Imagine waking up fully rested, ready to tackle any challenge and embrace all the pleasures of the world with gratitude. We all know what a good night’s sleep feels like, but how often do we get it? In this hectic, hyper-stimulated, nerve-wracking world, it is challenging to create a sleep routine that our bodies and brains need to function optimally.
Good sleep hygiene and use of natural herbs and botanicals can help promote a healthy amount of sleep. The result could mean an improvement in problem solving and work performance, weight management, and prevention of chronic disease such as diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease.
There are multitudes of products and advice in this arena of sleep. An article from 2016 suggested Americans spent over $41 billion on sleep remedies, with an expected increase to upwards of $52 billion by the year 2020.
How much sleep do we really need?
As you might expect, children require more sleep than adults. The average child needs up to 11 hours of sleep per night, while most adults should get 7-8 hours. According to the Center for Disease Control, the average American gets 6.8 hours. Collectively, we’re not reaching the minimal sleep requirement of 7 hours, and sleep deprivation represents one of the top behaviors deleteriously affecting our overall health. Many factors contribute to this deficit: work schedules, family obligations, and chronic illness or behavioral issues. In most of these cases, our circadian rhythms are completely out of whack.
What are some natural remedies or botanicals to help promote sleep?
The regulatory body internationally recognized for its comprehensive data on medicinal herbs, the German Commission E, recommends common botanicals (valerian, lavender, lemon balm, and hops) to help support relaxation and promote sleep. There are other popular choices that have sedative qualities, such as passion flower, chamomile, and kava kava. Most of these relaxant botanicals can be found commonly in teas, but they are also available in supplement form. Almost always found in blends, these herbs all have various mechanisms of action, and, therefore, act synergistically when combined.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) affects sleep by interacting with neurotransmitters GABA, adenosine and serotonin. A two-week randomized controlled trial study comparing the common sleep aid zolpidem (Ambien) with a blend of valerian, passion flower and hops found no statistically significant difference in overall sleep quality. The root or rhizome of this plant is used in either teas or processed into an extract for use in supplements. The extract is standardized to its valerenic acid content, usually containing 0.3-0.8% of the constituent. Doses in supplements are typically 150-600 mg. Use of valerian generally requires about 2 weeks before it appears effective, but studies have been limited to 4-6 weeks, so use beyond that time frame should be approached with caution.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is an extremely popular floral herb found in essential oil form, teas, extracts and in other botanical blends to promote relaxation and relieve stress. Recent research has identified it functions by antagonizing NMDA-receptors and serotonin transporters. Doses of 80 mg per day lavender in gel cap form for up to 10 weeks have been used in a study where subjects had unspecified anxiety. Both quality and duration of sleep improved in those participants with no sedative side-effects as found in pharmaceutical sleep remedies. Other uses of lavender include 1-2 teaspoons in hot water as a tea daily, or its essential oil diluted in a carrier oil used for massage or in a warm bath. Lavender is generally safe, however it has been known to be toxic if ingested orally.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has ancient roots as an antiviral and stomach-calming agent as well as a treatment for sleep disorders caused by nervousness or tension. Studies have shown the mechanism of action of lemon balm may be related to interactions with GABA-A receptors.
Hops (Humulus lupulus), besides having a super fun Latin name and serving as the main ingredient in many beers, is one of the herbs commonly found blended in teas or supplements to produce a calming effect. Researchers have not completely elucidated exactly how hops produces this effect, but it has been shown to bind to serotonin and melatonin receptors. Valerian-hops combination products have been the most widely studied in placebo-controlled, double-blind randomized controlled trials comparing them to benzodiazepine-class sleep medications with varying results. Like lemon balm, evidence for its use as an herbal treatment for relaxation or insomnia has a rich history in tradition.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is another botanical used to address anxiety and insomnia. Researchers have found passionflower functions by increasing levels of GABA, producing a relaxation effect. In a Japanese study from 2017, scientists found passionflower extract modulated the levels of the neurotransmitters and the genetic expression of the related enzymes in vivo and in vitro. This resulted in positive effects on circadian rhythms.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
Dr. Michael Polsky, a board-certified sleep physician, recommends considering sleep hygiene for improving sleep. Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe how we prepare our minds and bodies for sleep, beginning hours before actual anticipated sleep. In fact, the window of 2-3 hours prior to sleeping turns out to be quite important. Here are some tips for keeping good sleep hygiene:
- At least 2-3 hours prior to sleep, have a light, balanced dinner and minimize liquids
- Make a plan to abstain from electronic devices 1-2 hours prior to sleep
- Do some light activity such as walking or yoga; avoid a hard workout or any activity that is too stimulating
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine (from coffee, tea, chocolate) in the diet; or no more than 1-2 cups of coffee or tea before lunch
- Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends