Best herbs for bet­ter sleep

NZ Gardener - - News - Jane Wrig­glesworth sug­gests herbs to plant, grow, eat and drink if you want to get a good night’s shut­eye.

Jane Wrig­glesworth on the herbs to grow on your way to slum­ber­land.

Most of you don’t know that I’m a sleep con­sul­tant. Yes, I am an of­fi­cial ex­pert on sleep. Be­fore that, I was an ex­pert on lack of sleep.

Like so many peo­ple these days, I had dif­fi­culty get­ting to sleep and stay­ing asleep; this hap­pened for a good 10 years.

I now sleep very well, but back when I was get­ting very lit­tle shut-eye, I took ev­ery pill I could get my hands on that sup­pos­edly helped with sleep.

Strangely, va­le­rian had the op­po­site ef­fect on me. Laven­der did noth­ing to lull me off to dream­land. Nor did pas­si­flora (though it did have a calm­ing ef­fect). Chamomile did have a calm­ing ef­fect, but it didn’t put me to sleep. Nor did warm milk, tart cherry juice, or a quick tip­ple.

The rea­son why noth­ing worked, I even­tu­ally fig­ured out on my own, was that I wasn’t ad­dress­ing the ac­tual cause of my dis­turbed sleep.

I had a bleed­ing stom­ach, which left me with no iron (anaemia is one con­trib­u­tor to in­som­nia), and even when the bleed­ing was fi­nally dis­cov­ered and stopped, the in­flam­ma­tion that re­sulted from it (ac­cord­ing to the level of C-re­ac­tive pro­tein in my blood) and the high cor­ti­sol lev­els in my body con­tin­ued to dis­rupt my sleep.

Why can’t I sleep?

Any num­ber of things can dis­turb sleep, in­clud­ing al­ler­gies, chronic in­flam­ma­tion, side ef­fects from med­i­ca­tion, an over­bur­dened liver (from al­co­hol, highly pro­cessed foods, sugar, tox­ins and such), con­tin­u­ous spikes in blood sugar lev­els, symp­toms of menopause (hot flushes, night sweats, pal­pi­ta­tions), hor­monal im­bal­ance (thy­roid and/or sex hor­mones), vi­ta­min and min­eral de­fi­cien­cies, and even bright light at night.

The syn­the­sis and se­cre­tion of me­la­tonin (pop­u­larly termed the “sleep hor­mone”) is dra­mat­i­cally af­fected by light ex­po­sure to the eyes, in par­tic­u­lar blue light, like that from com­puter screens, smart­phones and tablets, and the TV.

A low-carb diet doesn’t help ei­ther. Any­one on a high-pro­tein diet will al­most surely suf­fer from poor sleep. That’s be­cause in or­der for the amino acid tryp­to­phan in our diet to cross the blood-brain bar­rier and con­vert to me­la­tonin, we need car­bo­hy­drates.

High pro­tein foods con­tain lots of amino acids, all of which com­pete to cross the blood-brain bar­rier. Be­cause there are larger pro­por­tions of other amino acids, tryp­to­phan al­ways lucks out.

How­ever, when carbs are eaten, in­sulin lev­els in­crease, which low­ers the amount of amino acids in the blood ex­cept for tryp­to­phan. That’s be­cause tryp­to­phan binds to the pro­tein al­bu­min, which al­lows it to re­main un­af­fected by in­sulin. Tryp­to­phan then fi­nally gets its chance to cross the blood­brain bar­rier.

How can I get more sleep?

It sounds like a sim­ple thing to do: eat and drink to keep your tryp­to­phan lev­els high, which will keep your sero­tonin lev­els high, which will, in turn, main­tain your me­la­tonin lev­els.

Sun­flower and pump­kin seeds are very high in tryp­to­phan. Fur­ther, Vi­ta­min B6 aids in the pro­duc­tion of sero­tonin, me­la­tonin and dopamine, so keep B6 lev­els high too. Cat­nip ( Nepeta cataria) and oat straw ( Avena sativa) are good sources of B6 (as well as other B vi­ta­mins, which are ben­e­fi­cial for sleep). Both cat­nip and oat straw teas are of­ten used for calm­ing the nerves and aid­ing sleep.

It’s im­por­tant to keep in­flam­ma­tion down too, be­cause there’s a dou­ble whammy here: in­flam­ma­tion not only af­fects sleep – lack of sleep can re­sult in more in­flam­ma­tion.

Sev­eral fairly com­mon herbs and spices are known for their an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory prop­er­ties. These in­clude rose­mary, cayenne, cloves, turmeric and gin­ger. Chamomile, though bet­ter known for its calm­ing prop­er­ties, has been shown to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion too.

I drank it in co­pi­ous amounts after my bleed­ing stom­ach was dis­cov­ered, as the in­flam­ma­tion in my stom­ach was in­hibit­ing the ab­sorp­tion of nu­tri­ents, in­clud­ing iron, which I greatly needed at that time.

So be­fore herbs can be used to help you sleep, a treat­ment ap­proach should be aimed at the cause of in­som­nia.

If in­flam­ma­tion is caus­ing your in­som­nia, you can use herbs

Be­fore herbs can be used to help you sleep, a treat­ment ap­proach should be aimed at the cause of in­som­nia.

to re­duce in­flam­ma­tion, but find out why it’s hap­pen­ing in the first place to put a halt to it (in my case Nuro­fen, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent of which is ibupro­fen, had caused my stom­ach to bleed).

If you’re feel­ing stressed or anx­ious, try to re­move your­self from the cause. Yes, this can be tricky, but it’s im­per­a­tive as chronic stress can lead to all sorts of prob­lems.

If your hor­mones have gone hay­wire, find out why.

Avoid blue light at least an hour (prefer­ably two hours) be­fore bed­time. It truly does make a dif­fer­ence.

The fol­low­ing are home­grown herbs that I found ben­e­fi­cial in re­duc­ing stress and in­flam­ma­tion, to help with sleep.

Lemon balm

Melissa of­fic­i­nalis has mild seda­tive and mood en­hanc­ing prop­er­ties, and is com­monly used to treat in­som­nia, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. It’s in­cred­i­bly easy to grow, thriv­ing in sun or shade.

To make an infusion, loosely pack a teapot with fresh leaves, add boiled wa­ter and steep for 10-15 min­utes. You can drink up to 3 cups per day. Fresh leaves can also be thrown into the bath­tub for a gen­tle and re­lax­ing herbal bath.

Cal­i­for­nian poppy

Eschscholzia cal­i­for­nica be­longs to the poppy fam­ily and is cousin to the opium poppy (but is far less pow­er­ful). It’s mildly seda­tive, anal­gesic (re­lieves pain) and anx­i­olytic (re­duces anx­i­ety), and is chiefly used to treat anx­i­ety, in­som­nia and neu­ropa­thy prob­lems. It is suit­able for adults and chil­dren, help­ing to re­duce anx­i­ety dur­ing the day and pro­mote sleep at night. Both the leaves and the flow­ers are used in teas and tinc­tures.

Cal­i­for­nian poppy flow­ers from late spring all through sum­mer, grow­ing well in poor soils so long as drainage is good. In fact, you don’t re­ally need to pre­pare your soil at all – just sow seeds di­rectly and they should come away eas­ily enough.


Hu­mu­lus lupu­lus are the flow­ers – or seed cones or stro­biles – of the hop plant. The es­sen­tial oil from the fe­male hops has mild seda­tive prop­er­ties that are used to treat in­som­nia, and ease anx­i­ety and ten­sion. It also soothes or re­lieves pain, in­creases the pass­ing of urine (good for those who suf­fer from wa­ter re­ten­tion or ex­cess uric acid), re­duces fever, as well as strength­ens and in­vig­o­rates the body. The plant also has a gen­tly stim­u­lat­ing ef­fect on a slug­gish di­ges­tion.

An herba­ceous peren­nial vine that grows 6-7m high each year, the hops plant is dioe­cious, bear­ing male and fe­male flow­ers on dif­fer­ent plants.

You can grow hops by seed, but as you only want the fe­male plant, it’s best to take cut­tings of fe­male plants in sum­mer or make root di­vi­sions in spring. Keep cut­tings well wa­tered and wait un­til the root sys­tem is es­tab­lished be­fore trans­plant­ing. You can also buy plants on­line. Har­vest the cones from late sum­mer to mid-au­tumn. They should feel dry and pa­pery.

To make a tinc­ture, fill a clean glass jar with freshly har­vested hops, cover with vodka, screw the lid on tightly and place in a dark room. Shake daily for 4-6 weeks, then strain. Pour into amber-coloured bot­tles and store in a cool, dark cup­board. If preg­nant, con­sult your health prac­ti­tioner be­fore use.

Holy basil

Oci­mum sanc­tum, also known as tulsi, has been used medic­i­nally for thou­sands of years to pro­mote gen­eral health. It is well-known as an anti-stress herb. A 2008 study pub­lished in the Nepal Med­i­cal Col­lege

Jour­nal found that 500 mil­ligrams of holy basil cap­sules taken twice a day after meals can lower the in­ten­sity of gen­er­alised anx­i­ety dis­or­der.

The plant grows just like sweet basil, ex­cept holy basil is a peren­nial. Use in a tea or make a tinc­ture.


Chamaemelum no­bile is a herb that has calm­ing prop­er­ties and, as I dis­cov­ered, is also great for low­er­ing in­flam­ma­tion. The plant is very easy to grow. Pick the flow­ers when they are just open (keep an eye on your plants and har­vest reg­u­larly), and dry for teas and tinc­tures.


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