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Few natural remedies are so enjoyable and affordable as a good night’s sleep. Yet, sleep can be incredibly elusive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, yet many of us miss the mark. Approximately 35 percent of adults don’t meet the bare minimum of seven hours. The percentage rises to 46 percent among people of color, and nearly 70 percent of teens — who need more sleep than adults — don’t get the recommended eight hours per night. Women are particularly susceptible to insomnia, with up to 50 percent reporting that they lie awake at night, unable to sleep.
Grogginess and lethargy only scratch the surface of insomnia’s impact on the body. Lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression, reduced immune health, and cognitive impairment. While some of these effects are cumulative, just one night of inadequate sleep triples your risk of catching the common cold. And because sleep deprivation affects hormone production, you can end up eating 500 more calories per day when ghrelin — the hormone that signals a full stomach — becomes suppressed, while leptin — the hormone that controls hunger — rises. Yet, even if you want more sleep, achieving it may feel out of your control. Fortunately, herbs and simple lifestyle changes can help.
3 Key Herbs to Support Sleep
Various plants can help us sleep better, particularly those that are nervine; these calm or sedate the nervous system. People experience varying responses to individual herbs. As a trained herbalist, I recommend starting slowly with any new-to-you herb. Try it first in the evening while relaxing at home — just before bedtime, or a few times between dinner and bedtime, beginning with a low dose and working up to higher doses over time.
Always be careful combining sleep herbs with drugs that also have sedative actions, such as anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills, antidepressants, and certain pain and allergy medications. These may overly sedate in combination with herbal remedies, particularly if taken in high doses. Serious side effects of over-sedation include: impaired motor skills, falling asleep while driving or operating heavy machinery, increased risk of depression and sluggishness, and decreased heart rate or respiration.
That said, the following herbs are generally well tolerated and quite safe. Typical doses range from 1/5 to 1 teaspoon (1 to 5 milliliters) of tincture liquid extract diluted in water; 1 teaspoon dried herb per cup of tea; or in capsules as directed on the label. Take just before going to bed, or a few times between eating dinner and lying down for bed.
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German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) flower tea has a long history of use for quelling anxiety and aiding sleep, as well as for supporting digestion in people of all ages. A handful of human studies support its use for better sleep, generalized anxiety disorder, and healthier cortisol (stress hormone) levels. The personality of chamomile, too, generally fits anyone feeling or acting fussy. Elders in a nursing home who took chamomile capsules for four weeks had significantly better sleep scores when compared with those taking placebos. Another similar study of seniors found that those who took 400-milligram capsules after lunch and dinner slept significantly better after four weeks compared with the control group. A similar dose also benefited menopausal women with sleep disorders. Women who’d just given birth and had poor sleep quality experienced better sleep and reduced depression when they drank chamomile tea compared with those who didn’t. Chamomile is well tolerated even by children. However, some people with allergies to flowers in the daisy family may also have allergic reactions to chamomile.
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Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is one of my go-to sleep herbs because it’s a bit stronger and more effective for a larger percentage of people. The flowers and stems of the plant blend well with other sleep-inducing herbs, and have a reputation for calming mind chatter and pacifying nervous excitation, stress, anxiety, and frustration. Though only a few small studies have examined the effects of passionflower, the results have been excellent. In one study, passionflower tea worked better than a placebo to improve sleep quality within one week. Participants drank a passionflower tea of 2 grams of the dried herb steeped for 10 minutes in approximately 8 ounces of hot water. Passionflower was also an ingredient in one of the more impressive herbal formula sleep studies, in which the blend of passionflower, valerian, and hops worked together just as effectively as zolpidem, the generic form of Ambien. Passionflower’s flavor is decent, and it works well fresh or freshly dried as a tea, tincture, or pill.
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Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root is the most studied and most popular herb for sleep, regularly ranking within the top 20 medicinal herbs sold in the country. Traditionally used as a muscle relaxer and sedative, valerian works best as a fresh-root tincture, but can also be taken as a pill or as a tea that’s skunky- smelling and not particularly tasty. I’ve found it to be most effective among people who are physically and emotionally tense, anxious, or whose bodies run cold rather than hot. More fiery and heavy-set individuals may find it agitates them. Scientific studies show mixed results, but valerian appears to quicken the speed at which you fall into deep sleep, otherwise known as “sleep onset latency.” Valerian works even better when combined with other sleep herbs and has few side effects.
Additional Herbs for Sleep Support
Valerian, passionflower, and chamomile remain the most impressive, common, and well-studied herbs for sleep support in the United States. However, there are other less-common but nevertheless helpful sleep aids deserving of our attention. They can be prepared using the same instructions and cautions as the previously mentioned herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogen, meaning it helps combat stress in the body while replenishing energy reserves. It supports the nervous system and may also ease anxiety, boost mood, and improve sleep. For sleep support, simmer ashwagandha roots in cow or plant-based milk, with a little honey and nutmeg to taste, for an after-dinner drink. Some people find that evening doses disrupt sleep, but this is rare. You may also consider taking ashwagandha during the day for better energy and stress support. Ashwagandha can be administered as a tincture, pill, powder, or tea. Use caution if you have hyperthyroid disease, or if you’re sensitive to plants in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and potatoes.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a feeble but useful sleep herb cultivated in gardens everywhere. All parts can be used. The fresh plant (particularly the root) has the most potency. California poppy offers mild pain support and calming properties, particularly when pain interferes with sleep, and for people who have wonky sleep-wake cycles. Best as a fresh plant tincture, California poppy is also serviceable dry, made into tea, or taken in pill form.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) have sedative and pain-relieving properties, and often get tucked into dream pillows or combined with other herbs in sleep blends. The beer-like bitter flavor can be off-putting. Fresh or freshly dried hops work best.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) grows easily, and has gentle, calming, and uplifting properties that blend well with other herbs in teas, pills, or tinctures. It’s well tolerated and popular for all ages, and not strongly sedative. Fresh or freshly dried leaves work best.
Magnolia (Magnolia spp., particularly M. officinalis) has many uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It helps reduce the excessive cortisol levels that interfere with sleep quality, particularly for those with stress-induced insomnia who wake with a start in the wee hours of the morning, mind spinning, unable to fall back to sleep. Magnolia works for daytime use as well, as it isn’t overly sedative. Most species of magnolia can be used similarly. Though tricky to find commercially, magnolia is available from some TCM suppliers and used in some sleep formulas. Consider finding a magnolia tree to make your own medicine from its bark and twigs; you’ll notice its delightful lemongrass and root beer aroma and flavor. The calming constituents extract better into alcohol or powder than they do in water. Make a tincture of 1 ounce by weight of processed or fresh bark and twigs per 2 ounces of high-proof vodka or grain alcohol, and steep for at least one month before straining.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushroom is used in TCM to balance many things, including to calm the Heart Shen, which, when out of balance, manifests as stress, anxiety, and restless sleep. Consider taking reishi capsules, decoctions, or double-extraction tinctures, either solo or in combination with other traditional herbs for sleep.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), a classic nervine, helps calm anxiety, stress, and agitation while also promoting sleep. It curbs nervous hyper-stimulation and can provide relief to sensitive people agitated by light, scent, and sound. Some people find it sedative and sleep-inducing, while others find it doesn’t make them drowsy during the day. Fresh or recently dried plant material is most effective. Grow it yourself, or purchase it directly from an organic farm located in the United States, such as the Zack Woods Herb Farm, to avoid adulteration with poor-quality plant material, some of which can be toxic to the liver.
Maria’s Sleep Tea
This pleasant-tasting and strongly sedative tea is an ideal addition to any bedtime routine.
- 1/2 teaspoon passionflower
- 1/2 teaspoon skullcap
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon balm
- 1/2 teaspoon spearmint
- 1 teaspoon honey (optional)
Steep the herbs in 4 to 6 ounces of hot water for 15 minutes, then strain, and add honey if you prefer.
Maria’s Sleep Tincture Blend
This combination of herbs is my go-to blend for sleep, although other herbs could also be added to suit your personal taste.
- 2 parts passionflower tincture
- 1 part magnolia bark tincture
- 1 part skullcap tincture
Combine the tinctures in a dropper bottle. Take 1 to 5 milliliters (1 to 5 squirts, up to 1 teaspoon) at bedtime, and as needed.
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More Tips for Successful Slumber
Unplug and unwind. Avoid the blue light emitted by electronics and screens at least one hour before bedtime. Dim the lights in the evening. Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary with aromatherapy, soothing music, dark shades, a white noise machine, and earplugs. Create a relaxing ritual with tea or a bath, or read boring books to help you fall asleep easier.
Address sleep apnea. If you snore or wake gasping for air, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep study. Addressing sleep apnea with a mask or mouthpiece won’t only improve your quality of sleep and daytime energy, but will also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and more.
Control nighttime eating and drinking. Heavy dinners, late-night snacks, and drinking even one or two alcoholic beverages at night can dramatically reduce sleep quality and may trigger wakefulness in the middle of the night.
Take care with stimulants. Consuming caffeine and other stimulants at any time of day — particularly in the afternoon and evening — may make it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, or have good sleep quality. Even energizing herbs may interfere with sleep.
Maria Noël Groves is a registered clinical herbalist nestled in the pine forests of New Hampshire and the author of Body into Balance. Her latest book is Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies (available below). For more articles and recipes, visit Wintergreen Botanicals.