Herbs aren’t just great for cooking. For thousands of years, they’ve also been used to help combat illnesses and improve overall well-being.
But can they help you sleep?
Well, people have been using herbal remedies as sleep aids of centuries… and recently, many of these herbs have undergone recent modern clinical trials that have shown that they may actually exhibit properties that could lead to better sleep.
Below are six commonly-used herbal alternatives that may help you get a more restful sleep. If you have long-term trouble falling or staying asleep, consider consulting a medical professional, as there may be a larger issue at play.
The valerian plant (Valeriana officinalis) is a perennial that flowers with sweet-smelling pink or white flowers. But it’s the roots of the valerian that are famed for inducing sleep and improving sleep quality.
Valerian may have been used as far back as 23AD. Saint Hildegard of Bingen is thought to have used valerian as a tranquilizer and herbal sleep aid during her time (1098–1179). It was also widely used during WWII to treat shellshock. 1
Though scientific studies are still yet to prove the capabilities of valerian, one particular study concluded that a common prescription-only sedative and valerian equally improved sleep quality in a study of 75 individuals suffering from insomnia. Additionally, the valerian group reported fewer side effects. 2
2. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family that both tastes and smells distinctly like lemons. The lemon balm plant has been used as an herbal remedy for insomnia and anxiety since the Middle Ages. 3
Most studies on the effects of lemon balm have been paired with other plants – like valerian or chamomile – so it has very few solo trials.
One such solo study, however, showed some promising results: Volunteers with sleep disturbances took lemon balm extract over a 15 day period. Results showed that the extract reduced anxiety by 18 percent and insomnia by 42 percent. 4
Lemon balm is available as a dried leaf; or as a tea, capsule, or essential oil. It’s also an easy herb to grow at home and can be found at most plant nurseries.
An old favorite throughout human history, chamomile is famed for being a soothing, sleep-inducing herb consumed as a tea before bedtime.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it for everything from chest colds to wound healing to, of course, insomnia. 5
It is said that the sedative effects of chamomile may be due to the flavonoid, apigenin, that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. 6
And clinical trials have displayed some interesting results thus far. In one trial, 10 cardiac patients were reported to have fallen into a deep sleep lasting for 90 minutes after drinking chamomile tea. 7
Chamomile is most well known as a tea, but it can also be obtained in ointment, capsule, and oil form.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) has been used traditionally as a folk remedy for easing anxiety, insomnia, and hysteria. And, it is still being used today.
Much like many of these remedies, scientists believe that passionflower works by increasing those GABA levels in your brain, making you feel more relaxed. 8
The effects of passionflower seem to be milder than valerian, and passionflower is often combined with valerian, lemon balm, or other similarly calming herbs for more effect. 9
As a natural sleep remedy, passionflower is found as a tea, a tincture, a capsule, and a liquid extract.
The lavender plant has long been adored for both its beautiful purple flowers and its fragrance.
In folklore, and even today, people fill small pillows with lavender to aid in the inducing of sleep.
Research has backed up these ancient beliefs, confirming that lavender does produce calming, soothing, sedative-like effects when inhaled. Evidence suggests that lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, promote relaxation, lift mood, and, therefore, improve sleep quality.
In one study, 42 female college students who complained of insomnia were studied over four-weeks with the use of lavender aromatherapy. Weekly evaluations were also undertaken.
Results showed that the length of time taken to fall asleep, severity of insomnia, and self satisfaction with sleep were improved across the board. 10
Lavender flowers (in tea) have been officially approved in Germany as a herbal remedy for insomnia and restlessness. 11
Lavender is available in everything from soap to lotions to oils, but it may be bought as a tea or tincture as well.
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) has been used as a ceremonial drink, similar to alcohol, in the Pacific Islands region for hundreds of years. The roots of the plant are ground into a pulp and added to water to produce a thick, cloudy, brown-hued brew.
Kava produces relaxing qualities that can elevate the mood which is why it has been considered an alternative treatment for insomnia.
A study of kava in a 6-week double-blind trial showed a significant reduction in anxiety within 26% of the kava group, compared with only 6% of the placebo group. 12
Kava can be bought as tablets, capsules, or liquid drops or you can brew a tea by simmering the roots of the plant in water as is done by Pacific Islanders.
It’s important to understand the power of an herbal sleep aid – they could prove helpful in resolving mild sleep issues or temporary fatigue due to travel or graveyard work schedule.
That said, if you are struggling with long-term insomnia, or if you are interested in starting a new, natural sleep remedy, see a doctor first to discuss all your options.
Want more healthy tips? Keep reading on the Spicefit blog here:
1. Psychiatric Medications: Prescription and Alternative, David Mays, pg. 54
7. Gould L, Reddy CV, Gomprecht RF. Cardiac effects of chamomile tea. J Clin Pharmacol. 1973;11:475–479.