Sleep isn’t always something that comes easily. Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms I see in my clients, even if it is not the problem they came in for. But there are many herbs that can help with sleep, and not just sedatives either.
There are many different “flavors” of insomnia and not every herb will work for every person. Some knowledge about the herbs helps narrow down the choices, and sometimes it takes some experimentation too. But creating good sleep habits are at least as important, if not more important, as herbs when working with chronic insomnia.
Some of my favorite herbs for sleep include Passionflower, Valerian, Skullcap, and Hops. This list could go on and on as there are many relaxing herbs, also known as “nervines.”
Taking small doses of relaxing herbs throughout the day can be more helpful for chronic insomnia than trying to blast the stress away with one big dose of herbs at bedtime. And in this article we’ll focus on night-time herbs.
Passion Flower is specific for an over-active mind, circular thinking and even muscular twitchiness. This is the herb I keep on my bedside table for when I drink coffee too late in the day, or just find myself too stressed out to be able to relax into sleep. For this purpose, I take 2-3 squirts of the fresh plant tincture.
Probably the most famous herbal sleep remedy is Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Valerian is a fairly strong sedative that relaxes both the mind and the body, and has a “heavy” energetic to it, meaning that it can slow us down and allow us to sleep by slowing us down, even making our limbs feel heavy. Taking too much can result in feeling foggy the next morning, but sometimes it’s worth it to have a good night’s sleep.
Also, be aware that 1 in 20 people get stimulated instead of sedated by Valerian, so be careful the first time you try it. It seems to have less of this effect when using the fresh root tincture, or when combined with other sedative herbs like the ones listed in this article.
Another strong sedative is Hops (Humulus lupus), the same flowers that are used to make beer. I think of Hops as a fairly strong sedative, and usually combine it with Passionflower or Skullcap to create a relaxing blend.
And finally we have Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), which is not a strong sedative but more of a “nerve tonic.” Skullcap helps quiet the mind, especially for anxiety or when we are caught in circular thinking. I think of it like its name – putting a “cap” on our thinking.
By itself it won’t help most people get to sleep but if it is excess thinking that is keeping us up, Skullcap can calm that thinking so we can get to sleep. Or it can be added to some of the other herbs to enhance their relaxing properties.
Skullcap can combine well with tincture of “milky” Oat seed (Avena sativa) as a day-time tonic to help us stay relaxed during the day so we’ll be less stress out at bedtime and be more ready for sleep.
One pattern that I see in chronic insomnia is people who are too exhausted to sleep. Thinking about this from a Chinese medicine perspective, we can think about this as “deficiency insomnia” because it is almost as if we don’t have the energy to sleep.
For this type of person who is tired all day but can’t sleep at night, perhaps has some adrenal exhaustion or chronic stress, I find it more helpful to nourish the nervous system rather than sedate it. These people might find more effectiveness using herbs like Oat seed, or Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most popular herbs in India, having a similar place to Ginseng in Chinese medicine. What makes it unique is its ability to both nourish and give us more energy, but at the same time to help us relax and sleep better. The best way to use it for sleep is to drink a milk infusion before bed. Take a teaspoon of the powder in almost simmering milk with a pinch of Cinnamon, let steep for 10 minutes, then drink the milk and avoid drinking the powder at the bottom of the cup.
Although not an herb, Magnesium can be very helpful for sleep, especially when someone has tight muscles or even restless leg syndrome. To help with sleep, I recommend taking a dose of powdered Magnesium (For example the Calm brand) in a glass of water a half hour before bed.
It is surprisingly effective to help relax muscles as well as to initiate sleep. Or perhaps not so surprising, as Epsom Salt baths have a long history of use for relaxing muscles, and that is just Magnesium sulfate. Magnesium can also function as a mild laxative, so if you take too much you may find yourself headed to the bathroom the first thing in the morning!
BETTER SLEEP HABITS
There is an amazing amount written about “Sleep Hygiene” so I will just include a few helpful notes here.
First off, establishing a routine is extremely helpful. If you go to bed at 11 pm every night, then your body knows at 10:30 to start winding down. Our natural circadian rhythms start to take over when we get into a habit of going to bed at the same time every night.
Also, most traditional medicines recommend going to sleep by 11 pm at the latest for best sleep. After that time, our “second wind” often kicks in and we can be up longer.
Other things that help include: not eating for two hours before bed, creating a truly dark bedroom to enhance melatonin production, and avoiding stimulating activities before bed including TV, movies, and mentally stimulating books.
One thing that I have found helpful is an app for computers called “f.lux” which changes the color of the computer screen from a general blue color to a peachy color after sunset, which is a more natural color that is less stimulating to the mind. So if you find yourself staying up late to check Facebook, then this could be a good app for you.
Hope you find this helpful, and here’s wishing you a good night’s sleep!