Treating Insomnia with Herbs

Case studies from an herbalists notebook: combat insomnia.


| May/June 1997



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Ellen, a healthy forty-five-year-old, came to the clinic several months ago complaining of insomnia, which had plagued her for more than a year. She could fall asleep without any problem, but would routinely wake up between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. and remain awake until dawn.

After reviewing good sleep hygiene with her, including the need to maintain a regular sleep schedule and get regular exercise, I performed an examination. I found that Ellen had a fast, weak pulse and a red tongue with little or no coating. Her abdomen was very tight, especially around the navel. She told me she usually felt tired in the late afternoon and her energy levels were generally low. She looked tired and tense.

Ellen had already consulted a medical doctor, who had prescribed Valium, a drug that sedates the nervous system and induces sleep. While the Valium helped Ellen sleep eight hours straight, it also left her feeling disoriented in the morning and sluggish until late in the afternoon.

Ellen’s condition is not rare—one of the most common reasons patients come to my clinic is to seek treatment for insomnia. According to a 1995 study by the National Sleep Foundation, about 20 percent of all American adults and 50 percent of Americans aged sixty-five and older experience significant sleep difficulties on any given night. A 1990 study reported in the American Journal of Public Health showed that nearly one-third of the elderly patients studied used conventional medication to help them sleep.

The REM factor

Insomnia is an inability to fall asleep or remain asleep long enough to adequately refresh the body, mind, and spirit. Modern research shows that sound sleep is vital to good health. Of the five stages of sleep, the stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is especially important. Periods of REM sleep occur off and on throughout the night, and their duration increases as the night goes on. During this deepest and most healing sleep stage, dreaming occurs, and some people believe that emotional and psychological conflicts are resolved.

Many factors can interfere with REM sleep, including stress resulting from work or mental strain, physical and emotional tension, ­erratic bedtime hours, an unhealthy sleeping environment, and certain pharmaceuticals. People whose REM sleep is unfulfilled may become chronically tired, irritable, moody, and depressed. On the other hand, a full night’s sleep contributes to optimal productivity, creativity, focus, and good health.





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