Herbs for Health: A Good Night’s Sleep

Use these herbs to combat insomnia.


| June/July 1995



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Asian Ginseng

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t do without sleep. The body’s internal regulators usually do a pretty good job of establishing when and how much we sleep, but schedule changes, long airplane trips, excitement, stress, or nagging worries can upset the pattern. If insomnia persists despite conservative measures—getting more exercise, for example, or going to bed at the same time every night—people sometimes turn to sleeping pills. Prescription drugs may have undesirable side effects such as reacting with alcohol or drowsiness the next day. Some are habit-forming or addictive. Insomniacs who do not need a physician’s attention may be pleased to discover that herbs can help them sleep without annoying side effects.

Herbs used for the treatment of insomnia also act, in varying dosages, as sedatives, hypnotics, soporifics, antianxiety agents, calmatives, minor tranquilizers, and nervines. Most do this by depressing the central nervous system. The following herbs are among those most commonly used to induce sleep.

Valerian

Few herbs have as long a history of medicinal use as valerian. Of the 200 or so species of Valeriana native to the Northern Hemisphere, South Africa, and the Andes of South America, the best known to herb gardeners is V. officinalis (the official valerian of the apothecary shops). Over the past thirty years, more than 200 scientific studies have demonstrated its effectiveness as a mild sedative, pain reliever, and antispasmodic as well as in increasing coronary blood flow. More than 120 chemical components have been identified from the root and its essential oil. In the 1980s, a series of Swiss clinical studies showed that valerian extracts significantly improved sleep quality for people suffering from mild insomnia while producing minimal side effects (1).

One of valerian’s most appealing aspects as a sedative is that it does not interact with alcohol and produces no morning aftereffects. Some components of valerian have been found to be toxic to certain types of cells in laboratory experiments, but toxicity has not been shown in therapeutic doses of whole-plant extracts. Some individuals, however, have reported headaches or a stimulant effect after taking valerian. These effects may be a consequence of large doses taken over a long period of time. Like any other substance, valerian should be used in moderation.

Hops

Hops are the strobiles (fruits) of the herbaceous vine Humulus lupulus, best known as the bitter flavoring ingredient in beer. Hop teas have traditionally been used for insomnia, restlessness, and other nervous conditions as well as for intestinal cramps and lack of appetite. The German government has approved the strobiles for use in the treatment of mood and sleep disturbances (2). A regulatory monograph by the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy (ESCOP), pending ratification by its member countries, approves hop use for nervous tension, excitability, restlessness, sleep disturbances, and lack of appetite (3).

And what about those hop-filled sleep pillows? According to pharmacognosist Varro E. Tyler (4), when stored, hop’s volatile oil components undergo oxidation to produce the compound methylbutenol, which when inhaled depresses the central nervous system. That probably accounts for the sleep-inducing attributes of hop pillows. How much of the compound is delivered during a night of inhaling the subtle fumes emitted from a hop pillow or how long a hop pillow’s effectiveness lasts is unknown.





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