I've been noticing a common theme in a lot of my conversations lately: people just can't sleep.
Recently, even the calm, collected, and seems-to-have-it-all-together Michelle Obama admitted in an interview that her anxieties have been keeping her up at night.
To be honest, I've been wrestling with poor sleep myself.
I'm going to take a wild guess and say that for most of us, these bad sleep patterns might be caused by some combination of the pandemic, economic uncertainty, environmental destruction, the fight for social justice...and, you know, general global unrest.
A lot of us have personal stuff stacked right on top of all that, too.
So, as we glide into a new season and feel the cool, clear air of autumn coming in, let's breathe deep and take a moment to focus on rest. Below are some fantastic herbal allies who can help us calm our nervous systems and bodies down, quiet our spinning thoughts, and help us get a good night of sleep.
Maypop (Passiflora incarnata)
Maypop, also widely known as passionflower, is a true friend to those who experience bouts of anxiety and racing, circular thoughts. It's a mild sedative, hypnotic, and antispasmodic that helps to calm the central nervous system and ease the body into a restful state.
In my experience, maypop is almost a specific for those times when you wake up in the middle of the night with an overwhelming sense that everything must be done right now (which, of course, is impossible at 4am...or any other time, really).
Maypop can be made into a tea to drink before bed by adding 1 tsp of the dried leaf to 8 oz of water and steeping for about 15 minutes. The taste can be a bit bitter for some, so I recommend adding in a little spearmint or honey to make it more palatable. It can be taken as a tincture as well - I tend to prefer this, as it's easier to reach for in the middle of the night when those racing thoughts hit.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
When the nerves and stomach are at ease, the mind will follow.
Chamomile is a wonderful friend in situations where stress has caused muscle tension and an upset stomach. Our gut is part of our nervous system, and sometimes calming it down can help us feel more settled overall. A nice cup of chamomile tea helps to relax the peripheral nervous system and ease stress symptoms in the stomach, helping us to get a restful night of sleep.
The best way to take chamomile is as a tea, because it washes over your enteric nervous system (aka your gut) and bathes it in that good medicine. To make it, just steep 2-3 tsp of the herb in 8 oz hot water for 10 minutes. If you want to take chamomile as a tincture, I would suggest adding it to warm water so you still get that nice gut-soothing effect.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Some herbalists may disagree with me on this, but in my experience, valerian is the most powerful sleep aid.
It relieves muscle cramps and tension and helps to calm nervousness and even indigestion. And yet, it's still a gentle herb. It's a lovely thing to take when you feel deeply unsettled, rattled, and anxious, and need to settle yourself into a relaxed state before sleep.
As this is a very pungent herb (some have said the roots remind them of old gym socks...kinda harsh...), I prefer to take it as a tincture. Or even better, as a glycerite; the sweetness of the glycerine actually turns the sharp taste of the root into something delicious.
One note of caution: for a small percentage of people, valerian can actually have an opposite effect and make you feel a bit wired. I have noticed that when I take this plant too often, it does begin to have that effect on me. I would test valerian out when the stakes are low instead of when you desperately need a solid night of sleep, and I would try not to take it every day.
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops is one of my favorite plants and best friends in the garden. A beautiful, fast growing vine that produces delicate pale-green strobiles, it has a powerful calming effect on the central nervous system. It's a plant I reach for when I've gone days without good sleep, or when I feel jittery, on egde, and like my nerves are absolutely fried.
Nervous exhaustion, I guess you could say. Hops helps you dial yourself down to a normal level. (Hops are actually related to marijuana...shhh.)
Just the scent of the strobiles is calming for some (if you like IPAs, odds are you will LOVE the scent of the fresh plant). I've seen many people make little dream pillows stuffed with the dried plant. Hops can also be made into a tea - steep 1 tsp in 8 oz hot water for 10 minutes and drink before bed. It can be very bitter, especially if you're not fond of hoppy things, so adding a little honey might be a good idea. It can easily be taken in tincture form, as well.
(Of course, a lot of people will ask if they can just drink a beer - and I don't blame them! But sadly, the hops used to make beer have often been roasted and thus have probably been sapped of much of their medicinal value. If you want to use hops medicinally, make sure you get them from a reputable herb supplier and not from a homebrew store. I also highly recommend growing them if you have space!)
Linden (Tilia spp.)
Linden, also called lime blossom, isn't something I often see grouped in with herbs for insomnia. But, after using it this way for years, I think it deserves a place here.
Linden helps to relieve nervous tension by relaxing the circulatory system and reducing constriction near the heart. More simply put, it eases the heart and helps it to beat easier.
It also has a lovely cooling effect - you can drink an iced infusion to enhance this aspect of it. It's a lovely thing to sip on a hot summer night just before bed. Linden always seems to bloom here during the first full moon in early summer, and so I always associate it with cooling, silvery moonlight.
To make a tea of the blossoms, steep 1 tsp of the dried herb in 8 oz hot water. If you're lucky enough to have access to the fresh blossoms, increase that to 1 tbsp per 8 oz. Ten minutes is the recommended steep time, but I think linden is best when steeped about 8 hours to make a strong, nourishing infusion that's delicious hot or iced.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is a gorgeous, cooling, lemony member of the mint family. It has a mood brightening, calming effect - it's a nice thing to try if the thing keeping you up at night is a depressed or hopeless state of mind. The volatile oils have a calming effect on the enteric nervous system as well, which makes it a nice choice if you feel tension in the pit of your stomach.
Because it causes mild vasodilation, it can also help to relieve tension-induced headaches that interfere with sleep.
For a tea, steep 2-3 tsp dried herb in 8 oz hot water for 10-15 minutes. You can drink it hot or let it cool and pour over ice. The tea is delicious, but my favorite way to take lemon balm is as a glycerite - it's deliciously sweet and lemony, and it's so easy to grab a dropperful in times of tension. It works well in tincture form, too.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
Many herbalists consider skullcap a trophorestorative to the nervous system - in other words, it helps to breathe life back into the nervous system after it's been burnt out - think long term stress and sleeplessness. It can also work well for some people as a pain reliever.
It's indicated in situations of nervous exhaustion, irritability, restless/twitchy muscles, and insomnia. By calming and restoring the nervous system to a healthy state, it helps to quiet the body and mind into a calm state of relaxation so that you can sleep deeply.
To make a tea, steep 1-2 tsp of the dried plant for 10-15 minutes. Skullcap works very well as a tincture, too.
I often make blends with the herbs above (for example maypop and valerian are a total power couple for me), but my advice is to try them out one at a time first to see what effect they have on you. From there, you can determine what works best for you and what formulations or tea blends you might like to try.
As always, it's important to do your own research before working with a new herb to make sure it will work well for you.
Green blessings and sweet dreams,
Everything stated here is strictly for educational purposes, has not been verified by the FDA, and is not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any disease. Always do your own research and consult a doctor before starting a new herb, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have underlying conditions or are taking medication.