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Herbal Medicine for Sleep

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

I find sleep one of the best applications for the use of herbal medicine. Not only because I believe prioritising sleep should be one of the key steps to better health and happier hormones, but because they are so accessible and work so well.

Most sleep herbs are incredibly gentle and contain little in the way of cautions or contraindications for use with other medications or health conditions - making them simple and safe to experiment with. They may potentiate the effect of prescription sleeping medications as they improve your sleep however (if prescribed by your GP, always discuss ceasing medication with them before doing so - some medications require a tapering off period which is essential to dealing safely with these medications).

You can even start by finding natural sleep medicines on your supermarket shelves, with sleep and relaxation blends common, and often enough to help you wind down to fall asleep more easily and improve the quality of sleep with milder insomnia.

Identifying some of the barriers to sleep can be a key way to determine which herbs might suit you, as well as determining other lifestyle modifications you may be able to utilise and implement such as nutrition and meditation/mindfulness apps or adult sleep routines.

Sleep herbs are best taken 30-60min before bedtime to help your mind and body wind down. If nervous tension, stress and anxiety are contributing to your sleep issues you might want to try some of the milder anxoilytic (anti-anxiety) herbs during the day as well (they will only make you calm, not sleepy).

They can be taken in tablet form, tea or tincture (liquid herbal extract). In fact many of our sleep herbs are leaf or flower form, meaning they contain constituents easily extracted by water making them one of the best categories of herbs for herbal tea.

Let’s take a look at some of my favourite herbs for sleep -

Valerian (Valeriana officianalis)

Is the first herb I think of when I think of sleep. Great for turning off “chatty” minds for over thinkers, Valerian stimulates GABA production - our calming neurotransmitter and therefore can also be used for daytime anxiety. This herbs has an ‘interesting’ smell, often likened to smelly socks of old cheese, however I fail to see the likeness and actually really love the smell of valerian - due to this most people take in tablet form however it can be taken as a tincture or tea.

Cautions and Contraindications - A small amount of people claim valerian stimulates vivid dreams or morning drowsiness. If this happens to you try another herb. Caution in pregnancy.

Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Is my go to for those who wake in the night only to not be able to fall back asleep. A lot of sleep herbs are wonderful for sleep onset (helping you fall asleep at the start of the night) however you might find they don’t keep you asleep. Hops does. It is also great for menopausal women and those with night sweats. It is also beneficial for vaginal dryness and atrophy. I love pairing this with valerian.

Cautions and Contraindications - caution in pregnancy and breastfeeding. Women with Oestrogen sensitive breast cancers should only use on prescription from their herbalist or naturopath if appropriate.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

is one of our better known and very gentle herbs. Calming for both the mind and digestive system. The smell and flavour is so distinct and apple-like so also provides interest when blending with some of the other blander tasting herbs. Easily accessible from your supermarket, you might need to double bag a tea bag for stronger potency before bed (and if you get the chance to try some of these stunning flowers loose leaf you will likely never go back to teabags!). Chamomile is also very safe and palatable for children and can also be used during the day for calm and tummy upsets.

Cautions or contraindications - with asthma for those sensitive to the Asteraceae family.

Oatstraw (Avena sativa)

is a wonderful nervine #trophorestorative meaning small doses over a longer period of time are protective and nurturing to the brain and nervous system. Easy to drink as a tea (mixed with other herbs, it tastes like straw on its own) it is a fave for later stages in pregnancy as it is very safe and also nutritive (high in calcium) and builds stress resilience and gentle, stable energy in any condition. I love this for those who are exhausted, ‘wired yet tired’ and postnatally depleted mums.

Cautions and Contraindications - I am often asked if oat straw is safe with Celiac disease and those with gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Oat straw does not contain gluten like other grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It does contain a protein known as avenin that is well tolerated by most people with Celiac disease and those with gluten intolerance or sensitivity.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

a classic sleep herb, passionflower is also good for anxiety and teams nicely as a tea or tincture with any of the others mentioned here. Another that is gentle enough for use with children.

Cautions and Contraindications - none known

Tilia (aka linden, lime flower-Tilia cordata)

is wonderful to balance emotions and when life may be feeling "a little wobbly" or you feel teary at the drop of a hat. It was also traditionally used for ‘hysteria’ and I quite like to use it with PMS when soothing is required. Tilia is not a very well known or popular herb in Australia, however, is one of my favourites for emotional stability and resilience used both day and night.

Cautions and Contraindications - none known

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

another digestive nervine, lemon balm calms the digestive system and get you “out of your head” and back to “rest and digest”. This wonder-herb also has potent anti-viral properties (the Epstein-Barr virus hates this pretty plant) and one of the easiest medicinal herbs to grow in your garden. A gentle lemony flavour. Lemon balm is also wonderful for hyperthyroidism and Graves Disease.

Cautions and Contraindications - none known

Zizyphus (Zizyphus jujuba)

A hero for sleeplessness for menopausal women - Zizyphus also reduced heart palpitations and has a cooling effect on the body and reduces anxiety.

Cautions and Contraindications - none known

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)

you don't need much of this one but it does lend a lovely flavour and packs a punch for anxiety and sleeplessness. Amazing in tea and lovely as a low dose tincture blended with other herbs. Also wonderful for depression, most studies have been carried out around the use of essential oil which is another wonderful way to use this plant.

Cautions and Contraindications - The use of the herb is safe, just be mindful to never ingest the essential oil, no matter how pure. Ingesting essential oils can cause damage to your natural microbiome (by all means add to your night time bath or pillow to assist with sleep)

Tried all of the above and still no sleep?

I do reserve some of our stronger sedative sleep herbs for those trickier cases and these are herbs I recommended talking to a herbalist or naturopath about prescribing (we also take a good look at what may be causing your sleep issues and why some of the aforementioned herbs might not be working for you) to ensure you have no interactions with any other medications and if these are safe in certain situations aka breastfeeding.

These include Californian Poppy, Jamaican Dogwood, Kava and St John’s Wort. We have so many herbs in our dispensaries so don’t give up on herbs if you have tried one only to find it didn’t work for you, or delve into your sleep a little deeper with a natural medicine practitioner.

Also remember - herbal medicine works by encouraging homeostasis in your system - a natural balance rather than forcing sleep upon you and can take some time to build up so if you don't fall into a deep sleep from night one, give it a week or two for the effects to build.

Emma xx

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emma jacques

Women's Health

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