A hundred years ago, prior to the lure of radio and television and the fast-paced modern world, nine and a half hours constituted an average night’s sleep. In the 1950s and ’60s, the average number of hours spent sleeping dropped to eight. The average American adult today sleeps seven and a half hours, and this number continues to decline.
Sleep-deprived people are chronically tired, irritable, moody and potentially depressed. All aspects of life are affected. Researchers say that people who invest in a full night’s sleep are recompensed by heightened productivity, creativity, focus and health. Moreover, sleep contributes to psychological well-being by processing emotions and memories through dreaming.
Insomnia: The Basics
Statistics suggest that one-fifth of American adults and half of American seniors have difficulty falling asleep on any given night. And as many as 15 percent of adults suffer from chronic insomnia, the most prevalent of the sleep disorders. Insomnia is the inability to get enough sleep night after night, for weeks on end.
There are at least two types of insomnia. The first type is caused by tension, overwork and mental strain, especially for those who work late at night. Relaxing herbs, such as catnip (Nepeta cataria), valerian (Valeriana officinalis), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and linden flower (Tilia ¥vulgaris) may be helpful for this type. Other recommended practices include stretching before bedtime, taking a warm bath before bed, practicing meditation and deep breathing (especially at night), receiving regular massage or acupuncture treatments, and avoiding working into the wee hours.
The second type is when people fall asleep but wake up after a few hours and are unable to go back to sleep. This may be associated with adrenal weakness, in which case consistent use of adrenal tonic herbs, such as eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), may be useful.
Either type of insomnia may be based on, or at least worsened by, a neurotransmitter imbalance. Herbs and foods that help restore the proper serotonin levels in the brain, such as L-tryptophan-rich foods like yogurt, spirulina and legumes, can be useful, as well as St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).
Three general rules for insomniacs are: (1) Go to sleep only when tired; (2) if you cannot fall asleep after 10 minutes, then get up and do something else until you are tired; and (3) use the sleep area for sleeping only.
Important note: Because chronic insomnia can be linked to serious medical conditions, consult your doctor if you suffer from persistent sleep problems that aren’t responsive to healthy lifestyle changes.
Herbs that Support Sleep
Some of the most commonly used herbs with good track records for helping facilitate sleep are listed below. Note that it often is preferable to take the herbs in small doses throughout the day, rather than taking one dose at bedtime.
Valerian has been used since antiquity to help relieve sleeplessness. It is an excellent herbal sedative that has none of the negative side effects of Valium and other synthetic sedatives. A number of clinical studies support the central nervous system-relaxing qualities of this popular tranquilizing herb, and several double-blind trials have shown that it can help people fall asleep faster and have a more relaxed, higher-quality night’s sleep. It is thought that valerian may work through an interaction of its constituents with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. Dosage: 1 cup tea, two to three times daily; 2 to 5 droppersful tincture, two to three times daily; 1 to 2 capsules, two to three times daily.
Kava (Piper methysticum) is the national drink of Fiji and is popular throughout the South Seas, where it has a long history of use soothing nerves and promoting deep sleep. It is effective for anxiety, stress and restlessness — some of the underlying causes of insomnia. In addition to imparting a calm feeling and relaxing the body, kava has the additional benefits of causing mild euphoria and enhancing the dream state. Several short-term clinical studies indicate that kava is effective in treating insomnia. Dosage: 1 cup tea, three to four times daily; 2 to 4 droppersful tincture, two to three times daily; 1 to 2 tablets, two to three times daily. Note: As a sleep aid, a standardized extract containing 180 to 210 mg of kavalactones is recommended. Do not combine this herb with alcohol or barbiturates, and avoid kava if you have liver problems.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a widely used, safe sedative herb that can be taken over a long period of time. It is particularly indicated for insomnia caused by an overactive mind, worry or nightmares. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, the Eclectic physicians used the entire plant in moderate doses for restlessness and wakefulness due to nervous exhaustion or overwork. It also was used for insomnia in the very young and the elderly. Homeopaths used passionflower for insomnia caused by exhaustion. A tincture of the freshly dried plant is recommended, as the herb seems to lose its potency after it has been dried and stored for several months. Dosage: 1 cup tea, three to four times daily; 1 dropperful tincture, three to four times daily.
Reishi is an important medicinal mushroom that tones the adrenals and calms the mind. It can be quite useful in cases of obstinate sleeping imbalances. Reishi is especially indicated for people with anxiety and sleeplessness accompanied by adrenal or nervous system weakness. Dosage: two to three 1-gram capsules, two to three times daily.
St. John’s wort, when used for several months at a low to moderate dose, can help with some types of chronic insomnia. This herb — the herbal superstar for treating mild to moderate depression — can help preserve healthy levels of serotonin in the brain, leading to improved sleep in some cases. Dosage: 2 to 3 droppersful of tincture in the morning and evening; 2 capsules standardized extract in the morning and 1 capsule in the evening.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea is a well-known nervine commonly used in many parts of Europe, South America and Mexico for both children and adults with insomnia. This calming herb, well-known for its soothing action on the stomach, is particularly well-suited for those who experience sleeplessness coupled with digestive difficulties; 5 or 6 drops of chamomile essential oil can be added to bathwater before bed to soothe overwrought nerves and help induce sleep. Dosage: 1 to 2 cups tea, two to three times daily; 15 to 30 drops tincture, two to three times daily. Chamomile also is available in homeopathic tablets for children (follow manufacturer’s directions).
Hops (Humulus lupulus), one of the main relaxing components of beer, has long been used to induce sleep. For mild insomnia, the herb was used in sleep pillows. The herb was used specifically for insomnia due to worry, nerve weakness or alcohol abuse. Modern herbalists suggest the herb as a mild sedative to promote sleep and counteract restlessness and anxiety. Hops often are combined with other herbs, such as valerian and St. John’s wort. Fresh hops preparations are good for toning the digestion, whereas dried preparations combined with valerian are indicated for nervousness, restlessness and sleep disturbances. Some herbalists emphasize the importance of using dried hops preparations when a sedative action is desired, as fresh hops (tea or tincture) sometimes can have a stimulating effect. Dosage: 1 cup tea, two to three times daily; 1 to 3 droppersful tincture, two to three times daily.
Catnip is a gentle herb that contains sedative properties. A cup of tea after meals helps relieve indigestion and heartburn. Chemical constituents in catnip, which intoxicate cats, are similar to the natural sedative compounds found in the herb valerian, supporting catnip’s traditional use as a mild tranquilizer and sedative in humans. A cup of catnip tea may be taken before bed as a mild sleep aid, or taken for relaxation during times of tension. Dosage: 2 to 3 cups tea daily; 1 dropperful tincture, two to three times daily.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is an extremely safe herb used to regulate and feed the nervous system. It is important to take the herb long-term — the longer it is taken, the better the results. Skullcap imparts a quieting effect when taken regularly throughout the day, so that it often becomes unnecessary to take anything else to induce sleep at night. Dosage: 1 cup tea, three to four times daily; 1 dropperful tincture three times daily.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The traditional uses of lavender for nervousness and insomnia still are common today, and the herb and its alluring essential oil are popular in commerce. In Germany, authorities have approved the use of this herb for restlessness and insomnia. Lavender is useful both internally as a tea or tincture and externally as an essential oil (its absorption into the body through the skin and by inhalation has been confirmed by researchers). In one laboratory study with mice, hyperactivity induced by caffeine was reduced and nearly eliminated by inhalation of lavender oil. This aromatherapy study serves to sanction the popular use of lavender herb pillows to facilitate falling asleep and reducing stress. Another study conducted by a nurse in an English hospital suggests that massaging the feet of intensive-care patients with lavender oil reduces wakefulness. A few drops of lavender oil added to a bath before bedtime is recommended for insomniacs. Dosage: 1 cup tea, two to three times daily; 15 to 20 drops tincture, two to three times daily; essential oil may be inhaled; diluted essential oil can be massaged into the skin (use 10 drops essential oil per ounce of vegetable oil); or added to baths (3 to 10 drops).
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has long been used to reduce stress and anxiety, promote restful sleep, calm the nervous system and relieve insomnia. In aromatherapy, essential oil of lemon balm is used to promote relaxation, particularly in cases of depression and nervous tension. Dosage: 1 cup tea, two to three times daily; 2 to 3 droppersful tincture, three to four times daily.
Beth Baugh has been the managing editor for 10 books on botanical medicine and has been involved in the herb industry for 30 years. Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., is the author of Herbal Remedies for Dummies (IDG, 1998) and many other books. Together, Beth and Christopher offer an herbal correspondence course called Foundations of Herbalism; visit them at www.FoundationsOfHerbalism.com or call (541) 846-0702 for more information about the course.