Herbal Strategies for Restful Sleep
We sure get a lot of questions about sleep here at Ask the Herbalists. Alice is very interested in herbal knowledge to improve sleep quality and she would also like to work with herbs to balance her body chemistry.
We can work with herbs in a few ways to promote sleep, support our natural rhythms, and address problems that affect sleep. When designing an herbal protocol for sleep support I usually include a daytime formula and a nighttime formula, and include herbs that:
Are relaxing to the nervous system
Normalize stress response
Directly promote sleep
Ease digestive upset, if needed
Herbs and Herbal Actions
Herbs that are relaxing to the nervous system are called nervines and many of these also ease digestive upset. These herbs can be taken during day and at night.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) A gentle and powerful herb, catnip soothes tension and anxiety and is profoundly relaxing. It can be particularly helpful if falling asleep is problematic. Catnip improves digestion by stimulating secretions throughout the digestive system and while it soothes digestive upsets generally, it excels at relieving upper GI upsets like rumbling tummy and heartburn.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) Another gentle, yet powerful medicine, chamomile should not be underestimated. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep because of stress or anxiety, consider chamomile. Chamomile helps ease a restless mind, soothes frazzled nerves, eases anxiety and tension, and is outstanding for digestive upset caused by stress and tension. Take chamomile by itself or blended with other nervines during the day and at night blended with other nervines and hypnotics.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) Skullcap is one of our go-to nerve tonics. It excels at easing anxiety and quieting the chattering mind, especially if it is interfering with sleep. It is specifically called for if stress has led to a “short fuse”. Skullcap can be taken during the day and can also be combined with hypnotics and other nervines at night to promote sleep when it is being prevented by anxiety and restless thoughts.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) Lemon balm brings a bright, sunny energy and is uplifting to the mood. It is perfect where there is anxiety accompanied by irritability or mild depression. Lemon balm is also soothing to an upset stomach and is specifically called for when anxiety and tension cause digestive upset.
Herbs that normalize stress response are called adaptogens. Two of my favorites to work with when restful sleep is problematic are ashwaganda and holy basil.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) Ashwaganda is one of the main rasayanas of Ayurvedic tradition, a rasayana being a substance that builds vitality. The name, ashwaganda, translates as “having the strength of one hundred horses” and its species name somnifera is Latin for “to induce sleep”. In addition to its adaptogenic qualities, ashawaganda is also an excellent nervine, and is considered a specific for the “wired and tired profile” where one is exhausted but too wound up to rest.
Holy Basil (Occinum sanctum) - Holy Basil has been revered in India for thousands of years and working with it regularly is thought to bring purity of spirit, longevity and vibrant health. In contemporary clinical practice, holy basil is valued for its ability to enhance memory and mental clarity, and for its relaxing effects, which help to reduce anxiety and feelings of stress. We also work with holy basil to help move through grief in a healthy way, when a lack of motivation is holding us back, and when we’re working on changing our habits.
A subset of nervines that directly promote sleep are called hypnotics. These should only be taken when sleep or rest is desired.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) Passionflower is a nervine as well as a moderate-strength hypnotic and antispasmodic. It is perfect when muscle tension is present and where there is anxiety-induced restless mind interfering with sleep. Passionflower can be taken as tea or tincture. As part of a sleep protocol it is usually taken as tincture.
Hops (Humulus lupus) Hops is strongly relaxing to the central nervous system and is a moderate to strong hypnotic. It is especially helpful when anxiety and worry lead to irritability, making it difficult to fall asleep. Hops is also relaxing to the digestive system when tightness, tension and constriction are present. Hops is also estrogenic, and sometimes helpful if menopausal symptoms interfere with sleep.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) Valerian is one of the most popular and well-known herbs for sleep, and for good reason - it is a very effective sedative for most people. For a small proportion of people valerian has the opposite effect and acts as a stimulant, it tends have this effect in people who run warm. Tincture of dried or fresh root are both effective. If valerian is stimulating to you, look for a tincture of the fresh root.
How to craft an herbal sleep protocol
For an herbal sleep protocol you'll want to design two formulas, one for daytime and one for bedtime. Consider the difficulties that are interfering with restful sleep. Is it anxiety and worry? Is it digestive discomfort? Is it muscle aches? Or some combination of these? Now consider the qualities of the herbs and choose 2 to 4 herbs that match up with the problems you're having. For the morning formula you'll want to include adaptogens, nervines, and digestive herbs if that's applicable. For the evening formula include nervines, digestives, and hypnotics. I like to formulate a tea for the daytime and a tincture for bedtime, but it doesn't have to be that way you can have a daytime tincture and you can have a night time tea if that works for you.
Herbs can help in our quest for restful sleep but it’s even more important to examine our routines and environment, you can find more guidance in this ATH post. If stress might be a factor check out This ATH post about strategies for stress and anxiety.
There are several great posts on this site related to sleep and there are gems of wisdom in each one. I encourage you to check them out. Just type sleep into the site search bar. You can also find additional information about the herbs mentioned in this post by typing the names into the site search bar.
Balancing Body Chemistry?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by balance body chemistry Alice, but a great choice for supporting overall health function is nettles (Urtica dioica). Nettle leaf has been used for centuries all over the world as a tonic and highly nutritive herb. Although most herbs are food-like to some extent, nettles is one of the most food-like and has been used as a deeply nourishing food and invigorating tonic for generations. nettle leaf is considered to have alterative and depurative action. This means that used regularly over time it will help bring the body back to optimal function, in part by supporting the body’s inherent detoxification and elimination processes. You’ll find a recipe for an herbal infusion featuring nettles in this ATH post.
Hope this Helps Alice.
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Renata is a clinical herbalist with a private practice in Greenbelt, MD. She helps women build a solid foundation of wellness while working together to address their unique health concerns so they can live life with vibrance and vitality. She has a BS in Chemistry from University of Maryland, a MS in Therapeutic Herbalism, and a Post Masters Certificate in Clinical Herbalism from Maryland University of Integrative Health. Find her at renalynn.com and on Facebook @renatalynnclinicalherbalist