For thousands of years, those seeking a good night’s rest have turned to herbal sleep aids. Modern-day research confirms that certain herbs — including the six listed below — have calming, sedative properties that can help you feel drowsy and find sleep easier.
If you’re thinking about trying an herbal sleep remedy, make sure to shop from a reputable vendor, as herbal supplements aren’t subject to FDA testing. If appropriate, look for a seal or wording on the packaging or the supplement’s website to ensure quality (words to the effect of 3rd-party verified; quality-control methods employed; etc.) And, of course, check with your primary care doc or pharmacist first to rule out any contraindications with other medicines you may be taking.
Chamomile is one of the most widely used medicinal plants as well as one of the oldest herbal remedies — its flowers have been dried and harvested for at least 5,000 years. Studies have found chamomile to be effective in reducing anxiety, that nasty culprit that keeps us awake.
While there aren’t many clinical trials of chamomile as a sleep aid, research has shown that the plant has a sedative effect, possibly due to a flavonoid called apigenin that works as some sleeping pills do (by binding to benzodiazepine receptors to induce drowsiness). Unless you’re allergic to chamomile (part of the same family as ragweed), curling up with a cup of chamomile tea before bed may help you get some rest.
Valerian, a medicinal plant native to Europe, Asia and North America, has been used for centuries to treat insomnia. (Sadly, Game of Thrones fans, it does not have the same magical properties as that precious metal Valyrian steel.) Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine and the famous oath, mentioned use of valerian in his writings, and the ancient Greek physician Galen prescribed the herb for insomnia.
Though there’s still not enough evidence that valerian can treat sleep disorders, studies suggest that it may shorten the time needed to fall asleep, improve sleep quality, as well as decrease the instances of night awakenings. One study found the herb to be as effective a sleep aid, with fewer side effects, than a prescription benzodiazepine medication.
Valerian is often taken in capsule form, though the roots can be made into tea. (While some people find the smell unpleasant, cats find the scent intoxicating.) If you’re taking benzos, barbiturates or other dietary supplements such as St. John’s Wort or melatonin, consult your doctor about possible interactions. Valerian combined with hops (see below) can also be effective at treating mild insomnia.
Yes, hops — that same ingredient used to brew your beer — can help you sleep. The dried flowers of female hops plant have been used by Native Americans as a sedative; in Europe, hops growers noticed that field workers who harvested the plant tended to fall asleep on the job.
But don’t raise a pint and drink to a good night’s sleep. Alcoholic beverages can make you conk out a little faster, but they’ll actually disrupt your sleep; they’re not a long-term solution for insomnia. As for hops extract and capsules, there are no known side effects or interactions, and hops been found to be most effective when combined with valerian extract.
Since hops have a mild estrogen-like effect, pregnant women and those prone to estrogen-sensitive breast cancer should check with their doctor first.
An herb in the mint family, lemon balm has a refreshing, mild citrus scent, and has been used since the Middle Ages to soothe anxiety. Studies have found that lemon balm has calming properties and can also provide a mood boost. Several studies have found it to be an effective sleep aid when combined with other herbs, such as chamomile, hops and valerian.
Lemon balm is available as a tincture, in capsule form, as a tea, as well as an essential oil for aromatherapy. If you like growing things, you might want to harvest your own lemon balm. It’s a low-maintenance plant for gardens beds and containers — plus, it attracts bees and repels mosquitoes.
If you use sedatives, or take thyroid or HIV medication, check with your doctor about possible complications.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a tonic. For centuries, the root and berries of this plant have been prescribed to ease anxiety and insomnia. Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., physician and herbalist, says it’s one of her “favorite herbs for treating people with nervous tension that makes them feel on edge…during the day, exhausted when it’s time to go to bed, but wide awake when their head hits the pillow.” She adds that ashwagandha “gently blunts the activity of cortisol,” a stress hormone that can wreak havoc on our immune and nervous systems. Recent studies have found that ashwagandha can also improve physical performance in athletes as well as sedentary types.
The herb is available in capsule form, and considering it gets its Sanskrit name from its “horse-like” smell, that’s probably a good option. Pregnant women and those on other types of sedatives should not take ashwagandha.
At the end of a yoga class, your instructor may come around to dab lavender oil on your wrists, temples or neck. It’s not to make you smell better after working up your vinyassa sweat. Lavender has long been used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation.
Research has shown that the scent of lavender has soothing effects, decreasing blood pressure and slowing heart rate. It can also improve sleep quality by increasing the percentage of deep (also called slow-wave) sleep.
To use lavender for easing insomnia, consider sachets, eye pillows or aromatherapy oils, as well as bath products. In fact, the flower gets its name from the Latin lavare, which means “to wash.”