For a better night’s sleep, Mother Nature knows best

I often work with clients who have tried herbs for sleep without any effect.  The problem isn’t that herbs don’t work, but that the right herb wasn’t used for that person’s particular sleep pattern.

There are any number of reasons we may not be sleeping well: anxiety, hormones, pain, stress, poor sleep habits, and more.  Herbs can be very effective in helping us sleep, but only if we matching the right herb with the particular sleep pattern.

Once you identify the root cause of your sleeplessness, you’ll likely find an herbal remedy that can ease you into a sound sleep without habit-forming and pricey medications.

Below are six of my favorite sleep herbs, and information to help you select the right herb to help you fall asleep and sleep through the night.

1.  Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian is the most popular sleep herb in the country, consistently ranking within the top 15 herbs sold on the market for any use. Studies show valerian is most helpful in improving the speed at which we fall into a deep sleep with minimal side effects (Bent et al., 2006; Fernández-San-Martín et al., 2010).

Valerian is often combined with other sleep herbs. The combination of valerian, passionflower, and hops as standardized extracts taken for two weeks worked just as well as the sleep drug zolpidem (Ambien) for insomnia patients with fewer side effects and a high degree of safety (Maroo et al., 2013).

Beyond the usual sleep herb cautions, valerian does not agree with everyone and can cause paradoxical caffeine-like agitation for about 10 percent of people. Despite its popularity and reputation as “the sleep herb”, it’s not for everyone but does work well when taken for the right sleep challenges with the right person.

Consider valerian if: you often lie awake at night and have trouble falling asleep

2.  Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Passionflower is a mildly sedating, sleep-enhancing herb that often works for a wide range of people.  It helps promote a peaceful, restful slumber, helping us wake well-rested and refreshed.  In one study, a low-dose passionflower as a tea improved sleep quality within one week versus a placebo (Ngan & Conduit, 2011).

Passionflower is particularly helpful for quieting the constant chatter in our heads.  When you lie down at night and you can’t stop thinking about… everything; “I have to pick this up at the store tomorrow, why did that person say that today, oh I have to remember to call this person, what if…”.  Passionflower helps slow down our racing thoughts so we can get some sleep.

Passionflower should not be combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) anti-depressive drugs.

Consider passionflower if:  you lie awake trying to fall asleep and feel like you can’t shut off your racing, circular, thoughts

3.  Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Skullcap is helpful for people who feel overstimulated and experience sensory overload.  Everything is too much: the touch of sheets on skin is irritating, the ticking of the alarm clock is too loud, lights are too bright, physical touches are too much. Not everyone finds it sedative, most will find it calming.

Due to widespread adulteration of commercial skullcap, purchase from reputable companies dedicated to identity and quality testing (Mountain Rose Herbs, Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm).

Consider skullcap if:  you have a hard time sleeping and feel overstimulated, twitchy, and particularly sensitive to touch, sound, smells, light (sensory overload).

4.  California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California poppy can helps regulate healthy sleep cycles for people who wake at the same time every night (usually 2 or 3 am and have difficulty falling back to sleep) or those who wake early (around 4 am) and can’t fall back to sleep.  California poppy appears to help retrain our brain to sleep through the night.

In the same family as the opium poppy, California poppy demonstrates similar pain relieving and anti-anxiety properties, but without the narcotic or addictive side effects.  Studies have confirmed the traditional usage of Californian poppy showing that extracts were indeed sedative, reduced anxiety levels, and were non-toxic (Rolland et al., 1991), (Hanus et al., 2004)

Not recommended in pregnancy.

Consider California poppy if:  you wake in the middle of the night around the same time and have difficulty falling back asleep, or you wake every morning very early and can’t go back to sleep.

5.  Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)

Chamomile helps us unwind and relax from our day so that we can sleep better.  It helps when you feel mildly anxious, harried, or restless from your crazy day. It can help ease anxiety and tension so you can get to sleep.

Consider chamomile if:  you feel tense or restless from your crazy day and have difficulty unwinding.

6.  Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm has been used traditionally uplifting mood enhancer and sedative and sleep aid.  Researchers have found a significant increase in “calmness” in individuals given lemon balm compared to placebo (Kennedy et al., 2003).  It is particularly good for disturbed sleep (bad dreams, startle easily when sleeping) to help improve sleep quality.

Consider lemon balm if: you feel stressed or grumpy at the end of your day, or you suffer from bad dreams.

Pulling it all Together

If stress, anxiety, or hormonal imbalances are suspected, you may want to work with a healthcare practitioner or herbalist to help manage in parallel. 

Once you’ve identified the right herb for you, incorporate it (them) into this sleep routine:   

  1. Establish good sleep habits (check out this article for more tips)
  2. Try an herbal tea at night for three to four nights
  3. Try herbal tincture one hour before bed and again just prior to going to sleep

Most herbs take three-four nights to notice an effect, and the full effects of some herbs aren’t reached for four to six weeks.

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