The best herbs to help you sleep - and how to grow them
Can't sleep? Forget counting sheep. Count instead on the effect of soporific herbs. Many herbs can help with a good night's sleep, but to find the ones that work best for you, experiment one at a time. Later you can combine herbs that work for a synergistic effect. The following, however, are four herbs that are renowned sleep-enhancers.
VALERIAN (VALERIANA OFFICINALIS)
This is often described as the herbal tranquilliser, and it works extremely well for many people. But not all. Unfortunately, for me valerian has the opposite effect: it stimulates. It makes me feel completely wired.
Here's why. In herbalism, herbs are matched to the individual to achieve a balance. Warming herbs like valerian, for example, are matched to people with cooling tendencies (not me – I have a hot constitution).
"A person with signs of coldness is typically wearing a jersey while others are in T-shirts," says Rosalee de la Forêt, a US-based herbalist. "They may have pale skin and feel lethargic. But if someone has signs of heat – fast pulse, red face, they feel warmer than others – then valerian has a higher chance of causing the opposite desired reaction."
For those who can take it, valerian can be extremely effective at reducing anxiety, relaxing muscle tension and aiding sleep. "Valerian is the herb I use more than any other to help a person who is not sleeping well," says Richard Whelan, a Christchurch medical herbalist. "When it is the right herb for the right person, it is a superb ally."
The active constituents in valerian depress the central nervous system in a similar way to GABA, a relaxing neurotransmitter in the brain. Clinical studies have shown that valerian is effective in the treatment of insomnia, mostly by reducing the time it takes to go from fully awake to asleep and improving sleep quality. And unlike prescription drugs like benzodiazepine it doesn't cause drowsiness when used at the recommended dosage.
So what's the right dose? "The one that palpably works," says Richard. "I mostly use teas and tinctures but for valerian I use an extract in capsule form, which allows me to give very strong doses. In some cases I will get the patient to take two tablets an hour before bed and then another two just before they turn in. This puts a very high level of active constituents into the bloodstream overnight and is particularly effective for those who have a habit of frequent waking and restless sleep. It often starts working from the first night. Though, as is always the case with herbs, the longer you take them the better they work."
How to grow and use: Valerian is easy to grow in rich, heavy loam with good moisture. It's a hardy perennial, with summer flowers reaching up to 1.5m high, but as it's the root that is used, you may want to snip off the flowers so that the plant puts more energy into the rhizomes.
You can make a tincture by soaking the chopped roots in three times their volume of vodka. Place both in a jar, screw the lid on tightly and store in a cool, dark room. Shake daily for 4-6 weeks, then strain. Alternatively, you can steep slices of fresh or dried root in freshly boiled water to make a tea.
Valerian is safe for people of all ages with no contraindications. It has been shown to be safe in pregnancy.
SKULLCAP (SCUTELLARIA LATERIFLORA)
This is a relaxing nervine used to relieve stress and anxiety, and it can also be taken at night to quieten a busy mind. It is often used with passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) as a overall herbal mind-body sedative. Both these herbs are cooling, so are apt for those with hotter constitutions, says Richard. "Such people are often troubled by bad sleep when they have just too much energy and have not managed to completely exhaust themselves before they hit the hay."
That's me to a T. Long ago I realised I needed something to dampen my enthusiastic mind-chatter come bedtime, and skullcap fitted the bill.
Richard adds: "Good-quality skullcap in a sufficient dose (via tea or tincture) can be used as a sleep remedy or when there is just too much overall tension in the nervous system – which will not be helping with getting good sleep."
Skullcap leaves can be used either fresh or recently dried, as they lose their potency as they age. For a good night's sleep, a strong tea is ideal, taken perhaps an hour before retiring. A tincture can be beneficial too.
"I find that skullcap tincture is excellent. Around 1-2ml in a dose is enough for most people to feel a noticeable effect and taking this amount two or even three times in a day is ideal to help create a lasting shift in tension levels," says Richard.
How to grow: Scullcap is a hardy perennial from the mint family that grows best in moist soil. It produces purple flowers on stems reaching 60cm or so high. Seeds are available from Carol's Heirloom Garden.
This herb's relaxing effects are also well-known. Small doses – as little as 10 drops of the tincture for a more sensitive individual, or double that for someone who may need a stronger action to feel the effect – used during the day can relieve nervous tension without causing drowsiness or loss of concentration. But passionflower can also be taken in larger doses at night to promote sleep.
"Passionflower is remarkably relaxing when you take enough of it, and the effects are long-lasting so it is highly conducive to helping you sleep through the night," says Richard.
"I have used larger doses (up to a full teaspoon of a tincture or several grams of the dried herb) in people who are having trouble falling asleep or who are in severe anxiety or agitation."
How to grow: Passionflower is available at all garden retailers. A perennial climbing vine, it does best in frost-protected areas, and prefers a well-drained, slightly sandy soil in full sun. The aerial parts (leaves, stems, flowers) are used medicinally.
Both skullcap and passionflower are safe for people of all ages with no contraindications. They can also be used during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Derived from the root of Piper methysticum, this mostly acts as a relaxant, and is often used as a remedy for sleep. However, the plant received bad press and in some countries outright bans when it began to be overused, then was linked to liver disorders.
New Zealand was not one of them, thanks in part to the Kiwi herbalists who lobbied against its ban. A submission to the medicines classification committee stated that a number of reviews of kava's toxicity to the liver by prominent herbal experts found that the risk was at best very low, and there was little convincing evidence of a causative link.
Like anything, it's about sensible use. "Yes, kava can be a dangerous plant if used excessively or unwisely," says Richard. "But you could say the same thing about just about anything; people have died from drinking too much water. Used responsibly, kava is an extraordinary ally with two of the worst experiences to deal with in life: loss of sleep and anxiety. Frankly, this can be a life-changing herb so long as it is used patiently and wisely."
What, then is a safe dosage? "I start at 1 or 2ml per dose for most people, typically given two or three times a day. We can increase this if needed but the best long-term dose of kava is the lowest one that can be clearly felt."
How to grow: As a tropical plant, kava is happiest between 20 and 25˚C. It likes partial shade in moist, free-draining soil. Plants are available from Subtropica but if you can't grow your own, find kava roots or readymade tablets and tinctures at health stores.
If taking as a tea, be aware that the kava lactones are insoluble in water and destroyed by heat. The chopped or powdered root is infused in cold water then strained through fine cloth. You can also make your own tincture using the vodka method.
Check with your doctor first before using kava. Avoid while pregnant.
And if all else fails? "Try yawning 10-12 times just before going to bed," says Donna Lee of Cottage Hill Herbs. "This disengages the limbic system, easing anxiety and worrying thoughts throughout the night."
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- NZ Gardener