In contrast to caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol -- all plant-based chemicals that promote insomnia -- many plants and plant-derived compounds promote restful sleep patterns.
While sleep can seem as though it is merely a period of inactivity, your body is actually performing many much-needed tasks to maintain your entire system's optimum functioning.
Keep reading to learn about how using herbs for sleep can help your body function better and keep you more awake and focused during the day.
The Importance of Sleep
If you exercise, you know that sleep is vital to your body's recovery and growth, being the time when repair occurs. Conversely, getting too little interferes with hormones that regulate your metabolism, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's disease.
Quality sleep is also essential for restoring your brain's functions to optimum levels, improving mood and emotions, memory recall, learning, creativity, and decision-making.
The increasing number of people experiencing insomnia is worrying, leading to diminished employee productivity and more accidents on the road or at the workplace. Using herbs for insomnia might help prevent these mishaps and promote a safer, healthier work environment.
The Benefits of Different Sleep Phases
Deep sleep is essential for tissue building and recovery. Using herbs for insomnia and herbs for sleep can make it easier to reach this phase and stay there longer.
The growth hormone released during this phase stimulates the repair of muscle, bone, and connective tissue; enhances immune functioning; and may help regulate blood glucose regulation. Encoding individual memories into "long-term storage" is strengthened during deep sleep.
The REM phase is essential forcreativity and inspiration, healthy brain maturation, and restoration of catecholamines, which act as neurotransmitters and hormones.
The individual facts and experiences you have encoded into memory during deep sleep are retrieved in REM sleep, analyzed for underlying patterns and commonalities, and remixed into innovative new forms, the source of human creativity, problem-solving, and wisdom.
Emotional processing also occurs during REM sleep. Emotion-centered brain structures like the amygdala are activated and process memories of emotionally-charged events in the absence of anxiety-inducing noradrenaline, thus helping us to achieve emotional resolution.
Lifestyle Changes to Combat Insomnia
Good sleep hygiene - such as keeping the bedroom cool and dark and avoiding blue light at night - helps promote healthy rest. So do getting sufficient exercise at the right time of day and mindfulness practices that stimulate the pineal gland's natural production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates circadian sleep-wake rhythms. Increased levels in the evening help you fall asleep; lower levels in the morning make it easier to wake up.
Mindfulness also reduces anxiety, stress, and irritability and can alleviate physical pain, all of which fuel insomnia (and are, in turn, worsened by it). Mindfulness can, therefore, break the vicious cycle.
A specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy developed to treat insomnia, CBT-I, helps to break unhealthy thought patterns that lead to these undesirable emotional states, leading to long-term improvements in sleep quality and duration.
Herbs for Insomnia
However, many people still need help falling asleep and experiencing enough high-quality sleep. Herbal compounds can make all the difference.
Some herbal sleep aids have antidepressant or anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) activity; they do not directly promote sleep but instead induce calm in troubled, overactive minds that would otherwise struggle to switch off and experience a good night's rest.
Consult your primary care physician before adding herbs for sleep to your daily intake.
Herbs for Sleep
Several herbs and herbal extracts promote healthy sleep in various ways, such as reducing anxiety and stress, which can stimulate the mind to wakefulness; enhancing the sleep-wake transition so that you fall asleep more quickly; and enhancing sleep quality in the various phases.
During deep sleep, delta waves dominate brain activity, and much of the brain's repair work occurs, whereas alpha waves characterize light sleep. REM sleep phases occur approximately five times in a good night's sleep; brain activity at these times is similar to that in a waking brain, causing us to experience vivid dreams.
Herbs for sleep and supplements that increase GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) help you to spend more time in deep sleep and REM sleep, improving the overall quality of your sleep and its restorative effects.
Herbal Sleep Aid
Although you could try taking one herb or plant-derived chemical at a time to reduce insomnia and enhance sleep quality, several studies have shown that combining several herbs for sleep can be considerably more effective, as they act synergistically.
The most studied combination is valerian and hops. Most studies examining the effect of these two herbs for insomnia have concluded that they significantlyimprove sleep latency, quality, and duration.
An excellentherbal sleep aid combines several plant-derived extracts with other compounds that heighten their effect on our minds and bodies.
Full-Spectrum Hemp Oil
Hemp and marijuana are technically cultivars of the same species (Cannabis sativa), but hemp has extremely low levels of the intoxicating cannabinoid THC, and its cultivation has, therefore, been legalized at the federal level. Herbal supplements derived from hemp are legal nationwide as long as the THC content is less than 0.3%.
Full-spectrum hemp oils contain numerous terpenophenolic compounds known as cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.
The best-known cannabinoid in hemp is cannabidiol or CBD; others include CBN, CBG, CBC, and THCV. They are sometimes called "phytocannabinoids," which indicates that these compounds are of plant origin, as opposed to synthetic cannabinoids or the endogenous cannabinoids produced in our bodies.
Many people are familiar with CBD, which is commonly used to treat anxiety. It also helps reduce insomnia and promote morning wakefulness, making it one of the most popular herbs for insomnia. A full-spectrum cannabinoid product provides additional benefits due to synergy known as the entourage effect.
Cannabinoids interact with the human endocannabinoid system to maintain internal stability (homeostasis), enhancing and supplementing the effects of the endogenous cannabinoids produced inside your body.
Because the endocannabinoid receptors in your brain modulate most of the neurotransmitters the brain uses to communicate, hemp supplements enhance memory, learning, and problem-solving while also alleviating pain perception.
A welcome byproduct of these effects is enhanced sleep quality and an increase in the benefits of sleep for mental functioning.
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding and small children should avoid hemp products of any sort. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs for sleep, including hemp products.
The Endocannabinoid System
Researchers studying tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid responsible for the intoxicating effects of marijuana, identified the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the early 1990s. This system is found in all humans and is active regardless of whether you use cannabis or not. Much more research must be done on the ECS before we can fully understand it, but it is known to be a cell-signaling system that helps restore homeostasis in our bodies.
Homeostasis refers to the stability of a living organism's internal environment. All living things attempt to maintain relatively steady internal states, regardless of what is happening outside their bodies. Theendocannabinoid system regulates appetite and metabolism; muscle and bone growth; liver, heart, and reproductive functions; pain and immune responses; and brain functions such as sleep, memory, and mood.
Your body produces endocannabinoids (endogenous cannabinoids) that resemble the cannabinoids in hemp. These bind onto endocannabinoid receptors throughout your body to signal to the ECS that a particular action needs to happen. Once they've done their job, specific enzymes break down the endocannabinoids.
The two significant endocannabinoids identified so far are anandamide (AEA) which is broken down by fatty acid amide hydrolase, and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG), which is broken down by monoacylglycerol acid lipase.
The two primary receptors that we know of are CB1 and CB2 receptors. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord), liver, thyroid, reproductive system, and bones. CB2 receptors are concentrated in the peripheral nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, spleen, and immune cells.
Hops Flower Extract
Hops (Humulus lupulus) is best known for the use of the female flowers in brewing beer, where, in addition to bittering and flavoring the beer, they help to preserve it. However, hops flowers are also one of the best herbs for sleep. This was first discovered when people noticed that workers cultivating hop plants tended to fall asleep on the job despite it being no more physically taxing than other agricultural work.
Several recent studies on hops, ingested by study subjects in the form of non-alcoholic beer flavored with hops, showed reductions in anxiety levels and improved sleep quality. It also appears to lower core body temperature, putting your body into a physiological state more favorable for inducing sleep.
Interestingly, many studies have shown fairly minor improvements to sleep quality and duration from hops alone, but when combined with valerian, it appears to work synergistically with it to produce effects more potent than either herb can on its own. Taken together, hops and valerian are potent herbs for insomnia.
Hops is best avoided if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, suffer from depression, or are scheduled for surgery (it interacts with anesthetics).
Valerian Root Extract
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a potent natural sedative and the most-studied herbal sleeping aid. Several studies have shown that it reduces anxiety and stimulates GABA production, thus shortening sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) and enhancing restfulness.
Valerian also reduces insomnia and night-time disturbances,improves sleep quality (as self-reported and as measured by brain activity), and increases sleep duration. All in all, valerian is one of the best herbs for sleep.
However, you should be aware that valerian may interfere with some medicines. If you're on chronic sedative medication, consult with your physician before using sleep aids containing this herb. Avoid it if scheduled for surgery, as it interacts with anesthetics.
Valerian is not safe during pregnancy, when nursing, or for small children.
Non-Herbal Sleep-Promoting Compounds
Certain chemicals that are naturally found in our bodies and plants help us relax, fall asleep, and rest better. Although not all of them are herbal aids, they are so valuable as adjuncts toherbs for insomnia that it would be remiss not to consider them briefly.
You're probably aware that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, but did you know that some also act as chemical messengers in your body?
L-theanine, an amino acid extracted from tea leaves (hence its name), reduces stress and promotes calm, helping your body relax and fall asleep. Animal studies show that its effects can be enhanced by combining it with GABA or magnesium.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is another amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger in the brain) that calms you down, eases your worried mind, and alleviates stress (mental and physical), thus helping you to relax and fall asleep.
Magnesium is an element on the periodic table (symbol Mg) that plays a critical role in hundreds of physiological processes in our bodies. It relaxes muscles, calms brain activity, regulates melatonin production, and increases GABA levels, inducing sleep.
Insufficient magnesium levels in our bodies, common in older people, can cause insomnia and disturbed nights.
Conversely, increasing your magnesium intake improves sleep quality and duration. You could take supplements of magnesium salts; however, eating more green leafy vegetables is a safe, natural way of increasing dietary magnesium, as this element is central to the structure of chlorophyll.
Do not take more than 350 mg of magnesium as supplements unless advised otherwise by a physician. As with herbs for insomnia, talk to your doctor before starting magnesium supplements.
Other Herbal Sleep Aids
Valerian and hops, particularly in combination, are the most-studied and proven herbs for sleep difficulties, particularly in combination. But several other plant species have a long history of use in this regard, and some studies have shown them to be effective.
However, the best means of delivering the active compounds in these herbs may be less convenient (such as making an infusion) or unsuitable for oral ingestion (in the case of most essential oils).
Chamomile (Chamemaele nobile, formerly known asAnthemis nobilis) has a long history of use as a sleep aid, often as an infusion. It is thought that flavonoid compounds in this herb act on benzodiazepine receptors in the brain that regulate the sleep-wake transition by influencing GABA levels—drinking chamomile tea before bedtime helps people to fall asleep more easily. It also helps to reduce the anxiety that can disturb peaceful rest.
Chamomile has no known side effects, but if you are allergic to plants in the Asteraceae family (formerly known as Compositae and commonly known as daisies), you should avoid chamomile, as you could develop a severe allergic reaction. Well-known members of this family include chrysanthemums, dahlias, sunflowers, and ragweed.
German chamomile or false chamomile (Matricaria recutica) is also in the daisy family and has similar benefits for sleep.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an evergreen shrub in the nightshade family, native to Africa and India. It is also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, and it's among the most popular herbs for insomnia in its native region.
Ashwagandha contains triethylene glycol (TEG), a compound that positively affecting rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, enhancing learning, recall, and emotional stability. It also acts on the GABA receptors, thus reducing sleep onset latency.
Daily use of ashwagandha root extract (300 mg taken twice a day) aids with falling asleep, improves sleep quality in people with insomnia, and combats anxiety and stress, helping to break the vicious cycle of negative thinking that can exacerbate insomnia. It appears to have no adverse side effects.
Often called kava, this plant (Piper methysticum) has a long history of use in the South Pacific as a sedative and means of social relaxation. Studies have shown that the kavalactones it contains have hypnotic, anesthetic, and sedative effects, and kava is thus valuable for combatting stress-induced insomnia and improving sleep quality.
However, kava can affect the liver adversely, although this is thought to result from poor-quality products or contamination with harmful substances, such as volatile organic solvents. It is advisable to take kava cautiously and only buy supplements that a reputable industry watchdog or consumer protection organization has certified.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), also known as maypop, is the source of passionfruit. This species, and some related ones from North America, have been shown to promote sleep quality in animals.
At the same time, a recent human study helped insomniacs increase their sleep time and reduce sleep disturbances.
Although it has not been studied enough, passionflower consumption appears safe in adults but offers more benefits as an infusion than as a supplement.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifoliaand otherLavandula species) is a famous herb with grayish leaves and purple flowers. It is in the mint family (Lamiaceae), to which many culinary herbs belong.
Several studies have demonstrated the anxiolytic properties of inhaling lavender essential oil and itspositive effects on insomnia, increasing the duration of sleep and reducing disturbance and early waking.
However, essential oils are intended to be inhaled and not taken by mouth, with oral ingestion of lavender resulting in belching, nausea, and sometimes diarrhea. As a result, lavender oil should be used for aromatherapy only.
You may encounter an encapsulated lavender oil preparation for oral ingestion known as silexan. This preparation has been shown to combat generalized anxiety disorder in adults as effectively as lorazepam, a benzodiazepine drug, without its severe side effects, addictive potential, and reduced effectiveness with long-term use.
Anxiety reduction helps you fall asleep more quickly and experience better rest.
Lemon balm or melissa (Melissa officinalis) is a lesser-known culinary herb in the Lamiaceae, with wrinkled mint-like leaves that smell like lemons. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and aid relaxation.
Most studies of lemon balm as a sleep aid have evaluated it in combination with other herbal sleep aids such as valerian, hops, and chamomile, making it difficult to assess whether melissa on its own is effective for improving sleep.
However, a study on coronary bypass patients, who very often experience anxiety and sleep disturbances following surgery, showed that lemon balm supplementation had a calming effect andimproved sleep quality.
Lemon balm is sometimes called bee balm in England. In the US, bee balm refers to a different species in the mint family,Monarda didyma(also called bergamot or Oswego tea), that has large, raggedy scarlet flowers. Folk medicine has used tinctures of bee balm as a sleep aid, but it is not used commercially.
Herbal Sleep Aids: The Bottom Line
Herbs or herbal supplements will probably not eliminate insomnia issues on their own. You will have to ensure that you also get enough exercise, practice good sleep hygiene, reduce sleep-disrupting substances such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, and use mindfulness activities.
Nevertheless, herbal sleep aids and herbs for insomnia can be a potent addition to your sleep regimen that can tip the scales in your favor, especially during times of higher-than-normal stress and anxiety.
A supplement based on valerian and hops, with their synergistic benefits for sleep, combined with substances that stimulate GABA production, is likely to produce the most significant benefit.