Herbs and Natural Remedies for Insomnia

Sleep is one of the most deeply healing and revitalizing experiences known. When we can get enough restful sleep each night, the entire world looks brighter. Insomnia is a lack of healthful, restful sleep and is a common problem experienced by as many as 20% to 30% of American adults at various times in their lives. Statistics report a fifth of American adults and half of American seniors have difficulty falling asleep on any given night (Reiter and Robinson, 1995). The most prevalent sleeping disorder is chronic insomnia, which is experienced by 15% of adults.

Until recently (1993), when the US Congress mandated a National Center on Sleep Disorders, insomnia was not considered a significant or disabling medical condition. Today, it is recognized as a disease which is produced by a wide variety of causative factors, including emotional disorders and upset, physical imbalances, age, environmental factors, and a genetic component.

During my years of clinical experience as a practicing herbalist, I have worked with many patients suffering from sleep disorders most of whom have a lifestyle and/or emotional component accompanying their illness. These might include the loss of a loved one or a divorce, loud unaccustomed noises during the night such as barking dogs or sirens, biological rhythm upsets such as changing one’s working schedule to the night shift, or stimulating drugs like coffee or amphetamines, all of which contribute to and intensify insomnia.

Insomnia can be based on or aggravated by a neurotransmitter imbalance. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow nerve impulses to travel from one nerve cell to another, and include serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA, and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Sleep disorders and such symptoms as depression are especially linked with an imbalance in the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is manufactured by the body from the amino acid tryptophan. Herbs and foods high in tryptophan that help restore proper serotonin levels in the brain are St. John’s wort, quinoa, spirulina, and soy products.

Holistic treatment for insomnia is multifaceted and incorporates many techniques including herbal medicine, vitamin and mineral supplements, lifestyle changes, improved sleep hygiene, massage therapy, behavioral therapy, meditation, diet, exercise, hypnosis, acupuncture, relaxation, guided imagery, and homeopathy. A treatment approach is aimed at precluding all the potential causes of insomnia rather than simply providing symptomatic relief. Table 1 reviews some important practical ways to improve sleep.

Sleep Hygiene

Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Arise at a specific hour each morning, regardless of the previous night’s sleep to help set your biological clock. To consolidate and deepen sleep, restrict the amount of sleep to only as much as needed to feel refreshed during the following day. Exercising regularly helps deepen sleep; however, strenuous exercise should be completed three-four hours before going to bed. Arrange the bedroom so that it is a comfortable setting. Insulate it against sound and light by using carpets and curtains; ear plugs and eye masks may be helpful.

Keep the room at a cool to moderate temperature. Excessive heat disturbs sleep.

Avoid liquids before going to sleep to minimize nighttime trips to the bathroom. If liquids are not a problem, try drinking a small hot beverage (dairy, rice, or soy milk) at bedtime.

Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated beverages (especially in the evening). Note: Although alcohol may help a person fall asleep, it causes subsequent sleep to be fragmented.

As far as possible, work out family or job related problems before going to sleep.

Use the bedroom for sleeping and sexual activity only. If you can’t fall asleep, don’t get angry at yourself; get up, leave the room, and engage in another activity like reading or stretching. Hide the clock if you find yourself waking up to see the time. Avoid napping longer than one-hour or after four pm. Turn off the telephone. Try a relaxation technique, such as, biofeedback, meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, or massage to prepare the mind and body for sleep.
(Adapted from Rakel, 1996)

Some of the major herbs for insomnia are discussed below.

Herbs for Insomnia

The following herbs can be used during the day, or try using 20-30 minutes before bedtime.

Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis): Chamomile is a time-honored sedative herb which can be safely used by children and adults alike. Chamomile tea is commonly used in Europe, South America, and Mexico for insomnia and restlessness combined with irritability, particularly in children. Chamomile oil can also be put in bath water (5-6 drops) to soothe overwrought nerves, diluted to 2% to make an excellent massage oil, or used as an inhalant.

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 2-3 x daily; Tincture, 30 drops 3 x daily.

Hops (Humulus lupulus): In the early 1900s, Eclectic physicians used hops as a sedative specifically for insomnia due to worry or nerve weakness (Bell, 1925; Ellingwood, 1983). Hops, a major flavoring component of beer, has a long history of use for sleeplessness, nervousness, and restlessness. Hops pillows are sometimes used for mild insomnia.

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 2-3 x daily; Tincture, 30-40 drops 2-3 x daily.

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis):

Lavender is a gentle strengthening tonic for the nervous system. A few drops of lavender oil added to a bath before bedtime are recommended for persons with sleep disorders. Additionally, the oil may be used as a compress or massage oil or simply inhaled to alleviate insomnia.

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 2-3 x daily; Essential oil–oil may be inhaled, massaged into the skin (use 10 drops essential oil per ounce of vegetable oil), or added to baths (3-10 drops).

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata):

Herbalists consider passion flower an important herb for insomnia caused by mental worry, overwork, or nervous exhaustion. In England it is an ingredient in forty different commonly-sold sedative preparations. Passion flower is used for minor sleep problems in both children and adults (Bruneton, 1995). It is an excellent sedative with no side effects even when used in large doses (Spaick, 1978).

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 3 x daily; Tincture, 30-60 drops 3-4 x daily.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis):

In the United States, herbalists use valerian extensively for its sedative action against insomnia, nervousness, and restlessness. It is recommended for those type of people who have a hard time falling asleep, because it shortens sleep latency. It also reduces nighttime waking. Valerian is an excellent herbal sedative that has none of the negative side effects of Valium and other synthetic sedatives. It works well in combination with other sedative herbs, such as California poppy, skullcap, hops, and passion flower.

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup as needed; Tincture, 2-5 droppersful 2-3 x daily.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa):

Wild lettuce is a mild sedative and nervine used for restlessness and insomnia. It may be found in a variety of formulas for the treatment of acute and chronic insomnia. It is used homeopathically for restlessness and insomnia (Boericke, 1927). Because of its safety of use and calming effects, wild lettuce is a good children’s remedy.

  • Dose: Tincture, 2-3 drpfls 3-4 x daily.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica):

California poppy is my favorite sedative and sleep-promoting herb which can currently be found in a variety of herbal remedies sold in the United States for promoting sleep, helping one to relax, and easing mild anxiety. Because of its mild sedative and analgesic properties, it can be given safely to children. Clinical and laboratory work on California poppy has clearly demonstrated the plant’s sedative and anti-anxiety properties; it has been shown to improve both sleep latency and quality (Bruneton, 1995).

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 2-3 x daily; Tincture, 30-40 drops 2-3 x daily.
  • Note: Since the tea is mild, a tincture is recommended when a stronger dose is desired.

Kava kava (Piper methysticum):

Kava is the national drink of Fiji and is popular throughout the South Seas. It imparts a calm feeling, relaxes the body, and sometimes enhances communication and dreaming. This sedative herb is often used for sleeplessness and fatigue.

  • Dose: Tea, 1 cup 2-3 x daily; Tincture, 3-4 droppersful 2-3 x daily.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum):

This common yellow-flowered weedy herb from Europe is quickly becoming an important part of modern herbal therapeutics. It has a long history of use dating back to ancient Greek times. Modern scientific studies show that it can help relieve chronic insomnia and mild depression when related to certain brain chemistry imbalances. Because this herb can sensitize the skin to sunlight, if you are taking a full dose, avoid direct skin exposure to bright sunlight.

  • Dose: Tincture, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon 2-3 x daily; powdered extract, 1-2 tablets or capsules 2-3 x daily. Allow 2-3 weeks for the full therapeutic effect to develop. If you experience light sensitivity or other unpleasant symptoms, reduce or discontinue the St. John’s wort and consult a qualified herbalist for a total program.

Melatonin:

Melatonin is a human hormone that is increasingly popular as a supplement to promote sound sleep, especially in people who travel between time zones or who work odd hours. People report mixed success with this product; some people find real benefit and others feel nothing from its use, while a smaller percentage of users experience side effects such as nervousness and increased insomnia. Whether you have benefited from the use of melatonin or not, one or more of the sleep hygiene tips, as well as safe and natural herbs and formulas covered in this article are likely to help you get a deep refreshing sleep, without side effects.

Herbal Formulas for Insomnia

A Calming Tea Blend:

  • Linden flowers (1 part)
  • Hawthorn flowers & leaves (1 part)
  • Chamomile (2 parts)
  • Catnip (1 part)
  • Lemon balm (1 part)
  • Wintergreen (1 part),
  • Stevia herb (1/8 part)

Bedtime Tea:

  • Valerian (30%)
  • Linden (20%)
  • Kava kava (20%)
  • Chamomile (20%)
  • Catnip (10%)

For either formula, blend the loose herbs, place in a quart jar for future use, and store out of the direct sunlight in a cool place. Use 1 tsp/cup to make a tea. Make 1 quart at a time, adding 1 extra tsp ‘for the pot.’ Add the herbs to boiled water and cover. Let steep for 20 minutes, strain and store in the quart jar in the refrigerator. This blend will keep for 3 days. Pour out 1 cup, warm it, and drink several times daily or before bedtime as needed.

A few drops of essential oil of lavender added to a foot bath or regular bath can have a nice, calming effect. Finally, sleep pillows made of equal parts of hops, lavender, and chamomile and bath salts containing relaxing essential oils both help promote sleep and are available in some health food stores

Bibliography

  • Bell, V.L. 1925. A Glossary of Indicated Remedies and Disease Names and Definitions. Cincinnati: Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists.
  • Boericke, W. 1927. Materia Medica with Repertory. 9th. Philadelphia: Boericke & Runyon.
  • Bruneton, J. 1995. Pharmacognosy Phytochemistry Medicinal Plants. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing.
  • Ellingwood, F. 1983. (1898). American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. Portland: Eclectic Medical Publications.
  • Rakel, R.E., ed. 1996. Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co.
  • Reiter, F. & J. Robinson. 1995. Your Body’s Natural Wonder Drug, Melatonin. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Spaich, W. 1978. Moderne Phytotherapie. Heidelberg: Karl F. Haug Verlag.