Insomnia is not a new development. For centuries — hell, millennia — people have been tossing and turning, trying to woo sleep. And much like us, they tried their hand a a number of bizarre solutions, which ranged from the natural (plant-based balms) to the nearly-psychotic (dog ear wax, pig bile). Even though their efficacy is non-existant or unproven, some of these alternative remedies still maintain devotees around the world and can be found on the balmy islands of Micronesia and the drab Rite Aids of New York City. Others, thankfully, fell out of fashion long ago, though perhaps not as long as we’d like to think. Here are eight of the stranger ways people have sought sleep.
For Robert Burton, author of the 1621 medical and philosophical treatise “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, the solution to insomnia was simple: “Anoint the soles of the feet with the fat of a dormouse.” Some sources indicate that this remedy dates back to the Ancient Romans, who also raised and served dormice as a delicacy.
Dog Earwax and Pig Bile
Okay, so Burton didn’t actually end that sentence with dormouse fat. He goes on to recommend anointing “the teeth with ear wax of a dog” and “swine’s gall.” Gall refers to yellow bile, one of the four humors thought to govern physiology from the Ancient Greeks through the 19th century. It’s unclear how dog earwax factored into things. Perhaps it was just a pallate cleanser.
An 1879 edition of the Canadian Journal of Medical Science offered probably history’s stupidest insomnia remedy: “Poultices of fresh hemlock, or injections of a decoction of hemlock, or hemlock pills.” That’s right, hemlock, the thing that killed Socrates. You might be thinking “No, surely those nice Canadian doctors meant Tsuga, a nontoxic genus of conifers colloquially referred to as hemlock,” but no — the article specifies conium, the decidedly non-nontoxic genus. This is why we have peer review.
Some folks in the 19th century who longed for sleep were told the secret lied in lather.
According to an 1898 edition of the Therapeutic Gazette, a “Monthly Journal of General, Special, and Physiological Therapeutics,” the Glasgow Herald offered this advice to insomniacs: “Soap your hair with ordinary yellow soap; rub it into the roots of the brain until it is lather all over; tie it up in a napkin, go to bed, and wash it out in the morning. Do this for a fortnight. Take no tea after 6 p.m.”
Weird? Absolutely. But the Herald may have had a tenuous understanding of sleep — and brains, for that matter — but there is a kernel of truth in there: If you’re battling insomnia, one of the first steps you should take is to avoid caffeine well before bedtime. And, hell, you might as well wash your hair while you’re at it.
The French might have cornered the market on slugs as a culinary delight, but it’s in Japan that sea slugs are a traditional insomnia remedy. Bon appetit!
Lactucarium, colloquially referred to as “lettuce opium,” is a milky substance secreted by certain varieties of lettuce. Though today it’s known chiefly for its psychotropic effects, lettuce opium was a popular sedative in Ancient Egypt, where it was often included in depictions of the fertility god Min. Lactucarium may also, incidentally, have aphrodisiac properties.
Passion flower, also known as maypop, was long used by Native Americans as a traditional medicine, and European colonists quickly followed suit. Typically the leaves, fresh or dried, are boiled into a sedative tea. Some studies indicate that passionflower contains chemicals, called flavonoids, which limit neuronal excitement — and thus anxiety — much like benzodiazepines do, though other studies dispute this. But true to folk medicine form, passionflower’s exact properties remain elusive.
Kava, a plant native to western Pacific countries, has been consumed ceremonially in Polynesia, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Australia and other Pacific Ocean cultures for centuries. Its sedative (and painkilling, anti-seizure and nootropic) effects are courtesy of chemicals called kavalactones, which affect various interactions in the central nervous system. Usually kava roots are ground by hand and consumed with cold water, though chewing the root itself is said to yield a stronger effect. Popular as kava is, though, some studies suggest it might have toxic effects on the liver, leading the CDC and FDA to issue warnings about its use. Maybe try those sea slugs first.