Best herbs for better sleep
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.
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.
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.
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.