Why sleep is so important
Insomnia means difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep, resulting in feeling tired and low in energy the following day. It’s a common problem in the doctor’s surgery and the herbalist’s clinic. And it’s a serious problem. There is a lot of research showing that not getting enough sleep can seriously affect our general health. It reduces immune function so that we become more susceptible to infection and other health problems, and less able to fight back and recover from ill health.
One study, conducted in 2009, found that people who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to catch a nasally introduced rhinovirus (ie a cold) than those who slept for eight hours or more.
What causes insomnia?
The herbal approach to insomnia is the same as with any other health disorder: find, and resolve, the underlying cause of the problem.
There are many possible causes, of a physical and/or emotional nature, of insomnia, including pain, disease, depression and bereavement. Many prescribed and over-the-counter medications can cause insomnia, and dietary and lifestyle issues are often factors.
How herbs can help
Once a herbalist has pinpointed the underlying factors and started to help alleviate them, the insomnia will often naturally resolve as a result. If additional help is required, there are many herbs that can be used on a symptomatic basis. These might be included in the herbal mixture prescribed for the underlying complaint, or prepared as a separate night mix, to be taken before bed. The aim would be for the patient to use this in the short term, but a sleep mix is sometimes required on an ongoing basis if the cause of the insomnia cannot be fully alleviated. For example, in the case of physical pain and longterm, chronic illness.
Popular herbal sleep aids
In my practice, the herbs I most commonly use, because I find them extremely effective for a wide range of people with differing underlying reasons for their insomnia, are valerian (Valeriana officinalis), passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) and wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa). (Valerian is the most researched and scientifically validated herbal sleep aid, but it does not work for everyone – occasionally, in certain individuals, it stimulates rather than relaxes!) I prescribe these herbs as very strong liquid tinctures (as opposed to the very dilute solutions contained in many ‘sleep aids’ for insomnia you can buy over the counter). Where there is pain, I might use herbs that also have a strong analgesic effect, such as Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia erythrina) and yellow jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens). (NB: the latter is toxic in relatively low doses and may only be prescribed by a qualified medical herbalist.)
These tinctures have the added advantage of being non-habit-forming and not producing any ‘morning hangover’ effect.
Diet and lifestyle
Here are just a few diet and lifestyle factors that can cause or contribute to insomnia:
- Medication such as beta blockers, thyroid preparations, antidepressants and oral contraceptives.
- ‘Recreational’ drugs.
- Obesity (resulting in snoring and breathing difficulties such as sleep apnea, for example).
- Lack of exercise.
Self-help tips for relieving insomnia:
- Drink herbal teas with relaxing and sedative properties an hour or two before bed.
Choose from German chamomile, lavender, lime flower, passion flower and lemon balm, or experiment with different mixes to find what works best for you. It’s important to buy good quality dried herbs from a reputable supplier for maximum medicinal effect. Go to a herbalist, or a reputable health store that sells loose dried herbs. The look and smell of the herbs (as well as the taste, once you’ve brewed up) are all good indicators of quality.
Always leave your tea to stand for at least ten minutes before drinking, to fully activate its medicinal properties.
- Use herbal essential oils to help you unwind and relax before bed.
Chamomile, lavender, rose otto, ylang ylang, neroli and sandalwood all have relaxing and/or sedative properties. You can use them in a bath or a burner, or ask someone to give you a massage with a few drops of your chosen oil diluted in a tablespoon of carrier oil such as sweet almond. You could also put a few drops on a tissue or ball of cotton wool and place inside your pillow case – the warmth of your body will help to release the aroma.
- Learn to meditate, and practice before going to bed. Or spend a few minutes doing deep breathing exercises.
A Buddhist meditation called The Mindfulness of Breathing is very easy to learn and, I find, very effective at calming mind, body and spirit before bed. You just sit or lie down comfortably in a quiet place, or in bed, and breathe in and out slowly and deeply a few times. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Breathe in through your nose, and imagine that breath travelling deep down into your lungs. Then slowly breathe out through your mouth. Count each breath, up to ten, silently to yourself, on the out-breath. Then start at one again. If you find thoughts coming into your mind and your attention drifting, just acknowledge, and release, those thoughts, and return to focusing on the breath, starting at one again.
(This is a simplified version of the Buddhist Mindfulness of Breathing technique. If you have the opportunity to go to a Buddhist centre and learn properly, I highly recommend it. It is a fantastic, life-enhancing tool and can be used to improve your health and wellbeing in so many ways.)
Find out more
If you’d like to find out more about how herbal medicine works, please take a look at my About Herbal Medicine page.