By Cassandra Roe BHsc, Adv. Dip. Nat.
Anyone who has spent at least one sleeplessness night knows just how essential sleep is to health. We require the right quantity and quality of sleep to function optimally every day. If this is not achieved coordination, concentration, energy levels and immune function can suffer. One Australian survey found that within their study group 17% of men and 25% of women reported having sleeping difficulties “often or always” (Olson, 2008). So, it appears that many of us are not sleeping as well as we need to be. But can anything be done about this pandemic of sleeplessness?
The Underlying Causes Of Poor Sleep
Stressful life events are closely associated with the incidence of insomnia. Stress is a hormonal cascade that occurs in our bodies as a result of an external event or influence. It becomes detrimental when the stress-trigger, like ongoing job stress or a past traumatic life event, continues long term or the body has not recognised that the trigger has ceased.
Sleeping difficulties come in many shapes and sizes. Trouble falling asleep, waking frequently, waking too early and non-refreshing sleep can all result in insufficient rest. Poor sleep is partly determined by unchangeable factors like genetics, increasing age or personality type. Sleeping problems can also be associated with factors such as stress, anxiety and depression. Wherever possible these underlying factors need to be addressed, otherwise any sleep improvement attained will be short-lived at best.
Natural Treatments For Sleeping And Stress
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is arguably the most well-known herbal medicine used to treat insomnia. This sedating herb has been shown in research to increase sleep time and sleep deepness, while also decreasing morning sleepiness (Herrera-Arellano et al, 2001). Valerian is also a muscle relaxant and can assist with muscular restlessness or pain. Making sure you take a good-quality extract at the right dose is essential.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) combined with Valerian in one study provided a statistically significant improved quality of sleep in comparison to a placebo. It was also very well tolerated (Cerny & Schmid, 1999). Lemon balm is also used for irritability and mild depression.
St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is commonly used for mild to moderate depression, but also has an effective anti-anxiety action. These effects make it a great addition for those under pressure who are suffering from sleep problems.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) in essential oil form is often used externally to help us unwind. A lesser known usage is that the whole plant extract, usually in tablet form, can be taken internally to produce a gently calming effect.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) is used for wakefulness associated with nervous tension. Traditionally it is not appropriate in individuals suffering depression.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a popular anti-anxiety herbal medicine, which is a mild relaxant. It combines well with other sleeping herbs.
Oats (Avena sativa) help restore an exhausted nervous system. The oat grain can be included in the diet, or can be found in some sleeping combinations.
Magnesium deficiency has been connected with night time restlessness. It is also a muscle relaxant. Take after your evening meal for a deeper sleep.
Vitamin B complex supplements support energy production during the daytime, and may help reduce stress. A useful addition to any sleeping regime.
Lifestyle changes can also improve sleep. Avoid large meals before bedtime, reduce evening exercise, and start a winding down routine one hour before bed. Avoidance of alcohol and caffeine is essential for those wishing to get their sleep back on track, especially when stress is an issue.
A Note On Herbal Relaxants
Sedating herbal medicines are generally considered safe, and do not produce dependency or morning after drowsiness. They should not be taken with other sedative medications. St John’s Wort can interact with some medications so please check with your health care professional. For best results take any herbal treatment continuously for a minimum 2 week period.
1. Olson, L., 2008. “A community survey of insomnia in Newcastle”, Australian and New Zeland Journal of Public Health, 20(6):655-657.
2.Cerny, A., and Schmid, K., 1999. “Tolerability and efficacy of valerian/lemon balm in healthy volunteers (a double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study), Fitoterapia, 70(3):221-228.
3. Herrera-Arellano et al, 2001. ”Polysomnographic evaluation of the hypnotic effect of Valeriana edulis standardized extract in patients suffering from insomnia”, Planta Medica 67(8):695-9.
4. Burgoyne, B. “Herbal treatments of insomnia”, Modern Phytotherapist, pp12-21.