By Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator
Insomnia is incredibly common amongst my clients and Co-op customers, and my own sleep issues first brought me to herbs 15 years ago. Lack of – or poor quality – sleep makes everything else worse: stress, cardiovascular disease, immune function, reproductive hormone health, pain, mental health, and more. Certainly Americans don’t prioritize sleep, but just getting to bed earlier doesn’t always cut it. Once we’re in a bad sleep cycle, it’s difficult to break. Relaxing herbs can be extremely helpful to help reset things quickly and get us on a better track. However, it’s also important to work on underlying causes of insomnia for long-term success. That might mean addressing daily stress; unwinding in the evening (ie: not eating food, watching TV, or checking email within an hour or two of bedtime); sleeping in a dark, quiet environment; and eating a balanced, whole-foods diet so that your body can make healthy neurotransmitters. Most nights, reading a boring book at bedtime is enough to take my mind off other things and bores me to sleep. As you create a sleep-friendly lifestyle or when you need an extra hand, here are some herbs to try that might help you get a better night’s rest tonight. All of these herbs are available in the Co-op’s Health & Beauty aisles.
Valerian: This stinky root is the most famous sleep herb, hands down. Almost every herbal sleep formula contains it because it often works well to promote deep sleep, muscle relaxation, and an overall calming effect on the Central Nervous System. This is my go-to herb, and I keep a bottle of the tincture (the most effective way to take it) on my bedside table for nights when I feel too wound up or if I wake up in the middle of the night. That said, valerian really doesn’t work for everyone – some people find it makes them more jittery and others feel groggy or get weird dreams. It tends to work better for people with a cold constitution (cold hands and feet, thin body type, tendency towards anxiety) and worse for people with a hot constitution (always hot, larger body type, tendency towards anger and frustration). If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry – there are plenty of other calming herbs out there! And… for the record, valerian does not have any relationship with the drug Valium except that the names sound similar. Neither valerian nor the other herbs mentioned here are addictive, and they are generally extremely safe but should not be combined with anti-anxiety and other sedative drugs.
Passionflower, Skullcap & Lemon Balm: These three lesser-known relaxing herbs work very well for almost any body type to relax the nervous system, quell anxiety, and promote sleep. They’re mild tasting enough to take as tea (though much better with mint and honey added) and can also be taken as tinctures. Capsules are convenient but don’t always work as well. They’re generally very safe, but should not be combined with anti-anxiety and other sedative drugs. There have been issues with adulteration of skullcap, so only purchase this herb from reputable suppliers, preferably certified organic rather than wild-crafted or unspecified sources. You’ll often find these herbs in tea blends and sleep formulas at the Co-op, perhaps in combination with valerian and some of the many other great relaxing herbs out there. If you’re looking for a valerian-free formula, one of the best is Peaceful Nights by Herbal Energetics, made right up the road in Northfield, NH.
Rescue Remedy Sleep: Flower essences like Rescue Remedy Sleep are highly dilute flower remedies preserved in brandy and water, and only one to three drops are necessary. Because they are so dilute (much like homeopathic remedies) yet still very effective for many people, they’re perfect for children, pregnant women, and people who are taking medications. I make my own flower essences from herbs in my garden like valerian, lavender, and blue vervain, but the Bach Flower Essences are much more widely available in stores. Rescue Remedy Sleep combines the traditional anti-anxiety formula with White Chestnut, a flower essence used for thoughts that go circling around and around the brain.
Lavender Essential Oil: Just the scent of this popular herbs can help some people fall asleep. Try putting a few drops on a cloth and tucking it into your pillowcase.
For more details on sleep herbs, download my handout at here