Sleep Better, Naturally

December 17, 2018 Maria Noel Groves
Insomnia is incredibly common amongst my clients and student. My own sleep issues first brought me to herbs 15 years ago. We're not alone. At least 30 percent of American adults (worse for African Americans and young adults) and almost 70 percent of teens don’t get enough shut-eye. As a nation, with each new generation, we have become chronically sleep deprived. In 1910, the average American slept 9 hours a night, but now most sleep fewer than 7. Sometimes we choose to be awake rather than sleep, but not always. Insomnia ranks second to the common cold as an international health complaint. Women are particularly susceptible, with up to 50 percent reporting that they lie awake at night unable to sleep.
Lack of (or poor quality) sleep makes everything else worse: stress, cardiovascular disease, immune function, reproductive hormone health, pain, mental health, weight gain/appetite, and more. Certainly Americans don’t prioritize sleep, but just getting to bed earlier doesn’t always cut it. Once we’re in a bad sleep cycle, it’s difficult to break.
Relaxing herbs can be extremely helpful to help reset things quickly and get us on a better track. However, it’s also important to work on underlying causes of insomnia for long-term success. Taking herbs but ignoring the bigger picture usually does not work for sleep. The herbs might work for a little while and stop working. Whole picture solutions might include...
  1. Addressing daily stress
  2. Unwinding in the evening and keeping electronics out of the bedroom
  3. Avoiding stimulants at night (especially an hour or two before bedtime) -- avoid or limit: eating food late or big dinners, watching TV, or checking email, alcohol consumption. Just two drinks can really disrupt sleep quality! Late-night snacks tend to increase the likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night. Coffee/caffeine can be a problem anytime in the afternoon/evening. Some people are surprised to find that even their morning cups of coffee disrupt sleep. Some supplements or herbs may disrupt sleep as well.
  4. Sleeping in a dark, quiet environment; and eating a balanced, whole-foods diet so that your body can make healthy neurotransmitters

Most nights, reading a boring book at bedtime is enough to take my mind off other things and bores me to sleep, and I adore my sleep mask. As you create a sleep-friendly lifestyle or when you need an extra hand, here are some herbs to try that might help you get a better night’s rest tonight. All of these herbs are commonly available in stores and online. Favorite brands of mine include Gaia Herbs, Wise Woman Herbals, Urban Moonshine, Herb Pharm, Herbal Energetics, and Mountain Rose Herbs.

General Recommendations on Dosing and Cautions for Sedatives

Sedative herbs can help ease anxiety and stress and lull us into an easier, deeper sleep. However, their potency can vary, as can your individual response to them. Always introduce sedatives (or, really, any herb) gradually to see what dose works best for you and to avoid over-sedation. Use particular caution when combining sedative herbs with sedative drugs (sleep, anxiety, pain medications, also alcohol consumption, cannabis, opioids) - they may synergistically increase your sedation. That might be fine if it helps you sleep better or feel less anxious, but it's not ok if you fall asleep at the wheel or (in extreme cases, which are very rare and more for excessive doses) slow down respiration or heart rate. Also, be aware that sedative herbs can make you feel groggy -- though less often than a medication would -- and over time may worsen depression or melancholy. This is usually a very individual response per person and plant. For example, skullcap makes me quite melancholy, but it doesn't usually do that for others. And the other herbs listed here don't make me melancholy. Start slow (1 drop of tincture, then 10 drops, then 30 drops, then 2 ml...), and listen to your body, gradually increasing your dose as needed. One person might do great with just three drops of a sleep tincture while another person might do best with a whole teaspoon (5 ml = about 150 drops). But, for the average person, a common dose for these herbs would be 1-3 ml of tincture (1 ml = 30 drops or 1/5 teaspoon) or 1-2 teaspoons of the dry herb brewed in 4-6 ounces of tea. (If you're not up on the lingo, a "tincture" is an alcohol liquid extract of an herb, commonly sold in dropper bottles in stores. Very useful, especially for sleep herbs! Glycerine or vinegar can be used instead of alcohol, but they're not as potent or long-lasting. Of course tea and capsule can also be used.)

ALWAYS let your doctor know what you're taking, ask your pharmacist or holistic practitioner about potential herb-drug interactions, and do not change or remove medications without your doctor's guidance.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

This stinky root is the most famous sleep herb, hands down. Almost every herbal sleep formula contains it because it often works well to promote deep sleep, muscle relaxation, and an overall calming effect on the Central Nervous System. When I first started out with insomnia, this was my go-to herb, and I still keep a bottle of the tincture (the most effective way to take it) on my bedside table for nights when I feel too wound up or if I wake up in the middle of the night. That said, valerian really doesn’t work for everyone – some people find it makes them more jittery and others feel groggy or get weird dreams. It tends to work better for people with a cold constitution (cold hands and feet, thin body type, tendency towards anxiety) and worse for people with a hot constitution (always hot, larger body type, tendency towards anger and frustration). If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry – there are plenty of other calming herbs out there! And… for the record, valerian does not have any relationship with the drug Valium except that the names sound similar. Neither valerian nor the other herbs mentioned here are addictive, and they are generally extremely safe but should not be combined with anti-anxiety and other sedative drugs. Due to its unpleasant flavor/aroma and activity, this works best as a fresh root tincture, but some people do enjoy it as a dry root tea infusion (blech). The scent is reminiscent of perfume-y dirt, skunk, and stinky feet while the flavor is more like sweet, perfume-y dirt.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Above-ground (aerial) parts of this gorgeous flowering vine from the southeast will lull almost anyone to sleep. Even though valerian is the most-studied medicinal herb for sleep, the effects have been quite mixed. Passionflower has performed far better in the few studies that have been conducted on it. In one, a combination of herbs including passionflower worked as well as a conventional sleep medication. In another, just one teaspoon of dry herb brewed as tea improved sleep quality within one week compared to placebo. Passionflower acts as a safe sedative-hypnotic relaxing herb, bringing everything down several notches so you can sleep more easily and more deeply. I tend to use it as a tincture or tea, and it's useful fresh or dry. The flavor is mild and easily spruced up with flavorful herbs like spearmint or holy basil. See my sleep tea recipe below. As a tincture, it blends well with other herbs and can be used fresh or dry. Lately, I enjoy blending it with skullcap and magnolia for myself and clients. (Magnolia bark is becoming a fast favorite ingredient of mine for sleep blends when stress and waking in the middle of the night are problems, but unfortunately it's not commonly available in commerce. We can use our local species, but it's more popular as an herbal in traditional Chinese medicine.)

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) & Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

These lesser-known relaxing herbs work very well for almost any body type to relax the nervous system, quell anxiety, and promote sleep. They’re mild tasting enough to take as tea (though much better with mint and honey added) and can also be taken as tinctures. Capsules are convenient but don’t always work as well. Both skullcap (shown above) and lemon balm are much more potent when fresh (such as a fresh plant tincture), serviceable as freshly dried herb as tea, and prone to losing more potency over time or being low quality form commercial sources. Both herbs nourish the nervous system, ease anxiety, and improve sleep, but they may be able to be taken during the day without being overly sedating, especially lemon balm. Lemon balm is also uplifting and improves focus. They’re generally very safe, popular even for children, but still use caution with sedative drugs as described already. There have been issues with adulteration of skullcap, so only purchase this herb from reputable suppliers, preferably certified organic rather than wild-crafted or unspecified sources. I prefer to grow my own skullcap (I purchase organic seedlings from Found Well Farm in Pembroke in May or from other growers at the NH Herb & Garden Day event, sometimes it winters over) or get it direct from an organic farm such as iFarm in Massachusetts or Zack Woods Herb Farm in Vermont - it sells out quickly and has good and bad years. Even otherwise good bulk herb suppliers tend to have poor-quality skullcap, and buying direct from the organic farm not only helps ensure identity but also increases the quality of this highly perishable herb. Reputable tincture companies include Gaia Herbs and Herbalist & Alchemist. This applies to lemon balm in terms of quality as well, though adulteration is not a problem and it's very easy to grow as a perennial. Refresh your tinctures every few years. You’ll often find these herbs in herbal tea blends and sleep formulas, perhaps in combination with valerian and some of the many other great relaxing herbs out there. If you’re looking for a valerian-free sleep formula (which is rare -- most sleep blends contain valerian), one of the best is Peaceful Nights by Herbal Energetics, made right up the road in Northfield, NH. Flora Health makes a nice tea blend called Sleep Well with chamomile, skullcap, and passionflower (flavored with lemongrass and spearmint), too.

Rescue Remedy Sleep & Flower Essences

Flower essences like Rescue Remedy Sleep are highly dilute flower remedies preserved in brandy and water, and only one to three drops are necessary. Because they are so dilute (much like homeopathic remedies) yet still very effective for many people, they’re perfect for children, pregnant women, and people who are taking medications. I make my own flower essences from herbs in my garden like valerian, lavender, and blue vervain, but the Bach Flower Essences are much more widely available in stores. Rescue Remedy Sleep combines the traditional anti-anxiety formula with White Chestnut, a flower essence used for thoughts that go circling around and around the brain. Other flower essences that I like include lavender (spirit calm), valerian (deep peace), and St. John's wort (light-filled protection from nightmares), which are available from small-scale sellers like Lichenwood Herbals, Green Hope Farm, and Delta Gardens.

Lavender & Essential Oils

Just the scent of this popular herb can help some people fall asleep. Try putting a few drops on a cloth and tucking it into your pillowcase. You can also make a sachet of the dried flower buds, perhaps with some mugwort (to increase dreams) or hops (for better slumber), to slip under your pillow.

Additional Herbs

There are so many great herbs you can use for sleep, and so much of it is individual. I've covered those that I love and use the most and that are the most commonly available. You can grow most or all of them, too. Additional sleep herbs include magnolia bark or flower, chamomile (of course!), ashwagandha, holy basil/tulsi (lovely in combination with lemon balm), milky oat seed, reishi mushroom, hops, wood betony, blue vervain, lavender (dried herb -- not essential oil -- as a tea or tincture), mugwort, and mimosa/albizia bark or flower.  Useful supplements include magnesium, theanine, tryptophan/5-HTP. Warm honey milk (perhaps with ashwagandha powder). They're all a bit different, so you'll want to do your research or consult a practitioner to see what's most appropriate for you. For example, ashwagandha interferes with my sleep, but for most people it improves it. Always start low and listen to your body! It will tell you what does and does not work.

Maria's Sleep Tea Recipe

This is tasty and effective for most people! Make sure to get your herbs from a reputable source like Zack Woods Herb Farm, iFarm, Mountain Rose Herbs, or your own garden.

  1. 1/2 teaspoon lemon balm leaf/aerial parts
  2. 1/2 teaspoon passionflower leaf and flower/aerial parts
  3. 1/2 teaspoon skullcap leaf and flower/aerial parts
  4. 1/2 teaspoon spearmint leaf/aerial parts (for flavor)
  5. 1 teaspoon honey (optional)

Steep your herbs in a 4-6 ounce teacup for 15 minutes. Add honey, and enjoy shortly before bedtime. Do not make a big mug of this -- you don't want to need to get up to pee in the middle of the night. This tea is safe for children over the age of 2, but divide the dose down by weight, assuming this dose for a 150-pound adult (so 1/3 the amount for a 50-pound child).

Learn More About Sleep Herbs

  1. Growing Peaceful Herbs handout
  2. Sleep Tea video showing off lemon balm, skullcap, and passionflower produced by Storey Publishing to go with my first book Body into Balance
  3. Longer Article on Sleep Herbs annotated with studies and sources on the Herbal Academy Herbarium (member access is needed, but you'll get all sorts of awesome articles in your subscription)
  4. This topic is covered in both my books in greater detail and with more recipes -- Body into Balance and Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies

Sweet dreams!


Clinical herbalist Maria Noël Groves sees clients and teaches classes at Wintergreen Botanicals Herbal Clinic & Education Center in Allenstown, New Hampshire.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.

This blog originally appeared on the Concord Food Co-op site and has been reprinted with permission.