Mother Earth Living

Natural Sleep Help

Gentle, soothing remedies put herbs to work for peaceful slumber.
By Steven Foster
April/May 2006
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My 15-year-old son’s high school administrators made a wise move and decided to start school at 9 a.m. rather than at 7:30. They wanted to help the teenagers show up better prepared for the day, physically and emotionally, instead of forcing them to march through the door before the winter sun had appeared over the horizon. This strategy was designed to allow the students to get more of what we all require — a good night sleep. Sleep is essential to optimal health, helping our bodies and minds recharge, re-energize and get on with the activities of the day. Individuals’ sleep needs vary, 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.

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that our bodies tell us when we’re tired. But with busy lifestyles, ever-changing schedules, travel, worries and sometimes even a late-night movie that keeps us up longer than our bodies would like, we all occasionally suffer from insufficient sleep.

Stress, excitement or insomnia?

Common sleep disturbances include difficulty falling asleep, poor-quality sleep (such as waking up repeatedly during the night), light sleep and not enough sleep. Statistically, sleep disturbances are known to increase with age. More women are affected by sleep disturbances than men. Left untreated or without adequate treatment, sleep disturbances can evolve into an increased risk of physical and mental disorders, including depression. A study published in the December 2004 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine reports that University of Chicago researchers found that losing sleep can raise levels of hormones linked with appetite and eating behavior, creating an increased sensation of hunger and a preference for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods.

Call it what you will — anxiety, stress or just plain excitement — but the ups and downs of daily life can lead to sleep troubles. Many people turn to prescription medications, potent drugs that may involve risks including tolerance, habit-forming behavior and even overdose. These drugs may react with alcohol, as is the case with barbiturates, or lead to clumsiness or drowsiness the next day. Over-the-counter drugs also are available, but they, too, may cause side effects, such as grogginess, dry mouth and constipation. Herbs may be very successful in helping consumers with relatively mild problems getting to sleep or staying asleep — without unwanted side effects. If insomnia lasts more than a week, consult a physician to rule out any physical or psychological problems that might require professional treatment.

Valerian: A well-reasearched sedative herb

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

A recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study 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. According to the study’s authors, subjective parameters were assessed using questionnaires and included sleep quality, morning feeling, daytime performance, the time it took to fall asleep and the total sleep time. Objective parameters included sleep-stage analysis, arousal index and other procedures using established scientific protocols for studying sleep.

A single dose of valerian didn’t produce any observable effects on either sleep structure or the patients’ subjective sleep assessment. After multiple-dose treatment for four weeks, however, sleep efficiency increased with valerian. Researchers confirmed significant differences between valerian and the placebo in slow-wave sleep (also referred to as non-REM, or non-dreaming, sleep, which occurs earlier than REM sleep and makes up much of the sleep cycle). Compared with the placebo, participants fell asleep much more quickly after long-term administration of valerian. Valerian had a low number of adverse effects. The authors concluded that the valerian treatment “demonstrated positive effects on sleep structure and sleep perception of insomnia patients and can therefore be recommended for the treatment of patients with mild … insomnia.”

One of the most appealing aspects of using valerian is that it doesn’t interact with alcohol and doesn’t leave the user feeling groggy in the morning. Some individuals may experience a stimulant effect or develop a headache from the use of the herb. If used as a sleep aid, take a half-teaspoon or so of the herb after dinner and another dose one hour before bedtime.

Hops are the fruiting bodies of a vine grown commercially in the Pacific Northwest for flavoring beer. Given their bitter flavor, hops traditionally have been used as a diuretic and as an aromatic bitter to stimulate digestion. Use of hops as a sedative is a relatively recent development. A condition called hop-picker fatigue has been identified, in which hop 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 that would be present in hop pillows (although absent from extracts), which provides a rational basis for the traditional use of hop-filled pillows to help aid sleep.

Take a chill pill with passionflower

Passionflower is a vine common in the southeastern United States. German regulatory authorities allow passionflower to be labeled for “conditions of nervous anxiety.” And while the degree of effect is dependent upon the dose, numerous medical practitioners in Europe confirm the plant’s safety and effectiveness. Researchers found that 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, such as a tea or tincture. German health authorities list the dose at 6 grams (a dropperful, or a little more than a teaspoon) of the herb per day in an infusion (tea). Passionflower makes a good supportive ingredient to combine with chamomile tea before bedtime.

Lemon balm: Pleasant and calming

Lemon balm is another favorite herb for a soothing bedtime tea. Traditionally, the herb was used to treat a nervous heart, nervous stomach 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 recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the effect the herb had on cognition in 20 healthy volunteers. The study found that a single dose of 300, 600 or 900 mg of a lemon balm extract at seven-day intervals produced a feeling of calm, according to a mood scale. Even the lowest dose created a feeling of calm, helping to support traditional claims. The herb should be taken after an evening meal and once more before going to bed. Add about 2 teaspoons of the ground leaves to a cup of steaming hot water. Sweeten with a little honey, if desired. Lemon balm’s pleasant, warm, lemony flavor makes it a delicious tea.

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 have an overstimulated central nervous system and an overstimulated digestive system, as well. I’m looking for two results: Calm my mind and calm my digestion. In this case, 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. The German name of chamomile translates into “capable of anything,” and in Western Europe, chamomile is as highly regarded as ginseng in China. Well established as a soothing medicinal herb, an infusion using a heaping tablespoonful of dried chamomile flowers steeped in a cup of water makes a good tea.

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, some pharmacological studies show it has a mild 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.


Steven Foster  is the author of 14 books, including the Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, with Christopher Hobbs (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Additional herbs for sleepy-time:

Catnip (Nepeta cataria). A mild sleep-inducing herb that is safe for children, catnip also settles the digestive system and relieves intestinal cramps.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). As a tincture or powdered extract, often used to reduce nervous tension. Must be used long-term.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa). In cough syrups and tincture, or solid-extract form, helps relieve mild sleeplessness or restlessness. Also may be useful for mild pain relief.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Tincture or powdered extract can help relieve pain and promote a calm sleep. Also useful for relieving mild anxiety and intestinal cramps; considered safe for children.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium bulbosum). Helps to relieve mild anxiety and headaches and relax one during emotional stress.

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis). Used for spasms, nausea, headaches and emotional exhaustion.

Kava (Piper methysticum). Helps one feel calm and relaxed.

Wild Oats (Avena fatua). Good for insomnia and nervous exhaustion.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) For nervous imbalances and depression.

Source: Hobbs, Christopher. Valerian: The Relaxing and Sleep Herb. Capitola, California: Botanica Press, 1993.


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