Essential Herbs For Sleep | Get A Good Night’s Rest

Sleep is vital for our health and immunity, so when you find yourself waking up during the night or struggling to drift off, it can significantly affect your day-to-day life. Around one-third of Australians experience insomnia at some point in their lives. But what is insomnia, what causes it and what are some herbs for sleep that can help you wake up refreshed and ready for a new day?

What is insomnia?

You could be suffering from insomnia if you:

  • have difficulty falling asleep
  • wake up often during the night
  • have trouble going back to sleep
  • wake too early in the morning
  • feel tired when you wake up

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be due to various issues, including the stress hormone cortisol. And while cortisol is essential for daily functioning, an imbalance can cause havoc in our bodies. It tends to be high in the morning and should dampen down during the day, making way for the sleep hormone melatonin in the evening. Sometimes problems arise when cortisol is elevated in the evening, causing unwanted energy.

Other causes of insomnia include an irregular sleep schedule, physical illness and pain, poor sleeping habits, neurological problems, specific sleep disorders and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

How can herbs help me sleep?

Herbs can promote sleep by resolving some of the leading causes of sleep deprivation. Stress affects the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a chemical that allows nerve impulses to travel from one cell to another. Increasing serotonin levels offsets this chemical imbalance. Herbs can help compensate for this loss, particularly those high in tryptophan, an amino acid improving the synthesis of serotonin. Some work by reducing anxiety levels or supporting physiological changes, including slowing your heart rate or relaxing your muscles.

How do I use herbs for sleep?

Though natural herbs are safe and don’t usually have side effects, we recommend checking with your doctor before you start using them. Here are different ways to use herbs to promote sleep. Different herbs can also be used in different ways — some are safe to ingest as teas, others can be used topically and most of them can be added to a warm bath or put in a diffuser. Make sure you check before using a herb what method is safest and best to help you sleep better.

Herbal teas

Tea ceremonies date back to feudal times, and creating your own tea-making ritual before bed can help you prepare for sleep. Whether you choose a tea bag or loose leaves in a pot, you should freshly boil the water to ensure the taste and the health-giving properties are enhanced.

Herbal teas made from flowers and leaves should be steeped for five minutes. If the tea contains roots and berries, steep for at least ten minutes to allow the boiling water to soften the harder parts of the herb, gradually penetrating the fibres and extracting the plant’s flavours and medicinal properties. Ideally, you should drink herbal teas warm or at room temperature — not boiling hot — as the flavour of the herbs is enhanced at lower temperatures.

Aromatherapy

Humans have been using aromatherapy for thousands of years, and it is a holistic healing treatment that uses natural plant extracts to promote health and wellbeing. You can read more about the full list of aromatherapy benefits here.

In terms of using aromatherapy for sleep, it depends on the herb. However, various methods of use include adding a few drops of essential oil into a warm bath before bed and inhaling the fragrance through aromatherapy candles or a vaporiser.

Massage

Many essential oils can cause skin irritation if applied directly, so carrier oils play a key role in releasing an essential oil’s properties onto your skin. Mild carrier oils include black seed oil, argan oil, jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, rosehip oil, olive oil and coconut oil. Massage into your skin yourself, or even better, have a late afternoon professional massage to up the relaxation ante!

Supplements

Many herbs are available over the counter at chemists or health food stores, often in the form of supplements, powders or in liquid form.

What are the best herbs to help sleep?

Aromatherapy educator, Salvatore Battaglia, lists a number of herbs to help sleep in his book, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. It is one of the best aromatherapy books for boosting your health and wellbeing.

Some of them are included below:

Lemon balm

Also known as Melissa officinalis, this herb is a perennial herbaceous plant in the mint family. In its oil form, it is pale-yellow or pale-amber-coloured with an intensely fresh and sweet citrus and herbaceous odour. It can be used to aid digestion and to reduce the overstimulation of the nervous system that can cause anxiety, stress and depression. For the relief of insomnia, consider blending lemon balm oil with other essential oils like lavender, sandalwood, Roman chamomile, neroli or sweet marjoram. Lemon balm leaves also make a lovely herbal tea. Simply place a few fresh sprigs at the bottom of your favourite cup and pour boiling water over them to extract their flavour.

Clary sage

Clary SageSalvia sclarea is a biennial perennial native to the northern Mediterranean Basin and some areas in Central Asia and North Africa. It has a long history as a herb and is currently grown mainly for its essential oil. It promotes relaxation and calm and has a mild euphoric effect. It is highly recommended for anxiety and nervous and emotional tension. Its green scent promotes calm, and its sweet scent fosters emotional stability. To relieve insomnia, consider blending clary sage oil with essential oils such as sweet orange, bergamot, lavender, neroli or ylang ylang and diffuse in the air with an oil burner. When vaporised, it can also help fight bacteria in the air.

Vetiver

From the family Poaceae (Gramineae), vetiver essential oil is also called Khus oil and is extracted from a grass native to India. It is in the same family as other grasses used for their essential oils, including lemongrass and citronella. It has a fragrant, distinctly sharp and earthy scent that is reminiscent of roots and wet soil. It is relaxing and beneficial for those suffering from anxiety, stress and insomnia, and some studies show it can also help improve breathing patterns during sleep. Consider blending with essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, neroli, sandalwood, patchouli or ylang-ylang in a vaporiser, dilute with a carrier oil or add a few drops to a warm bath.

Rose

The rose comes from a large family of over 3000 species from the family Rosaceae. The three varieties commonly used for rose oil production are Damask rose from Rosa damascena and Cabbage or May rose produced from Rosa centifolia and Rosa gallica. Rose oil may be used as a sedative for the nerves and is useful for treating irritability, anxiety and insomnia. To alleviate stress, consider blending Rose Absolute or Rose Otto with a carrier oil and other essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, geranium, mandarin, vetiver or patchouli. It should be diluted whether you plan to use it on your skin or inhale it. Make a rose bath oil by combining it with a carrier oil, or dab the mixture lightly on your neck, chest and wrists.

Lavender

LavenderFrom the Lamiaceae family, lavender’s relaxing effects have sedative, calming and anti-depressive qualities that may help you sleep better. Studies have shown that it reduces anxiety levels and stress and promotes a positive mood, whether inhaled or applied topically in combination with a carrier oil. Inhaling lavender-infused essential oils can also help reduce the severity of migraine pain, so it may help sufferers sleep through the night. Or brew some fresh or dried lavender buds in some hot water as a before-bed herbal tea.

Chamomile flower

The common name for several daisy-like plants of the family Asteraceae, two of the species Matricaria recutita and Anthemis nobilis are commonly used to make herbal infusions for traditional medicine. The oils in this plant can help calm our “fight or flight” nervous system and improve sleep quality. Chamomile flowers also contain an antioxidant called apigenin, which is said to help calm an anxious mind. Additionally, chamomile tea, made from the dried flowers, has traditionally been used to ease digestive complaints linked to nervous conditions. The two common types used are German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile).

Nutmeg

Nutmeg is the seed or ground spice of several species of the genus Myristica. Myristica fragrans is a dark-leaved evergreen tree cultivated for two spices derived from its fruit — nutmeg from its seed, and mace from the seed covering. It is a warming spice that’s not just for cooking! It has a reputation for its settling and calming properties in both traditional Indonesian herbal medicine and Western herbal medicine. It is said to help you fall asleep as well as stay asleep for longer. According to Ayurveda, drinking a glass full of milk with a dash of nutmeg can also help you slip into a blissful sleep.

Cinnamon

CinnamonAnother herb from the pantry that may help with sleep is cinnamon. Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. It provides a gently calming effect (especially in a warm glass of milk) by relaxing your muscles and removing tension from your body. It also helps improve blood sugar levels. Sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels which can cause increased rates of insulin resistance — the leading cause of type 2 diabetes. Cinnamon is said to prevent this insulin resistance. Plus, it has also been said to improve digestion which can often keep some people awake at night.

California poppy

This bright orange flower has many medicinal benefits for both anxiety and sleep. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a member of the Papaveraceae family. The plant parts used in herbal medicine are the aerial parts — the poppy’s milky sap contains alkaloids that exert their beneficial effects. Alkaloids are organic nitrogen-containing compounds that are usually bitter tasting, and generally have an effect on the nervous system. California poppy contains isoquinoline alkaloids, which are an extensive class of medicinally active alkaloids. They act as a mild sedative, promoting a calm state that can induce sleep. This plant can be used topically for pain relief or infused in a tea, but take note! It does taste bitter.

Eschscholzia californica is not to be confused with opium poppy. Opium poppy, otherwise known as Papaver somniferum, is the plant used to manufacture pharmaceutical products such as morphine and codeine. Although it stems from the same family, California poppy does not exhibit the same effects as the opium kind due to the difference in alkaloids. In fact, it is very gentle and can safely be used for sleep issues. It also helps with pain relief, anxiety and involuntary muscle spasms.

Skullcap

A native American plant from the mint family, skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora is a medicinal herb and various parts of skullcaps, such as their leaves and roots, have been used in Native American and traditional Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments, including nervous conditions such as stress, anxiety and insomnia. Skullcap extracts contain large amounts of flavonoids, including baicalin and scutellarin, which give the herb its sedative and antispasmodic properties. It helps induce sleep and reduces nervous headaches without side effects. Skullcap is typically available in capsules, powders and liquid extracts. Dried parts of the plant, such as its leaves, can be used to brew tea.

Holy basil

Holy BasilNative to the Indian subcontinent, Holy Basil is an aromatic perennial plant from the family Lamiaceae. It has been used in medicine for hundreds of years to improve a variety of health conditions, including nausea, bronchitis and skin irritations. But it is also a powerful herb for combating sleep disorders, primarily by easing anxiety and reducing stress.

It contains adaptogens that our bodies use to naturally cope with and adapt to stress. Adaptogens promote a balanced mental state, preventing stressors from hindering sleep. Holy basil has also been shown to alleviate aches and discomfort, so if you struggle to get a good sleep because of back pain, holy basil may be an ideal option for you. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend drinking holy basil as tea using the leaves.

St. John’s wort

The yellow flowers of this plant (Hypericaceae) are rich in tryptophan, which boosts serotonin synthesis. Serotonin reduces the symptoms of depression, which can help with a good night’s sleep. It has long been used to support the reduction of mental health conditions and the chemicals hypericin and hyperforin are thought to be responsible for St John wort’s mood-enhancing qualities. These chemicals increase the activity of the brain’s “feel-good” messengers, which play a crucial role in balancing mood and emotions. St. John's wort is most often taken in liquid or capsules. The dried herb may also be used as a tea.

Wild lettuce

Lactuca virosa is grown in various parts of the world, including Austria, Iran, Germany, France and Scotland. When scratched, the plant secretes a milky white substance known as lactucarium, which has analgesic and sedative properties. It may soothe nerves, alleviate pain, and relieve symptoms of mild insomnia. It is often called Bitter Lettuce, and is a common ingredient in homoeopathic sleep remedies for children as it has minimal side effects. Steeping the fresh or dried leaf in hot water as an infusion will reduce its concentration.

Passionflower

This exotic-looking plant from the genus family Passifloraceae has long been used for its sedative effects by Native American Indians. Several clinical studies support its use in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. Its properties are attributed to a compound called chrysin (a type of bioflavonoid), which binds to receptors in the brain. It acts in a similar fashion as GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), an important neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for calming nervous activity and inducing relaxation. Passionflower is typically available as tablets, capsules and liquid extracts or the dried plant used to make herbal tea.

Hops

Hops

Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus, a member of the Cannabaceae family of plants. The flowers contain methylbutenol, a sleep-inducing chemical. In fact, in the early 1900s, physicians recommended patients use pillows with a sachet of powdered hops inside! The flowers taste bitter, though, so consider combining them with chamomile tea when brewing. Like passionflower, hops have been well researched and known to work by modulating GABA activity. In addition, hops can also affect melatonin and serotonin and other key molecules in the sleep cycle regulation, further contributing to its sedative action. And if you are thinking that hops in beer would do the trick as well, that’s not the case. Some research suggests that taking a combination of hops extract plus valerian extract at bedtime helps some people fall asleep faster.

Peppermint

Peppermint is a hybrid mint, a cross between watermint and spearmint. It is a natural muscle relaxant, which eases built-up tension in your body and prepares you for sleep. It is not a traditional sleep herb, however, it can enhance restfulness. Peppermint can ease symptoms of dust sensitivity and seasonal allergies, and also digestion, so if you suffer from any of these, diffusing some peppermint oil or having a cup of peppermint tea may help you sleep better.

Bergamot

Bergamot oil is extracted from the rinds of citrus fruit (Citrus bergamia) and is noted for its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It also reduces heart rate and blood pressure and prepares the body for sleep, in much the same way as ylang ylang and lavender oil do. An added benefit is that bergamot oil has been shown to reduce stressful thoughts, which is a common barrier to good rest. Put a few drops in an oil diffuser, breathe in deeply, and sleep will be with you before you know it.

Sandalwood

Sandalwood is a class of woods from trees in the genus Santalum. The woods are heavy, yellow, and fine-grained, and, unlike many other aromatic woods, they retain their fragrance for decades. Sandalwood oil is rich in scent, it has mood-balancing properties and few oils are as effective as sandalwood at promoting rest. While other oils may chase away troubling thoughts or slow your heart rate, sandalwood oil is unique in that it evens you out emotionally. It is ideal if you want to unwind and rest and great as an addition to an aromatherapy oil sleep blend.

Marjoram

MarjoramMarjoram is a cold-sensitive perennial herb or undershrub with sweet pine and citrus flavours. In some Middle Eastern countries, marjoram is synonymous with oregano, and the names sweet marjoram and knotted marjoram are used to distinguish it from other plants of the genus Origanum. Many essential oils will help you get to sleep, but marjoram oil will actually make you sleep for longer. The sweet fragrance can soothe you both mentally and physically and produce the kind of peaceful, deep sleep where you truly heal and recharge.

Eucalyptus Oil

Eucalyptus oil is the generic name for distilled oil from the leaf of Eucalyptus, a genus of the plant family Myrtaceae native to Australia and cultivated worldwide. Eucalyptus oil combines a naturally relaxing aroma with potent sinus-clearing properties similar to peppermint oil. If you suffer from excessive phlegm production when you get prone to sleep, eucalyptus oil provides the dual benefit of relaxing you and relieving your congestion so that you can get the good night's sleep that you need. Just add a few drops to a diffuser or a bowl of warm water and inhale deeply.

Valerian

Valeriana officinalis is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe and Asia and has been used for thousands of years. It is one of the recommended herbs for sleep apnea, insomnia and nervous tension. In fact, it is often called nature’s valium! Studies have shown that it improves sleep quality, increases the speed of falling asleep and encourages deep sleep. Valerenic acid in the valerian roots inhibits the breakdown of the neurotransmitter GABA, which induces a better quality sleep. Valerian is typically available as an extract in a powder or liquid form or as a dried herb in tea form.

Ashwagandha

Withania somnifera is a tonic root used to help the body under long-term stress and is popular as one of the adaptogenic herbs for sleep. It improves energy by relaxing neurotransmitter systems and protecting brain cells from damage. As stress is a huge factor in raising cortisol levels, helping to keep stress under control is a huge factor in boosting sleep quality. The fundamental sleep-promoting compounds of Ashwagandha are found in the leaves of this plant — triethylene glycol works to eliminate feelings of stress or anxiety, induce calmness, and help you fall asleep easily. Ashwagandha ultimately acts as a sedative, so it’s a great alternative to anxiety medications since it works with your body to bolster sleeping habits naturally. This herb is most commonly taken in supplement form.

References

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