower
extract, the drug oxazepam (a tranquilizer sold under the
trade name Serax) and a placebo in a double-blind
randomized trial. The study was performed on 36 outpatients
diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Eighteen patients
were randomly selected to receive 45 drops of a
passionflower extract (or a placebo) per day, and the other
18 received either 30 milligrams of oxazepam or a placebo.
Patients in both groups over the four-week trial period had
similar positive results in the reduction of anxiety, with
no significant differences in effects between the
comparative treatment groups. However, patients in the
passionflower group had significantly fewer problems in job
performance compared to the oxazepam group. This led the
researchers to conclude that the passionflower extract was
effective for management of general anxiety disorder,
warranting a larger controlled clinical study.

Another recent study looked at differences in anti-anxiety
effects of passionflower leaves, stems, flowers, whole
plants and roots. Researchers found the flowers and roots
had much less activity than the stems and leaves,
suggesting the roots and flowers should be removed prior to
manufacturing a 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 restaurant followed by a stop at a local
coffee shop for an espresso and dessert, I not only have an
overstimulated central nervous system but an overstimulated
digestive system as well. Back at home, I’m looking
for two results: Calm my mind and calm my stomach. To solve
both needs, I turn to a warm cup of chamomile tea before

The most widely used chamomile is the annual herb known as
German or Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recutita). 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 cup of water makes a good tea of this
soothing medicinal herb.

Traditionally, chamomile is used to treat mild sleep
disorders, especially in children. Although its use as a
sleep aid is not well supported by human studies,
pharmacological studies do show it has a mild sedative
effect. A 1982 study by Italian researchers showed that
chamomile extracts had mild central nervous system
depressant activity.

A 1995 study by researchers in Argentina looked at the
effects of chamomile flowers on mice. They found a low dose
(3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) had virtually no
sedative effects, but a high dose (30 milligrams per
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 warm chamomile tea before bed could be
like the proverbial warm glass of milk at bedtime —
soothing and relaxing, no matter what its medicinal
activity might be. I like it, and it works for me.

Lemon Balm: Pleasant & Calming

Lemon balm is another favorite herb for a soothing bedtime
tea. Traditionally, the herb was used to treat anxiety and
to relieve insomnia. Recent studies and traditional use
have suggested that lemon balm and its essential oil may
play a role in improving cognitive disorders.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study
published in a 2002 issue of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and
Behavior looked at the herb’s cognitive effects in 20
healthy volunteers. The study found that a single dose of
300, 600 or 900 milligrams of a lemon balm extract at
seven-day intervals produced a feeling of calmness. Even
the lowest dose created a feeling of 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 desired. Lemon balm’s
pleasant, warm, lemon-like flavor makes it a delicious

Considered an authority on herbal medicine, Steven Foster
specializes in medicinal and aromatic plants. He is the
author of 14 books, including (with Christopher Hobbs) the
Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Foster also serves on the editorial
board of Herbs for Health magazine.

How to Make a Hops Pillow

Hops-filled pillows are fun and simple to make, and their
aroma provides gentle sedative effects. To make a hops
pillow, mix together the following ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup dried hops
  • 1/8 cup dried chamomile flowers
  • 1/8 cup dried lavender flower
  • 3 drops lavender essential oil

Set the mixture aside. Cut 2 pieces of fabric, each about 8
inches square, and 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. Place the hops
pillow under your regular pillow for a good night’s