sleep herbs

Linda B. White, M.D.

Most Americans don’t get enough sleep. In the National Sleep Foundation’s 2010 poll, the majority of people surveyed admitted they only slept well a few nights a week. Not unexpectedly, people were particularly likely to scrimp on sleep during the work week.

While sleep needs vary from person to person, most people need about eight hours a night. Your brain keeps track of the hours you miss, compelling you to sleep longer when you have the chance. Most of us work off at least part of this sleep debt on weekends. The downside is that a long sleep into Sunday afternoon interferes with the ability to fall asleep at a reasonable hour Sunday night. Then we drag out of bed early Monday morning and, all too often, power through the week on caffeine and sheer will.

Missing sleep makes us clumsy and stupid, raising the risk for errors and accidents. As sleep deprivation becomes chronic, the risk for all manner of maladies mounts. Irritability rises, concentration erodes, and the ability to manage stress falls. Appetite increases, the motivation to exercise dwindles, and we grow fat in the middle. The risk ratchets upward for diabetes, heart disease, and psychiatric problems. A lot of people who come to doctor complaining of low energy and vague malaise are sleep deprived and don’t know it.

If you want to feel better, the first step is to make sleep a priority – something you prioritize over work and socializing. Establish regular times to go to bed and awaken. Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening. Alcohol and tobacco interfere with sleep. Quit smoking if you can, and rein in the drinking. Make your bedroom a place where only sleep and sex happen. Pay your bills, work, argue, worry about tomorrow, and ruminate about yesterday (if you must) someplace else. You can also create relaxing bedtime routines – read, stretch, turn down the lights, take a warm bath, massage lotion into feet and hands (or swap massages with a loved one), consciously slow your breathing, or otherwise encourage body and mind to unwind and prepare for sleep.

Regardless of your favorite bedtime activity, you can make use of plant essential oils, highly concentrated extracts of a plant’s volatile and fragrant chemicals. Such a practice can be particularly valuable if insomnia thwarts sleep. Applied to the skin, these tiny, fat-soluble chemicals travel into the bloodstream. Once airborne, they communicate, via receptors in your nose, with your nervous system.

Choose essential oils that calm the nervous system and facilitate sleep. According to Kathi Keville and Mindy Green’s book “Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art,” apt choices to conquer insomnia include bergamot, chamomile, frankincense, rose geranium, jasmine, lavender, melissa (lemon balm), neroli, sandalwood, and ylang ylang. Choose pleasing scents that remind you of a relaxed state. For instance, I associate jasmine and ylang ylang with beach vacations, leading me to imagine myself lazily lying on warm sand, listening to sea gulls and waves.

Here’s how you use essential oils. If you have a diffuser, simply place a few drops of essential oil in the reservoir. You can add 2 to 3 drops per teaspoon of carrier oil or unscented lotion, or 10 to12 drops of essential oil per ounce. Carrier oils include apricot, almond, grape seed, jojoba or other good-quality oil. Halve the dilution for elderly people and pregnant women. For small children, use one third the adult formula. You can also add 10 to 15 drops of essential oil to a warm bath (again, halving the amount if elderly, pregnant, or very young). Frisk the water to disperse the oils before you step in. Note: Pregnant women should consult a text such as Keville and Green’s for the safest essential oils to use during pregnancy. Those listed in the above paragraph are in their safe list.

While you should not take essential oils internally (and should keep the bottles tightly capped and out of children’s reach), other herbal products can help tame troubled sleep.

According David Hoffmann, NIMH, author of Medical Herbalism and other books, the most effective sleep inducers are California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), hops (Humulus lupulus), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). He finds them particularly useful when pain interferes with sleep. I would add to that list the gentle yet palatable herbs chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), Valerian is the best-researched hypnotic (sleep-inducing) herb. While not all the studies have been positive, over 20 clinical trials show the root extracts hasten sleep onset and improves sleep quality, without side effects. Most studies used valerian alone, but a few also found benefits for valerian plus hops, lemon balm, or kava kava (Piper methysticum). Valerian has also compared favorably to the hypnotic drug oxazepam (Serax). Some research suggests that valerian may work better when taken several consecutive nights in a row.

Because of valerian’s musty smell and taste, many people prefer to take concentrated liquid extracts or capsules rather than teas.

California Poppy Plant

A half hour to an hour before bedtime, take one half to one teaspoon of tincture or 300 to 500 mg of a concentrated extract containing no less than 0.5% volatile oils. Note: Herbalists attest that a minority of people feel stimulated, rather than relaxed by valerian.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) has long been used as a gentle sedative. Laboratory studies show it reduces anxiety and induces sleep. If anxiety makes getting to sleep difficult, know that one study found that a French product called Sympathyl, which contains California poppy, hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), and magnesium, was safe and more effective than placebo in treating mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders. You can make your own sleep-inducing teas and tinctures.

Sleep-Welcoming Tea

In a jar, combine 3 parts chamomile flowers, 2 parts lemon balm leaves, 1 part skullcap leaves, 1 part passionflower leaves and flowers, ¼ part hops strobiles. Shake to blend.

Boil water and remove from heat. Add one tablespoon herb per cup of water to the pot, tea pot, or coffee press. Let steep 15 minutes. Strain. Sip two to three cups throughout the day. Stop drinking a two before bedtime so that a full bladder doesn’t interrupt your sleep.

Banish Insomnia Tincture

To a clean, dry quart jar add to following dried, finely chopped herbs: 1 part valerian root 1 part skullcap leaves 1 part passionflower leaves and flowers ¼ part hops strobiles

Leave a good three inches of room between the top of the herbs and the mouth of the jar.

Cover the herbs with an 80-to-100-proof spirit such as brandy or vodka. (An 80-proof brandy contains 40% alcohol; a100-proof vodka contains 50% alcohol.) Continue pouring until the liquid is a good two inches about the herbs. Shake well. Place in a dark cupboard. Shake the bottle daily. In 4 weeks (longer if you can wait), strain the liquid through cheesecloth. Wring out all the moisture from the plant matter, then discard. Pour the liquid (now a tincture) into clean bottles. Take a half teaspoon (2 1/2 dropperfuls) to one (5 dropperfuls) 30 to 60 minutes before bed. Repeat once or twice as needed.  More information on how to make a tincture can be found here.

Sweet dreams. If, despite your best efforts to get enough sleep, you continue to feel fatigued during the day, consult your health-care practitioner.

Bio: Linda B. White, M.D. is a freelance writer and an assistant professor in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at Metropolitan State College of Denver.