Do you have trouble sleeping? I experienced chronic insomnia for years and it was devastating. Tossing and turning all night, rising each morning exhausted and irritable, sleep problems can make us a little crazy. Lack of sleep has long term affects on our health, our relationships, and the quality of our lives. Using simple, gentle herbs for better sleep can offer profound relief. These herbs changed my life, and I believe they can help you too.
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The Devastating Affects of Insomnia
I experienced chronic insomnia for years, and it was devastating.
Some nights I would lie awake in bed for hours, tossing and turning until morning. Every morning I stumbled from bed feeling completely wasted.
I became this tired, angry person, and had difficulty functioning at work, struggled with my relationships, my parenting, and to simply make it through my days.
Caffeine, food, and sugar propped me up, which of course made everything worse.
Does this happen to you? Is it a frequent part of your life?
I want you to know, you are not alone.
I tried everything to get more sleep, and followed all the standard advice, including many good things like exercise, diet, and meditation. And I tried some not-so-great things like medications (the side-effects were worse than the insomnia), and alcohol, which made everything worse.
I have been free of my insomnia for three years now, and I feel like a new person. I want to share some of what I have learned from my research, personal experiences, and the wisdom of my mentors. And I want to guide you to finding the right herbs to help you sleep.
If you want a convenient way to use herbs for better sleep, consider making your own herbal sleep tincture. It’s really quite simple and a very effective way to use herbs for sleep!
Finding Your Herbs
Not all herbs work the same for every person. Plants are like people – they each have their unique characteristics, and like people, we don’t always “get along” with everyone we meet. I encourage you to try different herbs, or combinations of herbs.
There are many herbs to choose from to improve our sleep. Some act as mild relaxants helping us to let go of our thoughts and worries, others are more sedative and foster restful sleep.
Five Herbs for Better Sleep
These are the herbs I am most familiar with, either using them myself, for my family, or shared experiences from my herbal teachers and friends. Many of these herbs can be found in tinctures, pill form, or sold as restful tea blends. Often the herbs are combined with each other, providing greater benefit.
1. Chamomile – Matricaria recutita
Chamomile is a familiar herb, and is often included in tea blends. Chamomile acts as a mild relaxant for the nervous system and for muscles. Chamomile is so mild, it’s suggested for toddlers and children.
My youngest daughter often drinks a simple tea with chamomile, lavender, and honey. This combination is especially useful for those times when she is overly tired and having a hard time settling down for sleep.
Chamomile is enjoyable as a simple tea, combined with other herbs in a tincture or capsule, and can even be added to a bath for its soothing effects.
2. Milky Oats – Avena sativa
The more we know about the chemistry of plants, the more we begin to understand their complexity and pharmacological usefulness for a variety of discomforts. As I described in Stress and Adrenal Fatigue:
Milky oats act on the nervous system by gently calming the mind and strengthening the adrenal systems. Experienced herbalists recommend milky oats for people with nervous exhaustion – feeling exhausted but unable to relax due to the nagging sense they should be getting things done. For people who have difficulty focusing, and feel overwhelmed and unable to complete simple tasks.
There are many potential causes for poor sleep. If you suffer from nervous exhaustion and find yourself unable to shut down your brain to allow for a restful night’s sleep, or you find yourself chronically nervous and exhausted, milky oats might be the herb for you.
Milky oats is useful as a simple infusion with the dried tops, or in drop doses with a tincture. The advantage of tinctures is they are a more concentrated medicine as the constituents are extracted from the plant into the alcohol, and the alcohol helps carry the medicine directly into the blood stream.
I started with milky oats in a tincture, taking 1 teaspoon three to four times daily for several months for stress and anxiety. The effects were subtle – I felt as though the volume was turned down on my anxiety, and I was more relaxed at bed-time.
Eventually I switched to a daily infusion with several tablespoons of dried oat tops added to a quart of water steeped for several hours and consumed during the day. I feel as though the use of the milky oats is cumulative over time – the longer you use it, the better your results.
Each herbalist approaches dosing a bit differently. Honestly, it depends on your particular constitution. Just as some people can tolerate a lot of spicy foods without ill-effect, while others suffer heartburn and discomfort at the slightest bit of spice, herbs work differently depending on our sensitivity to them.
Milky oats are mild and safe for everyone, offer many nourishing benefits, and are safe to use long-term. Experienced herbalist David Hoffman suggests an adult dosage for tincture is 3-5 mL (3-5 mL is equal to approximately 1/2 to 1 teaspoon) three times a day. Dosing for an infusion is typically 1-4 cups of infusion per day (Hoffman, Medical Herbalism, 2003.)
Milky oats is safe for children and adults, short-term and long-term use.
3. Skullcap – Scutellaria species
Despite its ominous name, skullcap is a soothing and relaxing herb commonly used to relieve nervous tension, pain, especially from tension headaches, and is often used in combinations with other herbs to improve sleep. Both of my local herb mentors enjoy significant success with skullcap for treating a variety of nervous disorders for their clients and students.
Skullcap is especially beneficial for people with a busy mind and tense muscles. It is often combined with sedative herbs to promote restful sleep. Herbalist Susan Weed recommends keeping a tincture of skullcap close to the bed at night to take when you find yourself awake and your thoughts keeping you from falling asleep again:
As little as ten drops in a cup of warm milk (or hot chocolate) is quite effective. Light a candle, cuddle up in bed, drink your skullcap nightcap, and get ready for pleasant dreams.
People addicted to sleeping pills (and other addictive substances) find skullcap tincture an ally when they are ready to get off drugs. Make sure there’s a glass of water with another dose of skullcap already in it next to your bed, in case you need it. Then blow out the candle, say your prayers, and good night.
As much as I want to enjoy skullcap, it never produces any effect for me. As I mentioned, not every herb works for every person.
So why am I recommending it? For three reasons:
- I know many people who benefit from skullcap
- it has a great reputation among respected herbalists
- skullcap has a long documented history of use
With skullcap tincture, regular tonic doses somewhere between ½-2 dropperfuls, 2-5 times daily. If you find yourself waking at night, use anywhere from a ½ dropper to a teaspoon. Experiment.
Respected herbalist Rosalee reports:
Skullcap side effects are rare and it is considered a safe herb that can be used by most people.
A few decades ago skullcap was wrongly accused of causing liver damage. We now attribute these claims to adulterated herbs. As always, it’s important to buy your herbs from reputable sources.
~ Rosalee de la Foret
4. Passionflower – Passiflora incarnata
Passion flower is an exotic appearing flower, native to the southern United States to Guatemala. The bumblebees absolutely adore it! It is a strong perennial climbing vine and the vines, leaves, and flowers are used in medicine-making.
Scientists believe passion flower’s calming effects are due to specific flavonoids and their ability to increase production of the amino acid gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter and produces a sense of relaxation. In addition, experiments show passionflower has direct effects on the area of the brain that coordinates sleep.
I enjoy passionflower after a particularly stimulating and hectic day. Passionflower is a gentle sedative and common ingredient in many sleep blends. Although calming and quieting to the mind, it does not make you sleepy and is useful during the day when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Herbalist Matthew Wood, in his book the Earthwise Herbal, says this about passionflower:
Passionflower is one of the most important remedies for insomnia from over-stimulation of the mind, excessive thinking, and chatter in the brain.
Does this sound like you? Perhaps passionflower is your herb.
5. Valerian – Valeriana officinalis
Valerian has a long history of use for treating “nervous conditions”. Valerian is a relaxing nervine, sedative, and anti-spasmodic and has chemical constituents that relieve muscle tension as well as pain.
Valerian is my favorite herb when I have difficulty falling asleep. Even on the nights when I take my valerian and still don’t sleep well (my six-year old is quite restless!), I enjoy a pleasant sense of well-being the next morning.
As I mentioned before, not every plant is right for every person, and valerian is definitely an herb you either love or hate. For most, valerian is a relaxing sedative, and works on both the nervous system and relaxes the muscles. But for some people, valerian produces the opposite effect and can increase alertness and agitation.
Because valerian has sedative effects, it is best taken 30 to 60 minutes before bed-time, and valerian makes an excellent addition to your sleep routine.
Dosing varies, depending on your response. I suggest starting with the smallest dose, and experimenting. Valerian has a strong and distinctive odor, and is difficult to take as a tea or infusion. We use capsules of the dried root, either as a single ingredient, or combined with other herbs.
Sleep is as essential to good health as diet, exercise, clean air and water. Humans cannot live without sleep, and even small disturbances can create havoc on our physical and emotional health.
Herbs are a wonderful way to improve our sleep – they are gentle, non-addictive, work with our bodies, and offer many benefits as well as a good night’s sleep.
But simply taking herbs to help us sleep is not enough – we need to explore the causes for our sleep problems. Do we have an underlying imbalance or disease process that needs addressing? Perhaps we need to examine our lifestyle and situations that are interfering with our ability to experience deep, restful sleep?
The herbs are one tool to aid us as we work on our health and our lives, and even small improvements in sleep can help us find the clarity and perseverance we need to make changes.