The term insomnia is derived from Somnus, the Roman God of sleep, “in” being the prefix explaining an inability or lack of. Shakespeare’s plays depicted insomnia as a condition that occurs in an unsettled mind. Throughout history, there are many examples of people experiencing this phenomenon. Sleep was long regarded as somewhat of a sin, it was discouraged that people sleep too much. So began our societies interesting relationship with the natural process of rejuvenation.
Insomnia is becoming increasingly prevalent in our fast-paced, high-stress society. Who doesn’t have trouble falling asleep every now and then? With so many things on our plates, the burdens and blessings of technology, and a world political strata perched on shaky ground, it’s no surprise that sleepless nights are on the rise.
The clinical definition of acute insomnia is to have trouble sleeping for less than a month straight. The condition is considered chronic if the patient experiences trouble falling asleep, or falling back to asleep, at least 2-3 times per week or if they only sleep 4-5 hours per night on a regular basis.
Christopher Hobbs, an internationally renowned herbalist, mycologist, and research scientist clearly explained in one of his articles how hormones can be the underlying cause of insomnia:
“Insomnia can be based on, or aggravated by, a neurotransmitter imbalance. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow nerve impulses to travel from one nerve cell to another and include serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA, and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Sleep disorders and such symptoms as depression are especially linked with an imbalance in the neurotransmitter serotonin.”
When you zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems are also becoming more prevalent. Insomnia is experienced by 90 percent of people suffering from depression. These conditions are inextricably linked; getting quality sleep, and enough of it, is essential for those battling mental illness. Fortunately, nature has provided us with many wonderful slumber-inducing plants that calm and rejuvenate the nervous system.
There are likely many reasons a person suffers from insomnia, but the most important underlying cause of sleeplessness is stress. Insomnia is often experienced alongside other health issues like anxiety, depression, hormonal imbalance, chronic pain, and menopause. Many herbs studied for their positive effects in treating these disorders will also help in treating insomnia, particularly the herbs which work to calm the nervous system and balance hormones. More than 9 million people in the U.S. alone take prescription sleep aids And more than one-third of the adult population has experienced bouts of sleeplessness at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately, sleeping pills are just a band-aid, and prolonged use might even make the problem worse. Dependency is a big problem for many people who get too used to taking prescription sleep aids, which tend to get increasingly ineffective over time. A much safer and more sustainable route is to access the plethora of nature’s anti-stress bounty.
Herbs For Insomnia
Lavender has been found useful in treating mild insomnia. Researchers from the UK’s University of Southampton conducted a single-blind, randomized trial which found the aroma of lavender oil improved quality of sleep.
Lavender is one of the most well-known essential oils. It’s an easy product to source, and is inexpensive and safe for children. You can also use a small amount of lavender flower as an addition to a sleepy time tea.
Dosage: Lavender essential oil added to a carrier oil in a ratio of 1:10 respectively, applied to temples, neck, and shoulders before bed. 10-30 drops can also be added to a hot bath before bed. A small amount of the dry flowers (½ tsp) can be added to teas.
The most well-studied herb for insomnia is hands down, valerian root. Multiple studies have proven it to be highly effective and it is one of the most popular herbal additions to natural sleep aid formulas.
Researchers from the University of California’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in San Francisco conducted a meta-analysis of 16 studies which tested valerian as a therapy for sleeplessness. The team concluded “that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects.”
Another promising study, conduced at Sweden’s Foellinge Health Center put an isolated constituent of valerian, sesquiterpenes, to the test. Following the double-blind, randomized trial, researcher concluded that the valerian extract has a “good and significant effect on poor sleep.”
44 percent of the subjects who’d taken the valerian-based preparation reported perfect sleep and a staggering 89 percent reported improved sleep. No side effects were observed. It’s worth noting that while the whole herb would not have the high concentrations of sesquiterpenes used in this study, it would still contain a significant amount.
There have also been a few studies which use different herbs in combination with valerian. Two such studies combined valerian with hops and kava kava. Both reported promising results and relatively minor side effects. The combination of hops and valerian was actually more effective than valerian by itself as well as the placebo.
Dosage: Tincture, 2-5 droppers full 2-3 times daily. Tea, 1 cup as needed throughout the day and before bed.
A common herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), schisandra is a fruit with remarkable relaxation-inducing properties. It’s often sold as a ‘superfood’ because of its high levels of vitamins and minerals.
Schisandra berry was found in one study to produce potent sedative and hypnotic activity when given to mice and rats. It worked to prolong sleep and also improve the time it took to go from sleepiness to wakefulness.
While more research needs to be done, these results are promising and indicate schisandra may be useful for treating insomnia.
Dosage: Tincture, 20-30 drops twice daily. Powder, 0.5-1.5g twice daily
Kava kava is an herbal medicine which calms the nervous system. A bogus liver damage scare caused some controversy, but kava tea made from the powdered root of the Piper methysticum plant has been safely used as a medicine for centuries. Its capacity to produce changes in brainwave patterns is comparable to prescription medicines like valium, without the addictive side effects.
In a Japanese study involving rats, kava was shown to have sleep-enhancing properties and hypnotic effects. Researchers observed that, “Kava-kava extract showed a significant increase in delta activity during non-REM sleep in sleep-disturbed rats.” Delta brainwaves only occur during Stage 3, the deepest part of the sleep cycle.
Dosage: Tincture, 2-5 droppers full 2-3 times daily. Tea, 1 cup twice daily.
The medical community is just beginning to explore the many benefits of this herb. Cannabis is well known for its ability to enhance appetite and induce sleep, however the precise effects depend greatly on the strain, growing method, and personal temperament of the individual.
A study involving 15 insomnia patients found that those who took a 160 mg dose of cannabidiol (CBD) “slept significantly more than those receiving placebo.” CBD is a highly therapeutic compound found in cannabis which does not cause mind-altering side effects.
Most of the studies using cannabis as a treatment are in conjunction with other disorders that can, in turn, cause insomnia. In such studies, cannabis has been found to be helpful in promoting sleep in those suffering from multiple sclerosis and chronic pain, among other things.
Dosage: 10-160 mg CBD daily. If using the whole bud, go for indica-dominant strains.
While tart cherries are not technically an herb, they have been proven to be useful in the treatment of insomnia. The reason tart cherry juice can be of benefit to insomniacs is because it contains high levels of natural melatonin.
A pilot study conducted with 15 healthy older adults suffering from insomnia found that compared to the placebo, tart cherry juice “produced significant reductions in insomnia severity.” It’s effectiveness in some cases was nearly on par with that of valerian and melatonin supplementation. The researchers noted that tart cherry juice not only helped with sleep but also reduced the amount of grogginess experienced upon waking.
Dosage: 1-2 ounces tart cherry juice per day
Other Herbs For Holistic Insomnia Treatment
While these herbs have not been studied for their direct effects on insomnia, they do help with many of the indirect causes. Depression, anxiety, and hormonal imbalance are some of the main reasons people experience insomnia.
Combining proven herbs for insomnia along with herbs for anxiety and hormone balancing adds a new dimension to treating the disorder. Approaching insomnia from a holistic perspective means looking at all the components that might be causing or exacerbating the problem.
Chamomile is a well-known herb for inducing a calm state of mind. With its gentle and safe reputation, it is the perfect addition to a relaxing herbal tea blend. Though gentle and very safe, chamomile has also been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression.
Dosage: Tincture, 30 drops 2-3 times daily. Tea, 1 cup 2-3 times daily.
Hops are the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. A highly sedative herb, hops fall into the nervine category. Hops induce relaxation while also balancing hormones. Hops help break down excess estrogen in the body, a common modern problem caused by an excess of toxins from plastics in our environment as well as the use of growth hormones in meat production. Hops are a well-studied supplement to aid in sleeplessness amongst women going through menopause or other hormonal disturbances.
Dosage: Tincture, 30-40 drops 2-3 times daily. Tea, 1 cup 2-3 times daily.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it works to negate stress and create balance in the body as a whole instead of directly on one system. It’s proven particularly effective for increasing our ability to deal with stress and anxiety. Traditionally, ashwagandha is an important herb in the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine.
Dosage: Tincture, 10-60 drops 3-4 times per day. Capsules or powder, 2,000 mg 2-3 times per day. Tea, 1 cup 3-4 times per day.
The traditional Ayurvedic method of preparation is to simmer the root in milk, adding a bit of honey near the end. The concoction should be taken before bed.
Herbal Combinations For Insomnia
Insomnia And Hormonal Imbalance Blend
- 1 part Hops
- 1 part Kava-kava
- ⅛ part Lavender flowers
- 1 part Chamomile
- 2 parts Valerian
- ½ part Peppermint (for taste)
Insomnia And Anxiety/Depression Blend
- 1 part Chamomile
- 1 part Ashwagandha
- 2 parts Valerian
- 1 part Kava-kava
- ½ part Peppermint (for taste)
Directions: For both herbal tea blends, combine ingredients in a large glass jar and store in a cool, dry place. Combine well and use 1 tsp per 1 cup of hot water, let herbs steep for 10-20 minutes.
It’s interesting to note that unlike their pharmaceutical counterparts, many of the herbs listed above increase in effectiveness the longer you take them. Many herbalists recommend sticking to an herbal treatment for at least 3 months to see optimum results.
Chantelle Zakariasen spent three years studying at The Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary and is a Certified Herbalist. She spent a further two years studying Raw Food Nutrition at the Body Mind Institute and has 200 hours of yoga teacher training under her belt. She’s a food lover who puts a balsamic reduction on almost everything, and writes the food blog Naked Cuisine. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.