Treating Sleep Problems with Herbs


Bunch of lavender

Treating Sleep Problems with Herbs

(published in Positive Health)
There is no question that a good night’s sleep for at least 6-8 hours is vital for health of mind and body and to enable us to perform optimally during waking hours. Poor sleep has it origin in many different problems of both mind and body but also becomes a problem of its own that then predisposes us to further health problems. Ascertaining the underlying cause is the first step towards effective treatment. Insomnia is largely caused by stress and tension, but other factors may also contribute, including the menopause, allergies, hypoglycaemia, nutritional deficiencies, overwork, overtiredness, physical problems such as pain, skin rashes, heat and cold, acute infections, coughs, headaches, digestive problems, asthma or catarrh causing difficulty breathing. According to Ayurveda sleep problems can also be caused by disturbance of one of the doshas and particularly Vata.

Herbs with sedative properties can be taken in a variety of different ways. A warm herbal bath before bed with added strong infusions or dilute essential oils of lime flower, lavender, chamomile, neroli or rose will relax tense muscles and calm an overactive mind. Herb pillows containing herbs such as chamomile, catnip, hops, lavender, lemon balm, limeflowers, orange blossom and sweet woodruff have traditionally been used for sleep problems. According to Ayurveda, drinking warm milk before bed promotes peaceful sleep. Adding ground almonds and a pinch of cardamom or nutmeg will help nourish the nervous system and settle the digestion. In India they use a salve of nutmeg and ghee around the eyes, and on the forehead to promote sleep.

A cup of herbal tea or 1-3 tsp of tincture (diluted in a little warm water) can be taken nightly before bed until a proper sleep pattern is re-established and then the dose can gradually be reduced. Lime flower, lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), wild lettuce (Lactuca villosa), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla/recutita), skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), wild oats (Avena sativa), catnip (Nepeta cataria), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and hops (Humulus lupulus) can be used singly or in combinations. Lime/linden flower tea (Tilea Europea) relieves anxiety, calms restlessness and agitation, relaxes muscle tension and thereby aids sleep. Its decongestant action helps clear catarrhal congestion, while its soothing action relieves irritating coughs and sore throats, which can contribute to sleep problems. In a randomised double blind, controlled clinical trial of a valerian/hops mixture was as effective as benzodiazepines for non-chronic and non-psychiatric sleep disorders. This herbal mixture also had the advantage of lacking the withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepine treatment. (Schmitz et al 1998)

Passionflower is one of the best tranquilizing herbs for chronic insomnia, whether from tension or exhaustion, and relieves many stress-related symp­toms. Being both sedative and antispasmodic, it relaxes spasm and tension in the muscles including the gut, it calms the nerves and lessens pain. In vitro trials have suggested the flavonoids apigenin and chrysin both may mediate anxiolytic effect by means of their action as benzodiazepine receptor ligands (Viola H, et al 1995) (Wolfman C et al 1994). Apigenin is also well known for its antispasmodic and antiinflammatory properties (Wren F 1985). Passionflower apparently exerts its benefi­cial effects on the nervous system by improving circulation and nutri­tion to the nerves. Its cooling properties help relieve symptoms related to excess heat in the system. Its relaxing effects in the chest relieve spasm and soothe irritating and nervous coughs.

Nervine herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, wild oats, vervain, rosemary, lime-flower, wild oats and skullcap can also be taken three times during the day to reduce accumulating tension and thereby aid sleep at night. Such nourishing herbs also help prevent nervous depletion from stress and poor sleep. Overtiredness can create a viscous circle and predispose further to insomnia.

Ashwagandha is a well known Ayurvedic herb, an excellent sedative and nourishing to a depleted nervous system, particularly recommended for all problems associated with excess Vata. ¼ – ½ tsp of the powder taken with raw sugar and ghee at night is traditionally used (Dastur J.F 1960). It can also be taken in warm milk with a little raw sugar or honey, both morning and night. Brahmi (Centella/Hydrocotyl asiatica), also known as gotu cola, has a relaxing effect, calming an agitated mind and can be given before bed. It can be mixed in equal parts with Bringaraj (Eclipta alba), jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) and shankapushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis). Steep ¼ – ½ tsp of the mixture in ½ cup of hot water for 10 minutes, sweeten with honey if required. Draksasava, (2-8 tsp at night) is helpful. This is a mildly alcoholic sweet preparation of grapes and spices, and considered ideal for children.

A recipe I often use with success in my practice comprises:

1 part gotu cola (Centella asiatica)

1 part jatamansi

1 part shankapushpi

1 part ashwagandha

½ part cardamom

½ teaspoon of the powder mixture can be heated in a little warm milk, sweetened with jaggery or honey, and taken morning and night.

Oil massage using sesame oil at night, particularly to head, limbs, and soles, followed by a warm shower or bath, and instilling oil in ears has a relaxing and calming effect, and helps balance Vata and promote good sleep. Hair oil made from aloe vera juice (Kumari) and sesame oil boiled together can be rubbed on the head before bed to calm the mind. Brahmi/gotu cola oil works well when massaged on the soles of the feet and the scalp at bedtime. Medicated nose drops (nasya) are popular in Ayurvedic medicine for sleeping problems. Brahmi ghee or plain ghee is used. 2-4 drops in each nostril.


Dastur. J F. Everybody’s guide to Ayurvedic Medicine. DB Taraporevala Sons & Co, 1960; 218

Schmitz M, Jackel M.[Comparative study for assessing quality of life of patients with exogenous sleep disorders (temporary sleep onset and sleep interruption disorders) treated with a hops-valarian preparation and a benzodiazepine drug] Wien Med Wochenschr. 1998; 148(13): 291-8.

Viola H, Wasowski C, Levi de Stein M et al. ‘Apigenin, a component of Matricaria recutita flowers, is a central benzodiazepine receptor-ligand with anxiolytic effects’ Planta Med 1995; 61: 213-215.

Wolfson P, Hoffmann DL. ‘An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers.’ Altern Ther Health Med. 2003 Mar-Apr; 9(2): 74-8.

Wren RC, Williamson EM, Evans FJ. Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations.1985