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Sleep promoting herbs

Updated on January 6, 2018

Herbs that interact with the nervous system are called Nervines, and those that have Sedative properties help the nervous system to relax. Some Nervines are even considered to have Hypnotic properties, which has nothing to do with hypnosis but in herbal jargon indicates that they induce sleep, safely and without addictive side-effects. Sedative Nervine herbs that have proven over the years to be highly effective for inducing relaxation and helping overcome insomnia Black Cohosh, Black Haw, California Poppy, Cramp Bark, Jamaican Dogwood, Lady's Slipper, Lime (or Linden) Blossom, Mistletoe, Rosemary and St. John's Wort.

For our purposes, we will concentrate on some Nervines that are considered generally safe and highly effective for most people under most circumstances, and most of which are generally easy to grow, such as (bold)Catnip, Chamomile, Hops, Lemon Balm, Oat Seed, Passion Flower, and Valarian, and Scullcap.(end bold) These can be used individually in preparing an herb tea, which would then be identified as a "simple", or combined. In any event, either individually or in combination, a conservative dose would be 1 teaspoon of dried herb or 2 to 3 teaspoons of fresh herb per cup of boiled water.

To most herbalists, using herbs as remedies generally means using herbs in a tea, also called tisanes. Although you can purchase herbs in health food stores in capsule or tincture forms, and these are certainly simple to use and often the best method in terms of time and energy-efficiency, everybody interested in herb therapy is encouraged to try a cup of herb tea. Making an herbal tea is often the first choice of herbalists for many reasons:

  • Water is usually readily available and is sterilized by boiling.
  • The act of making and drinking tea is therapeutic in itself and promotes quiet, focused, meditative attention.
  • The heated water extracts the plants therapeutic ingredients efficiently and effectively.
  • Total digestion-effectiveness occurs, because the digestion begins with the enzymes in the mouth, as it should, as opposed to further down in the digestive system, as when taking tablets or capsules. This allows the body to gain the fullest effect of the herb in the digestive system. Furthermore, it eliminates the possibility, in the event that the capsule doesn't dissolve within the digestive tract and is eliminated, that the medicinal power of the herb(s) is lost.
  • Tea can often be digested when other foods won't stay down.

Herb teas can also be purchased in tea bags, containing either single herbs or mixed sedating herbs, in health food stores or supermarkets or from reliable herb mail order catalogs.

The nervines

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) has long been a favored herb for digestive and sleep disorders and was often the herb of choice that Appalachian grandmas inevitably gave their families for problems which they didn't deem serious enough to call the doctor. Catnip, the same herb that functions as an aphrodisiac for cats, contains mild tranquilizing and sedative chemicals that work with wonderful and gentle harmony on the human nervous system, and it is also a perennial, similar in appearance to Lemon Balm, that is happy to grow in Long Island gardens with great ease and little attention.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) probably needs no introduction as a Nervine, as it has been recognized for its sedative properties for centuries, although it wasn't until recently that its effectiveness was proven scientifically because of its compound known as Apigenin, which has been proven to be one of the most highly effective natural sedatives. Chamomile, which is also easily grown in residential gardens, is an herb whose aerial parts, flowers and leaves, are often recommended even for weakened conditions and children.

Hops (Humulus lupulus) The same plant used as a popular ingredient in beer, has been used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and restlessness for over a thousand years, according to many sources, due to its sedative compound called methyl-butenol which has the ability to relax the central nervous system, and, according to James A. Duke, Ph.D. ethnobotanist, in his book The Green Pharmacy, makes a "pleasantly bitter-tasting tea."

Lemon Balm
(Melissa officinalis) has been endorsed, according to Duke, by Commission E, the German body of scientists that advises the German government as to the safety and effectiveness of medicinal herbs, " both a sedative and stomach soother, largely due to its chemicals known as terpenes. Lemon Balm is another shrubby plant with very aromatic volatile oils that is easily grown in many Long Island backyards, and its leaves are also often recommended for relaxing even those people with weakened conditions and/or young children.

Oatseed or Oatstraw (Avena sativa) The oat stalk and its unripe fruit is, according to Master Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, in Herbal Healing for Women, "rich in calcium and magnesium...recommended (even) during pregnancy for calming nervous stress and tension....(and) is a safe natural tonic herb for the nervous system." Not only is it excellent in a tea, but it is wonderful as a relaxant in bath water.

Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata) is recognized by practicing herbalists all over the world, including Commission E, as a safe, effective, mild sedative, and is included in at least forty over-the-counter sedative preparations in the United Kingdom, according to Duke, but because it is not recognized by the Food and Drug Administration here in the United States, it has been banned as an ingredient in over-the-counter sedative preparations. However, it is possible to buy the herb itself, and the flower, which can be grown in this part of the country as a winter-sensitive perennial vine, either fresh or dried, can be used in an herbal sedative tea.

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) Scullcap, another locally-grown herb which is so happy in Long Island soil that it can become invasive, gets it name from the tiny purple helmet-shaped flowers that covers its stems in late summer. High in calcium, potassium and magnesium, it, "...strengthens and quiets the entire nervous system while being essential non-toxic..." and, according to Lesley Tierra, "...can be combined with other Nervines...such as passion flower or valerian for a broader action." She states, "With chamomile it is a safe, daily Nervine."

Valarian Valeriana officinalis) The root of this herb, which is a lovely flowering perennial that does beautifully in Long Island gardens, is, "one of the best herbs for individuals with a ...nervous condition. It is tranquilizing, calming and sedating, thus relieving pain, cramps, spasms...nervous excitement, sleeplessness, and palpitations," according to Lesley Tierra in her excellent herbal primer, Herbs of Life. This herb however has a somewhat rank, earthy flavor, and many people prefer to take it in tincture form rather than in a tea. It should also be noted that it can cause palpitations in some people who are sensitive to it and that, as with some allopathic sedatives, can, on rare occasions, have an activating, rather than sedating effect.

Valerian and Scullcap, which have helped women reduce symptoms of p.m.s. and menstrual cramping for generations, are so helpful in combating insomnia without being addictive, that herbalists have been known to suggest keeping a tincture of one or the other, or a combination of both, on the nightable alongside a glass of water, to be taken in the middle of the night, if necessary. A few drops added to the water, according to the instructions on the bottle, often reduce anxiety and induce a deep, restful, healthy sleep. A tincture, available in health food stores, is a solution usually created by extracting and preserving the medicinal essence of an herb in an alcohol base. If you want to avoid ingesting the alcohol, you can evaporate it by adding the drops to boiled water, or look for tinctures made with vinegar or glycerine, or one in which the alcohol has been dissipated after the tincture was completed.

Unexpected herbs for insomnia

Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) It's always nice to know that an herb you are likely to have in your kitchen for culinary use also has medicinal properties. Not only do Cloves function as an "anodyne" meaning they can relieve pain when applied topically, but they makes a highly effective sleep-inducing tea, according to Lalitha Thomas in 10 Essential Herbs.

"Drinking a cup of Clove tea, while sitting in a Clove bath or Ginger bath can be a luxurious and relaxing prelude to a good night's sleep," she states, indicating that the blood-purifying properties of Cloves is especially helpful for sleeping when sleeplessness might be the result of toxic build-up in the system. It is the dried Clove buds, either whole or powdered, that would be used in a tea.

Cayenne (Capsicum annum) Another popular culinary herb, Cayenne, the cheery red hot chili pepper used in so many parts of the world to add pungency to cooked foods, is a remarkable medicinal herb that one might not think of using to combat insomnia. However, because it can be a healthy stimulant to both the circulatory system and the digestive system, many people find that it promotes relaxation and sleep by putting the system into better functioning balance, especially for those whose systems are chronically cool or cold. Duke indicates that Cayenne actually contains 8 sedative compounds.

To prepare a fine tonic that might help some people sleep and also ease arthritic pain and over-fatigue,

  • add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey
  • and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar
  • to 1/2 cup of pure water or unsweetened juice or herb tea,
  • and sprinkle in a few grains (start with a tiny amount, perhaps 10 grains visible to the eye) of raw cayenne powder.

    Sip slowly as you would the herb tea, 20 minutes before bedtime.

A little raw Cayenne powder, added to a tablespoonful of Olive Oil, with perhaps a drop or two of Rosemary Essential Oil, is usually effective, in addition, as an external massage to eliminate joint pain that may make sleeping difficult and/or twitchy legs or leg spasms.

In fact, Capsaicin, one of the medicinal compounds of Cayenne, is a primary ingredient in many over-the-counter ointments used to treat the pain of arthritis and other joint inflammation.

Herbs to consider if sleeplessness is the result of digestive disorder are

Ginger, which is the most powerful herb for eliminating nausea, and is easily ingested as either a tea or in the form of candied Ginger, and

Peppermint, which aids digestion and calms the stomach and can be taken as a tea or by adding a few drops of Peppermint Tincture or Extract (NOT Essential Oil which should NEVER be taken internally) to a little water.

Herbs that help with the restless night sweats of menopause include Black Cohosh and Sage.

Baths against insomnia

If we consider a bathtub as a giant teacup, then taking an herbal bath is really a way of immersing our entire bodies into the wonderful herbal infusion so that the vapors enter our bodies through the olfactory system and through the pores of our skin, which is actually our largest organ.

A good way to introduce the herbs into your bath is by tying about 1/4 cup of them into a bit of muslin or even a woman's knee-high stocking, and allowing the hot water to run over them. Or, if you've purchased relaxing herbs in teabag form, simply place two teabags into your bathtub.

The Nervine herbs we've already mentioned are the ones you would choose for your bath, and it is most pleasant to add dried rose petals or lavender blossoms to the package.

Aromatherapy against insomnia

Be aware that tinctures and essential oils are not the same thing. Essential oils are many times more potent than tinctures, and should never be taken internally. However, many people find relief from stress with the aromas of herbal essential oils because of the relaxing effect they have on the nervous system when inhaled or absorbed through the Herbal essential oils such as Lavender, Patchouli, Sandalwood, Chamomile, Marjoram, Basil, and Yang Yang are known for their relaxing capacity. A drop or two of Lavender and Rosemary Essential Oils, rubbed onto the temples or the back of the neck, often successfully relieve headaches, sometimes even migraines, that may be interfering with sleep.

Be cautious with using Essential Oil Aromatherapy if you are pregnant, as some of the volatile essential oils have been known to induce contractions and might therefore induce miscarriage. Some scents may promote hypertension or nausea in people with that tendency.

Herbal sleep pillows

Tying Nervine herbs in a bit of muslin and placing them near your head when you sleep is another tried-and-true method that has helped many people fall asleep more easily. Hops are almost always included in an Herbal sleep pillow, along with one's personal choice of the other Nervines. Although it is often nice to sprinkle a drop or two of a relaxing Essential Oil onto the muslin as well, it is not a good idea to sprinkle the aromatic Essential Oils directly onto your pillow because frequently during the night the aroma becomes too pervasive, and in that case, you will want to be able to remove it.

Relaxation through breathing therapy

Herbs are very gentle "energy forms", and they are most effective when we introduce them into as receptive a body as possible. Tossing a cup of herb tea or a capsule down our throats, the way we often do with Aspirins, as we continue to fret and stew over our problems, does not create the best environment for effective results.

Probably, the most efficient and effective way to quiet the mind and ease the body's tension is to focus on our breathing. Breathing generally consists of an exhale which transmits air out of our bodies, followed by a rest period, and an inhale which moves air into our bodies, also followed by a mini-rest, though shorter than after the exhale.

Generally speaking, we are doing the "breathing work" as we inhale, and experiencing the breathing relaxation as we exhale. I find, both for myself and my clients, that focusing on the exhale rather than the inhale often relieves stress immediately. I suggest exhaling slowly and gently, as long as it feels comfortable, all the while reminding ourselves to Relax, Release, Release, Relax by repeating those words throughout the exhale. Then enjoy the pause, and just let the inhale happen, gently and slowly, focusing your attention on your tummy expanding, rather than the chest. Enjoy the slight pause and repeat. This is a good thing to do just before going to bed, seated comfortably in a chair or in a favorite meditation position or even in the bed, followed by slow, gentle sipping of your tea, which can be prepared earlier and kept in a thermos beside the bed.

A wonderful sleep-time breathing strategy is to focus first on the soles of your feet, imagining that you are drawing the air up from the ground, through your feet and into your tummy as you gently inhale. Hold that breath and then exhale easily, repeating, "Release, Relax, Relax, Release" until the breath is gone. After the pause, repeat the same procedure.

Then, imagining that above your head is a magnificent healing, balancing and relaxing Soul Star, meant just for you. Gently and slowly inhale a white stream of that Soul Star down into the tummy, expanding it into the chest and throat. Hold that breath/energy, and again exhale slowly and thoroughly, saying in your mind, "Release, Relax, Relax, Release," and repeat.

And Finally, one last focused breath as you inhale and imagine that you are drawing a white stream of the Soul Star energy all around you, down your left side, under your feet, up your right side and over your head. Pause and as you gently exhale, feel the space all around you filled with that stream of Universal protection and support. Allow yourself to glide into sleep knowing that you are safe.

Relaxation through sound therapy

Sound itself is vibrating energy, which is why repeating a mantra, either silently or aloud, is often so helpful in releasing mental chatter and accessing relaxation. Certain specific sounds are in vibrational harmony, according to Laeh Maggie Garfield, in her book Sound Medicine, with various parts of the human body.

The sound Eee is the sound that is believed to vibrate in closest harmony with the top of our heads, or, in Yogic tradition, the Crown Chakra. It is the sound most likely to help us fall asleep. Perhaps that is why it is used in words such as Sweet Dreams, Easy Breathing, Deep Sleep, and Be at Peace.

Once you are settled in bed, and the lights are out, and you've sipped your tea and practiced the breathing exercise mentioned above, you might find it helpful to continue easy focused breathing, following your natural breathing pattern. Select one or more of the phrases above, and on each inhale, think the first word of the phrase until the inhale is completed, and on each exhale, say the second word of the phrase, until the exhale is completed, so that you might think the word "Deep" as you inhale and "Sleep" as you exhale, repeating that over and over again until you wake up in the morning to discover that you had fallen into a deep wonderful sleep and were now refreshed and rejuvenated!

Attend to yourself

Finally, in order to improve your sleep habits, make sure you are practicing normal good health habits during the day. Drink pure water. Get fresh air every day, deliberately noticing and enjoying the sunshine, the clouds, the birds, the snow, the rain. Get a reasonable dose of exercise. Cut down on alcohol and caffeine. Laugh when you're happy, cry when you're sad, and when you're angry, say so, even if just to your journal, so that your emotions find a way out of your system before bedtime.

Locking up emotional energy creates physical tension and nervous tension which is not conducive to sleep. Surround yourself, as much as possible, with happy, supportive people. Sing. Or if you absolutely can't sing, hum.

Recognize the good things that happen to you. Acknowledge them and express your appreciation, no matter how small or insignificant they seem, no matter how big your problems are. In other words, be your own best friend and caretaker. Insomnia and other stress-related conditions may be stubborn, but they can certainly be defeated, for your highest mind/body health. Maintain your sense of humor and your equilibrium, and enjoy Sweet Dreams, Easy Breathing, Deep Sleep. Peace.


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