We’ve all been there: Exhausted, but sleep just isn’t happening. Maybe your brain won’t shut down, or you can’t get comfortable. Or perhaps you did manage to drift off, but woke up feeling like you ran 8 miles, not slept 8 hours.
What gives? It’s likely a disruption in the normal tides of brain chemicals that are tuned into your circadian rhythms, says Dr. Bill Rawls, medical director of Vital Plan. And these rhythms are what either keep us awake or put us to sleep.
“During the day, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are elevated, which helps us get through day-to-day activities,” Dr. Rawls explains. In the evening, cortisol and its cohorts are supposed to ebb, making way for the flow of a new set of relaxing chemicals that induce and sustain sleep. However, stress and other factors, such as stuffy sinuses or aches and pains, can throw off the chemical tides—and your Zzzs.
While you may be tempted to pop a sleeping pill, they can come with dependency and other unwanted side effects. Instead, consider turning first to nature’s pharmacy. Research shows it’s stocked with plants that can promote a healthy sleep environment and may help you unwind, drift off, and wake up feeling energized and refreshed.
Here are three tips and a garden of options to try:
1. Bring nature into your bedroom
Not only do studies suggest that simply being around plants can help you feel calmer, certain varieties are especially effective at scrubbing the air of pollutants that cause sleep-disrupting symptoms, according to a paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Others, meanwhile, give off rest-promoting aromas.
• Air purifying houseplants
Take your pick of Areca, lady and bamboo palms, English Ivy, Boston fern, peace lily and Ficus. All are on the top-10 list of best houseplants for their ability to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from indoor air, as assessed by a NASA researcher. Many building and household materials like paint, carpeting, and cleaning supplies release VOCs, which are known to irritate eyes and airways and trigger headaches and fatigue—in other words, symptoms that mess with sleep.
• Calming houseplants
Scents are known to affect the nervous system, and science shows that lavender, jasmine, and gardenia are especially calming. For example, researchers at Wesleyan University found that when people sniffed lavender oil before bed, they spent more time in deep sleep and felt more energized and refreshed in the morning. In another study from Wheeling Jesuit University, people were exposed to jasmine scents while sleeping, causing them to move around less, indicating better-quality sleep.
2. Sip your way to better sleep
There’s something immediately calming about cupping your hands around a warm mug of herbal tea and breathing in the steam that wafts up. But the right mix of steeped herbs in your cup could make the ritual even more effective.
Here are three teas to look for:
• Passion flower
“Passion flower helps bring on calm, and it also promotes muscle relaxation,” says Dr. Rawls. Those two benefits make this Amazonian plant especially effective for promoting sleep. In fact, people who drank passion flower tea for a week reported better sleep quality than when they drank a placebo tea, according to a study from Monash University in Australia.
• Chamomile and valerian
Perhaps the two most common herbal ingredients found in bedtime teas, their sleep-supporting benefits are well supported by research. For example, postnatal women who drank chamomile tea for two weeks reported less sleep interference from physical symptoms, according to a study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.
Just be sure to listen to your body if you try these teas. While chamomile works well for many, it may keep others awake, Dr. Rawls says. Likewise for valerian: “About 25 percent of people who take it can feel agitated,” he says.
3. Use herbal supplements for temporary support
Certain herbs are believed to help you rest by affecting the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a key neurotransmitter that induces sleep, Dr. Rawls says. The caveat: They work best if taken only intermittently — a few nights in a row to deal with occasional sleep trouble.
“If you use anything that hits the GABA system every night, whether it’s herbs or drugs, it can suppress natural GABA over time,” says Dr. Rawls. “That can cause a rebound effect that makes insomnia worse.”
Here are a few Dr. Rawls recommends for occasional sleep support:
• Passion flower
Tea isn’t the only way to take advantage of the calming properties held in the leaves of this pretty plant. For instance, a study in the Journal of Anesthesia found that patients about to undergo spinal anesthesia who took passion flower extract felt calmer than those who received a placebo. Another study found that a combination of passion flower, valerian, and hops worked significantly well for improving occasional sleeplessness.
An herb native to India, bacopa has been used for thousands of years and is best known to help support memory, focus, and mental function. But it’s also calming and has a mild sedative effect, Dr. Rawls says. One study, for example, showed the herb could help mitigate some of the effects of stress.
Although it originated in central Eurasia, this member of the mint family has long been used in herbal medicine, and it now grows in gardens in temperate areas of the world. “It’s a nice, calming herb that affects dopamine and has sleep-promoting qualities,” Dr. Rawls says. Russian researchers found that in subjects with high blood pressure and sleep problems, 80% of those who took motherwort saw significant or moderate improvement in low mood and related sleep trouble.
• Ashwagandha, magnolia, and phellodendron
“The key to a good night’s sleep isn’t what you do at bedtime, but instead it’s what you’re doing during the day,” Dr. Rawls says. Herbs like ashwagandha, an adaptogen that hails from India and parts of Africa, as well as magnolia and phellodendron help moderate daytime stress and may set the stage for healthy sleep.
• Corydalis, California poppy, and kava kava
Sometimes, even when you do everything right, sleep just won’t come. Or, you fall asleep just fine, then your eyes pop open in the middle of the night for no good reason. In these occasional instances, a blend of herbs like corydalis, California poppy, and kava, especially in tincture form, can offer powerful and more immediate sleep support. Jujube seed, skullcap, lobelia, and western pasqueflower are other good herbs to add to this combination.
Utilizing houseplants, teas, and supplements may be all you need for a good night’s rest. But for the best and lasting results, Dr. Rawls recommends combining plants with lifestyle changes that are known to improve sleep long-term.
“Regular exercise and other stress-reducing activities, as well as practicing healthy sleep hygiene like limiting screen time at night, are also essential elements for enjoying optimal sleep.”