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Herbs for a Good Night’s Sleep

Posted by Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa on January 17, 2023

We live in a chaotic and stimulating world. The pace of life perpetually accelerates, and our whole civilization becomes more and more frantic. We are a nation of insomniacs, unable to shut off our mental chatter. And for those in chronic pain, the situation is only worse. The pain makes sleeping yet more difficult, sleep deprivation emboldens the pain and the cycle continues. Officially, insomnia is, “difficulties initiating and/or maintaining sleep, or non-restorative sleep, associated with impairments of daytime functioning or marked distress for more than 1 month.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in excess of one-quarter of us report occasional sleep problems, while nearly 10% suffer from chronic insomnia. If we look just at adults, though, the numbers look more dramatic. The National Sleep Foundation sys that 58% of American adults experience symptoms of insomnia a few nights a week or more.

Recent research reveals that sleep patterns in midlife could be costing men as much as 75 percent of their growth hormone, which is known to prevent aging. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association involved 149 healthy men, ages 16 to 83, none of whom had a history of sleep disorders or took drugs. Scientists charted age-related changes in sleep and reported that the first stage of waning sleep quality starts between the ages of 25 and 45. Researchers also studied worsening of sleep that occurs after age 50, when people experience a significant reduction in rapid eye movement (REM), or dream sleep that appears to be connected with elevated cortisol levels. 

Insomnia can make you feel anxious, depressed, or irritable. You may have trouble focusing on tasks, paying attention, learning, and remembering, problems can thwart you from doing your best at work or school. In 2012, the journal Brain said that sleep is beneficial for memory, and the deepest stage of sleep boosted memory the most.

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) just might help here. A hardy perennial flowering plant, this remedy grows from Europe to India, and is an herb of medium potency, which makes it quite suitable for self-care—it’s potent enough that you don’t need a high dose, but not so potent that you could accidentally take more than you needed. It is a good short-term sedative that works quickly, offering a healthy, nontoxic alternative to strong prescription drugs.  

The root has been used a medicine since at least the time of ancient Greece and is the most widely used herbal relaxant in Europe, where it has been the subject of 700 scientific studies over the past 80 years, so, in much of Europe, physicians are more likely to recommend valerian than pharmaceuticals. 

Recent scientific investigations have found that constituents in valerian bind to GABA receptors, the same mechanism as Valium-type drugs. 

A study in Phytotherapy Research reported that 19 patients with stress-induced insomnia who each took just 600 mg of valerian per day for 6 weeks had significant reductions in insomnia, and most had no side effects whatsoever. In 2011, a randomized, triple-blind, controlled trial enrolled 100 postmenopausal insomniac women who received either 530 mg of concentrated valerian extract or a placebo twice a day for 4 weeks. Based on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, there was a statistically significant improvement in sleep in the valerian group.  

For insomnia, take valerian right at bedtime to help quickly induce sleep. Valerian is applicable for insomniacs who have trouble falling asleep, because it decreases the amount of time it takes get drowsy. A German placebo controlled study found that a valerian extract herb combination was effective using a single bedtime dose. Since it is normally effective for about 4 hours, valerian doesn’t necessarily improve the duration of sleep. 

An old reliable, skullcap is not a trendy superstar, but it sure is an herbal workhorse. Skullcap leaf (Scutellaria lateriflora), a classic Western herb, is one of the most commonly used relaxant herbs in common practice today. The aerial parts (leaf, stem and flower) are used. This familiar herb is a safe, reliable, mild sedative that excels in relieving anxiety, neuralgia, and insomnia. Human research is sparse, but one study in humans was a double blind, crossover design. Fifteen women and 4 men, aged 20-70 years, took one of three types of skullcap preparations and rated energy, cognition and anxiety at intervals for two hours. The researchers found that, in healthy subjects, it “demonstrated noteworthy anxiolytic effects.”   

It looks like its calming action is mainly due to the antispasmodic constituent scutellarin, a flavonoid glycoside. Another constituent, a flavonoid called baicalin and its active metabolite, baicalein, are known to bind to the GABA receptor, as we saw with valerian. A 2011 scientific paper confirmed the sedative action and the GABA site binding of baicalein. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology said that baicalin helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

Skullcap is available in dried form as teas, capsules, tablets, and tinctures. For a tea, start with 10 grams of the dry herb. Infuse the chopped leaves, strain and drink as one entire dose at bedtime for insomnia. In tincture form, the equivalent dose is 8 tsp. Fresh herb tinctures are strongly preferred.

Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera) is an ancient herb that is showing a lot of promise. As the scientific name indicates, ashwaganda aids sleep. Ayurvedic herbalists use the herb to reestablish long-term sleep rhythms. Rather than making you sleepy when you take the herb, this remedy seems to regulate sleep cycles over time, facilitating more refreshing sleep.

Ayurvedic herbalism also uses ashwaganda for general debility and exhaustion, memory loss and nerve diseases. Modern clinicians are most likely to employ it for chronic fatigue and anxiety, as well as insomnia. One recent study looked at sleep deprived rats. Ashwaganda was effective in improving sleep, and was found to also have an action on GABA mechanism.

To use ashwaganda for sleep, take capsules and use up to 10 grams per day. Expect to wait a few days for the full effect.

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