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 eight miles, not slept eight hours.
What gives? There’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 12 herbs to help you sleep, plus soothing teas and even houseplants that belong in your bedroom if you truly want to sleep like a dream.
Herbs for Occasional Sleeplessness
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 herbs for sleep that Dr. Rawls recommends for occasional sleep support:
This exotic purple vine flower is as beautiful as it sounds, and one species in particular — passiflora incarnata — is lauded for its ability to quiet the mental static that can push sleep out of reach. For instance, a study in the Journal of Anesthesia found that patients about to undergo spinal anesthesia who took passionflower extract felt calmer than those who received a placebo. Another study found that a combination of passionflower, 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.
CBD from Hemp
Short for cannabidiol, CBD is a natural compound in the hemp plant that works by mimicking endocannabinoids in the body, Dr. Rawls explains. Endocannabinoids are part of the endocannabinoid system, which oversees or regulates parts of the nervous system, mood and emotions, endorphins, hormones, and more.
By mimicking endocannabinoids, CBD can help increase calm and sense of well-being and improve sleep, says Dr. Rawls. To get the benefits, try taking 15-30 mg of a full-spectrum CBD oil before bed, as needed. You might find you need more or less, but it’s best to start at a lower serving and gradually build up until you find the amount that works for you.
Daily Herbs to Keep Sleep-Stealing Stress in Check
“The key to a good night’s sleep isn’t just what you do at bedtime — it’s also what you’re doing during the day,” Dr. Rawls says. Read on to learn about adaptogens and other herbs that can help moderate daytime stress and set the stage for healthy sleep at night.
Native to India and Africa, ashwagandha is one of the better-known adaptogens, a category of herbs that help the body adapt to stress and keep you calm in the face of adversity. That’s a desirable benefit for many reasons, including the fact that mental stress is a top enemy of sleep.
Ashwagandha is particularly useful in balancing the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis or HPA axis, Dr. Rawls explains. This central pathway facilitates the body’s stress response and secretion of hormones, like cortisol (a stress hormone), quickly and efficiently.
Researchers have also identified a component in ashwagandha called triethylene glycol that may be directly linked with inducing sleep. Taking this withanolide — a naturally occurring steroid in the leaves of ashwagandha — corresponded with significantly higher amounts of non-REM sleep in mice. To get the most out of ashwagandha’s balancing powers, Dr. Rawls recommends taking it both in the morning and in the evening.
This calming amino acid found naturally in green tea is the reason the caffeinated brew isn’t as jitters-inducing as coffee — it helps counteract the stimulating effects of caffeine, says Dr. Rawls. Similarly, l-theanine helps keep our brains from getting overstimulated: It works on neurotransmitters to promote relaxation and keep anxious feelings in check.
Research shows this can also translate to improved sleep. For instance, one study in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology found that l-theanine helped reduce sleep latency and increase sleep duration. In other words, it significantly increased total time spent asleep. This is another herb you can take both in the morning and at night to moderate stress.
Chinese Tree Bark Extracts
A combination of two Chinese tree barks — magnolia and phellodendron — has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for more than 1,500 years to help promote a healthful reaction to everyday stress. More recently, in 2012, the benefits of this herbal blend were showcased in a research setting.
When study participants took a combination of magnolia and phellodendron, they had 18% lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva compared to those taking a placebo. Plus, participants self-reported lower levels of overall stress and tension, fatigue, and anger, and higher levels of overall mood and vigor. Add these barks to your twice-a-day routine to help optimize your ability to cope in the face of stress.
Herbs for Aches and Pains that Make You Toss and Turn
If achy knees, hips, or other joints are keeping you up nights, consider turmeric your new go-to. The classic spice that gives Indian dishes their yellow hue, turmeric is increasingly lauded for its ability to help soothe and comfort sore joints.
Much of the credit goes to curcumin and other curcuminoids, active compounds in turmeric with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Research in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and beyond has linked curcumin with anti-inflammatory activity on a cellular level.
While it’s easier than ever to get more turmeric in your diet, thanks to trendy turmeric lattes and golden milks, it’s tough to get therapeutic levels from dietary sources. A better bet is to choose a full-spectrum extract with 200-400 mg, twice a day, to reap the most benefits.
Another Indian native, boswellia is a close relative of frankincense. And while it may not be a household name like turmeric, boswellia deserves similar attention for its antioxidant activity and joint comforting capabilities. Animal studies suggest it helps inhibit proinflammatory cytokines, immunoregulatory proteins that play a role in rheumatoid arthritis.
Pairing boswellia with turmeric seems to enhance boswellia’s effects, suggesting a synergistic relationship, says Dr. Rawls. To get the benefits, he recommends taking 100 mg, twice daily.
Nighttime Herbs for Sleep When You Need It Most
Sometimes, even when you do everything right, sleep just won’t come. Or, perhaps you fall asleep just fine, but then your eyes pop open at 3am for no good reason. And it always seems to happen the night before an important event, when you need to feel your most focused and well-rested. In these occasional instances, a blend of more powerful herbs like the ones below can offer more immediate sleep support.
A relative of the poppy, corydalis has a long history of use in TCM for all sorts of health concerns, including insomnia, headache, and dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation). Its sleep-promoting qualities have been attributed to tetrahydropalmatine, an alkaloid with sedative properties. (Alkaloids are a class of naturally occurring organic compounds that have diverse physiological effects on humans and other animals.)
One important caveat about corydalis: It should not be taken if you are pregnant or nursing. Its higher potency also comes with greater risk of side effects like next-day drowsiness and potential for habituation — though the risk is nowhere near that associated with a prescription sleep medication.
A nervine or remedy that acts on the nervous system to help calm ruffled nerves, California poppy is a popular go-to for herbalists seeking reliable help for overcoming occasional sleeplessness. It’s been shown to be both safe and effective – especially for those feeling on edge and wrestling with thoughts that might be keeping them awake.
Research suggests it works similarly to corydalis, in that the alkaloids in California poppy possess sedative qualities. Also like corydalis, California poppy isn’t safe during pregnancy, and it’s on the more potent side, so save it for those occasions when you truly need sleep to be primed for next-day success.
Most of the research on kava has focused on its ability to help ease anxiety, which is attributed to the plant’s kavalactones, compounds that appear to affect neurotransmitters like GABA to have a calming effect on the brain. These soothing effects have also been linked with improved sleep. For instance, one study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that participants who took kava for four weeks reported better quality sleep and feeling more rejuvenated the next day than those who took a placebo.
Kava is a more potent herb, so use it sparingly and avoid it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, it has been linked with liver problems, so avoid it if you have any liver health concerns or are taking medications that affect the liver.
Also called Chinese date, jujube fruit is consumed worldwide as both a food and herbal medicine to help find mental calm and improve sleep quality. The seeds of jujube in particular have been studied for their impact on sleeplessness, learning, and memory, and research suggests that certain flavonoids (bioactive ingredients in plants) have a “hypnotic” or sleep-bringing effect.
“Jujube seed helps promote healthy levels of serotonin, a mood-balancing hormone,” explains Dr. Rawls. “It also works in synergy with other herbs to help enhance their properties, so it’s great in blends with herbs like kava, corydalis, and California poppy.”
Herbal Teas for a Soothing Bedtime Ritual
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:
“Passionflower 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 passionflower 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 Tea
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.
Bring Nature Into Your Bedroom
In addition to taking advantage of the best herbs for sleep, consider what decorating with the right houseplants can do for you. 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.
Take your pick of any of the following:
- Areca palm
- Lady palm
- Bamboo palm
- Rubber plant
- English ivy
- Dwarf date palm
- Boston fern
- Peace lily
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.
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.
Utilizing herbs, teas, and houseplants as natural sleep aids 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.”
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