In a good night, sleep sneaks in and drifts across the consciousness in a gentle wave.
Other times, it can be maddeningly elusive, staying just out of reach of a tired mind until it’s long overdue. Blame that last Stephen King chapter, the simmering aggravation of a traffic ticket, worry about a sick child, or perhaps that last stop at the espresso bar.
We herb fanciers have a grab bag of tricks to help turn loose of the day’s tensions and invite slumber. We can draw a warm bath and hang a bag of lavender under the faucet to release a calming fragrance. We can settle under a quilt with a soothing cup of chamomile tea. We can even tuck little sachets filled with soporific herbs into our pillowcases so that every time we stir we get a hint of relaxing scent.
Sleep pillows are an age-old tradition. The Romans used rose petals in theirs. King George III and Abraham Lincoln preferred a filling of hops. At naptime, Victorian ladies rested on lacy little pillows of lavender and rose petals. Legend has it that the cradle of the baby Jesus contained a sleep-inducing herb, Galium verum, known as Our-Lady’s-bedstraw.
The idea that herbs can be used to help one fall asleep or stay asleep is not just an old wives’ tale. Scientists have experimented with lavender oil to induce drowsiness in laboratory mice. Aromatherapists explore the role of fragrance in bringing about significant physiological and emotional effects. Because olfactory neurons are connected directly to the brain, simply inhaling a scent can stimulate the release of hormones that generate a range of feelings and responses; they can calm fear or anger, relieve stress or pain, and yes, bring on sleep. There is thus foundation for the belief that a pleasant fragrance in one’s pillow can alleviate mental and emotional stress, a frequent cause of sleeplessness.
Sleep pillows can be a pleasure even for sound sleepers. For people who have difficulty falling asleep or who are bedbound, herb pillows are a thoughtful and comforting gift. The pillows we offer here can be made quickly from bits of fabrics in pretty patterns and colors and trimmed with lace, ruffles, or ribbons, as desired. Lacy handkerchiefs may also be used. Our versions, 4 inches on a side when finished, are made from handwoven cotton checks and ticking stripes. We trimmed them with bits of antique lace or with piping of the same fabric cut on the bias to make them look like Grandma’s. Each pillow is an envelope designed to hold a separate herb bag made of muslin, tulle, or other thin fabric slipped in through the back. The outer pillow can be washed when necessary, and the herb bag replaced or refreshed when its fragrance fades.
Sleep pillows can be of any size, but traditionally they are small and relatively flat so that they will lie smoothly and unobtrusively inside a standard pillowcase or under a bed pillow. Some are so pretty that you may be tempted to keep them on top of the bed. Extras can be stored in the linen closet, where they’ll scent the sheets.
Many herbs have a sedative effect when inhaled, but not all of those are appropriate for sleep pillows because personal preference is an important consideration. The secret to falling asleep—and this tip comes from a long-time problem sleeper—is to think good thoughts when you close your eyes. Try scents that you associate with childhood pleasures: sweet woodruff and sweet clover might bring back the smell of grass on a summer day; rose petals and clove pinks, an afternoon in Grandmother’s garden. Sweet woodruff (G. odoratum), related to Our-Lady’s-bedstraw, combines the fragrances of vanilla and new-mown hay; the familiar scent of roses is said to soothe emotions, relieve headaches, and generally make you feel better.
One of the herbs most commonly used in sleep pillows is hops, whose dried flower bracts are better known as a beer flavoring. Those who don’t care for the pungent, slightly resinous aroma of hops can add lemon verbena, mints, or rosemary to disguise it. Sprinkling the dried herbs with water, with a trace of alcohol or glycerin added, will soften them so that they don’t rustle and crackle in the pillow when you turn your head. Place hops in a removable inner slip so that you can replace them every four to six months; stale hops take on a fetid smell that may actually keep you awake rather than put you to sleep.
Lavender also has sedative effects. It has pleasant associations for many people, and it can dispel headaches. Because lavender doesn’t mold, you can make up pillows with the freshly picked buds. The scent lasts a long time, but when it starts to fade, crushing the flowers slightly will release more aroma. Lavender alone makes a fine sleep pillow, or it can be combined with other fragrant herbs (see recipes below).
Whether they’re brewed into a tea or tucked into a pillow, sweet marjoram, thyme, and lemon-scented herbs—lemon verbena and lemon balm, in particular—are calming, as are rosemary and peppermint. Chamomile is also reputed to discourage nightmares, and how about a eucalyptus sleep pillow for a friend who’s down with a cold? For a pillow that is to be used by a convalescent or someone who is ill, avoid overly sweet scents; try refreshing aromas such as rosemary instead.
Mixtures of herbs to encourage sleepiness can be made like potpourris with a fixative such as gum benzoin or orris root for a longer-lasting fragrance. Use orris root in chopped or pinhead rather than powdered form, as the powder can induce an allergic reaction in some people.
The following recipes each will fill a pillow 12 to 14 inches square or several small ones. Experiment to come up with fragrances and combinations that you find appealing, especially late at night. A sleep pillow probably won’t unwind you if you’ve been drinking coffee by the potful while watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, but it won’t hurt to give it a hug anyway.
Kathleen Halloran, associate editor of The Herb Companion, sews, sleeps, and grows herbs in Laporte, Colorado.
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