There are a variety of diverse sedative and calming herbs that have been gaining popularity as people begin to search for effective alternatives to sleeping pills. Many herbs that help you sleep work in similar ways to commercial sleeping pills, either by reducing anxiety, relaxing muscles and nerves, or sedating the central nervous system to promote drowsiness. However, herbal sleeping aids might have the edge over prescription sleeping pills in that herbs are generally safer and gentler in their effects, and won’t leave you groggy the next day.
Over 30 million Americans will have trouble getting to sleep sometime in their lives. For people plagued by insomnia or chronic low-quality sleep, turning to a sleeping medication can be an attractive quick fix. The trouble occurs when people try to stop using these sleep medications, or experience side effects as a result of their use. It’s well known that sleeping medications can be habit-forming, especially the tranquilizer class of benzodiazepines and barbiturates. This is partly because stopping their use can cause a rebound effect in which people experience persistent insomnia or a worsening of their insomnia symptoms. Sleeping pills can also cause a cavalcade of side effects, including dry mouth, dizziness, changes in appetite, constipation or diarrhea, headache, tenderness or pain in stomach regions, and burning or tingling sensations in the extremities (hands and feet). More troubling still, in a few people sleeping medications can even induce parasomnia disorders like sleepwalking and driving, sleep sex, and confusion upon emerging from sleep.
I’ve compiled a list of natural herbs that help you sleep without the accompanying raft of side effects or the risk of habituation that prescription sleep aids carry. While many if not all of the herbs below can also be effective dream potentiators (another reason why I like them), they’re most commonly used to help you get to sleep faster and enjoy a deeper, more restful quality of sleep.
Valerian: An herb native to Europe and parts of Northwest and Northern Asia, valerian has been used since Greek and Roman times to treat anxiety, stomachache, tension headache, heart palpitations, and of course as a sleep aid. Valerian is considered by many herbalists to be the most powerful natural treatment for insomnia: valerenic acids work on the same brain pathways as the synthetic tranquilizer phenobarbital to reduce anxiety and help people sleep, but valerian won’t impair your cognition or alertness the next day. Valerian shouldn’t be combined with other central nervous system depressant drugs or alcohol, or with medications metabolized by the liver. You should also check with a doctor before taking valerian if you’re taking any cold or sleep medications that contain the compounds diphenhydramine or doxylamine, and should refrain from driving after using valerian.
Passionflower: An anxiolytic and tranquilizing herb that has been used to treat anxiety, and to alleviate symptoms associated with drug withdrawal. Passionflower can be taken as a tea, tincture or in pill form; about a teaspoon of dried herbage boiled in 1 cup of water would be a standard adult dose. Researchers who’ve studied passionflower believe that it may act to increase the brain’s supply of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter with calming and anxiolytic effects. Due to its relaxing properties, passionflower can occasionally cause dizziness, impaired coordination, or confusion after taking it. Don’t take passionflower without consulting a doctor if you take blood thinners (it can cause a delay in blood clotting), medication classed as MAOI, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s also recommended that people avoid taking passionflower for two weeks leading up to an operation, as it can amplify the sedating effects of anesthetics.
Kava Kava: Best known as a tranquilizing and anxiolytic herb that people often use to treat general anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Kava kava joins our list of herbs that help you sleep for its ability to bust insomnia and reduce the time it takes to get to sleep. Kava promotes mild euphoria and sociability in recreational doses (which may be 150 milligrams of kavalactones and more) but you only have a to take a little (60-150 milligrams of kavalactones) to find it an effective sleep aid. Although scientists aren’t totally sure how kava works, they’ve speculated that kavalactones may interact directly with the ion channels of nerve synapses to work their calming effects. A plus of kava is the many anecdotal reports that this herb can generate peaceful, beautiful dreams!
California Poppy: You may have heard of California poppy as a natural analgesic herb with effects similar to (but much gentler than) morphine. A distant relative of the Asian poppy, California poppy contains a number of alkaloids such as protopine that induce analgesic and calming effects in users. Yet this herb’s alkaloids aren’t classed as opiates and won’t lead to dependence and withdrawal problems over time. California poppy’s pain-relieving properties may be especially helpful for those who have trouble getting to sleep because of chronic pain issues.
Hops: Hops is most famous as the bittering ingredient in beer, but drinking alcohol before bed can actually lead to a worse quality of sleep. However, by itself or combined with other herbs that help you sleep, hops tea can be nicely sedating and mildly euphoric, a good combination for satisfying sleep. Hops tea alone may be too acidic for many, but luckily it combines well with other sleep and dream herbs and can be a good base for a tea or sleep sachet. For instance, you could make a tea with hops for sedation, chamomile to relax your nerves and muscles, and valerian for restful sleep.
Everyone has his or her favorite sleep herbs. Whichever one you choose, you’ll know that by using natural herbs to help you sleep instead of a pill, you’ll be safeguarding your health and guaranteeing yourself a better quality of sleep in the long run.