Herbs for Insomnia and Restlessness
Written and researched by Maria Burke
Sleep is essentially still one of the great mysteries of life. We still don't understand why we need sleep, but we know that good sleep is one of the cornerstones of health.
Research has shown that getting sufficient sleep is important for many reasons. For example, it improves our alertness and performance in our waking lives and increases our immune system function which helps us fight disease. Recent research show that cells in the brain shrink during sleep, allowing fluids to wash through and remove waste products that have been excreted by brain cells.
Lack of sleep can have far-reaching ramifications on our health. Although there doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast rule as to how long we must sleep, it's crucial to get enough to feel well rested. An average of 6 – 8 hours seems optimal for most adults.
Unfortunately this can seem like an unattainable goal for those of us who suffer from insomnia. The good news is, there are many practical things that you can do for yourself to ensure a good night's sleep.
In this article I will briefly address :
- Why and how insomnia occurs?
- Herbs that can help
- General practices to reduce the risk of sleeplessness
Why and how insomnia occurs?
Dr. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, explains that to understand why insomnia occurs, we need to understand that sleep is the outcome of two variables:
Sleepiness: The body has an internal clock called a circadian rhythm, helping us to sleep in the evening and wake in the morning. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in our brain that regulates this rhythm. Our pineal gland only produces melatonin in the hours of darkness and it's responsible for our feelings of sleepiness. When the sun rises, the pineal gland switches off and stops producing melatonin so we can feel refreshed and energised for the day ahead. Many people find a melatonin supplement beneficial for the cessation of their insomnia.
Noise: This can be defined as any kind of stimulation that inhibits or disrupts sleep. Naiman classifies it into:
- Mind – unstoppable thread of thoughts;
- Body – physical pain, residual caffeine, indigestion, side-effects of perscription drugs;
- Environmental – obvious noise, eg: house, lights, snoring partner, warm temperature, music.
In order to get a good night's sleep, we want our sleepiness level to be high, and the noise level to be low. If the "noise" level is conceptually greater than the level of sleepiness, you will not fall asleep. Excessive “noise” is usually the reason why we cannot sleep.
Identifying the root of your insomnia is the key to overcoming it. The herbs mentioned below tackle insomnia from different angles. See which one works best for you.
Please be mindful that some of these herbs may contraindicate with other perscription drugs. We recommend that you get advice from a health care practitioner before trying them out.
Herbs that can help
Passionflower is a safe, gentle and relaxing herb for sleep. They say it's the only sedative that allows you to wake up feeling fully refreshed in the mornings. This herb is wonderful for those who wake frequently throughout the night. It's also safe for children and those with compromised health. It can be taken in large doses and for long periods of time if necessary.
Valerian is one of the most commonly used herbs for insomnia. Studies have found that it improves the speed of falling asleep as well as the overall quality of sleep. It's particularly good for calming a racing and worried mind. Capsules are the easiest way to take it due to its rather unpleasant taste, although tinctures or spagyrics are also very effective. Take for up to 3 weeks, then alternate with another recommended herb. Please be aware that around 10% of people who take this natural sedative can feel the opposite effect. If you're one of these discontinue immediately.
Mulungu is a strong sedating herb (powdered.). It calms and sedates the nervous system to encourage deep sleep and healthy sleeping patterns. It has a long traditional use in Brazil as a natural sedative. It's also beneficial for mental disturbances such as depression, anxiety and stress. It's best taken about 20 mins before bedtime as many people feel its effects quite quickly. It may interfere with diabetic or blood thinning medications. Best to prepare 2-5 g of this root bark by simmering it for 15 mins.
Nightea is a popular powdered blend of mulungu and passionflower combined. These herbs compliment each other wonderfully for a great night's sleep.
When used as a tea before bed, California poppy promotes long and restful sleep. Native Americans used it for colic, sleeplessness and griping stomach pains. It is often used to counter excitability and nervousness in children. It's tincture form is the most powerful way to take it, and this wonderful herb can also be smoked for relaxation.
Pour 1 cup of water just off the boil onto 1-2 teaspoons of herb. Steep covered for 10 minutes. Drink as needed. It's important to use half doses for children.
Hops has a long and proven history of medical use as a fast acting nervine and sedative. The strongly bitter flavour largely accounts for its ability to strengthen and stimulate the digestion also. It's not suitable for children under 2 years or pregnant women due to natural steroids in the herb.
Research suggests that insomnia in the early hours of the morning tends to be linked to a spike in cortisol levels (hormone released by adrenal glands in response to stress). Ashwaganda is a remarkable herb that treats stress while supporting energy levels. Although it's not considered a sedative, it helps you get back to sleep if you're experiencing the morning cortisol/anxiety spike. 500mg a day will delay the release of cortisol as well as healing the effects of stress on the body. This herb should not be used in conjunction with prescription medications such as benzodiazepines or antidepressants, or by pregnant women.
General practises to reduce the risk of sleeplessness:
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the smallest bit of light in the room can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F ( 21 degrees C). Many people keep their bedrooms too warm. When you sleep, your body's internal temperature drops to its lowest level around four to six hours after you fall asleep. Scientists believe a cooler bedroom may be conducive to sleep, since it mimics your body's natural temperature drop.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. Electrical devices produce EMF's which can disrupt the pineal gland's production of melatonin. If you can't sleep the last thing you should do is stress yourself out checking the time!
- Reserve your bed for sleeping. Do not use your bed for any other tasks apart from sleeping and making love!
- Turn off all screens at least one hour before bed. Give yourself enough time to wind down before bed. TV and computer screens disrupt your pineal gland's function.
- Take a hot bath. When your body temperature is raised in the late evening, it will fall at bedtime, facilitating sleep. The temperature drop from getting out of the bath signals to your body that it's time for bed.
- Wear socks to bed or keep your feet warm with a hot water bottle. Feet often feel cold before the rest of the body because they have the poorest circulation. A study has shown that wearing socks to bed reduces night waking.