8 Herbs That Improve Sleep Quality
Getting to sleep in our society is becoming more and more of a science. To help you unwind I’m going to outline the top 8 herbs that improve sleep quality so you can feel more prepared for the demands of tomorrow.
For our ancestors, it was as simple as sundown = sleep. Our body was designed to flow with the rhythms of the earth but with introduction of modern lighting fixtures, electronic devices, and just the general fast-paced lifestyle that we all live, sleep doesn’t come as naturally as it should.
Valerian is an herb commonly found in tea blends marketed for night-time use, but does it really do anything?
Research on valerian is mixed but studies mostly report that valerian has anti-anxiety and sedative effects which likely accounts for its ability to help you fall asleep faster and even get a higher-quality of sleep (1, 2).
Research also suggests that valerian is able to induce a state of relaxation through a series of actions that result in higher GABA production in the brain. Specifically, a compound within valerian called valerenic acid is thought be responsible for this effect (3). Optimal GABA levels is crucial to improve sleep quality.
Finally, valerian has been found to be effective in combination with herbs such as: lemon-balm, hops, and kava kava for improving sleep quality.
Similar to valerian, passion flower may contribute to a better night of sleep by upregulating GABA levels in the brain. Different studies have also shown that using passionflower has beneficial effects on anxiety, blood pressure, insulin levels, and inflammation.
Caution: Passionflowers acts as a mild MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) which is similar to the effects of some anti-depressant medications. Do not use passionflower if you are currently taking an MAOI because it can amplify the effects.
Lemon balm is a traditional European remedy that has been used for hundreds of years to calm the nerves and improve mood. Also known as Melissa, it is commonly used for aromatherapy purposes and to improve sleep quality.
The documented benefits of lemon balm are actually pretty broad and include anti-depressant, PMS relief, anti-microbial, and of course sedative. Lemon balm is thought to promote relaxation by increasing levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. It is thought to achieve this action by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down GABA, allowing it to remain active in the brain for longer (4).
Lemon balm can be used as a tea, tincture, or essential oil for the purpose of promoting feelings of relaxation before sleep.
Lavender is one of my favorite herbs to improve sleep and relaxation. It is likely that your most common encounter with lavender is in essential oil form as it is one of the most popular oils on the planet.
Not only does the scent of lavender evoke feelings of relaxation and comfort, but it smells amazing and has extending benefits.
Studies have shown that just inhaling the vapors from lavender can upregulate antioxidant systems in the body. On top of the sleep-improving effects of lavender this may be a health game changer. Other benefits include: headache relief, topical treatment for acne, and blood sugar balancing effects.
My favorite methods of using lavender that I recommend for those who are struggling with insomnia or generalized anxiety are:
Healing Bath: Add 10-15 drops to a bathtub of warm water along with a cup of Epsom salt and soak to relieve tension. In this article we go over a number of different healing baths.
Diffuser: Diffuse lavender oil in your bedroom and other areas of the house where you spend a lot of time. You can also sprinkle a few drops of lavender oil over your pillow before bed. Here is a great diffuser and a brand that makes a good peppermint and lavender essential oil here.
Topically: Mix a few drops of lavender oil with a carrier oil like coconut, almond, or even magnesium oil and apply to the back of the neck, bottoms of the feet, and abdomen before bed.
Peppermint is often associated with stimulation but it may actually help you get a better night of sleep. Although I wouldn’t diffuse peppermint essential oil in my bedroom at night, it might be a great addition to your nighttime tea.
Peppermint doesn’t necessarily induce sleep, but it can provoke some physiological changes in the body that may help improve the quality of your sleep.
Peppermint may improve sleep by:
- Opening airways and allowing for healthier breathing and better oxygenation of tissues during sleep. Result: More effective healing
- Relaxing the intestinal tract to prevent any unwanted activity that might keep you awake
- Relaxing other muscles that are holding tension and inhibiting full relaxation
When you think of a nighttime tea, chamomile is probably the first thing to come to mind. Most of us know that chamomile is great for relaxation and the research supports that belief (5). It is thought that chamomile provides a sedative effect due to a flavonoid called apigenin that binds to GABA receptors in the brain to promote relaxation. Apigenin is also well known for its anti-cancer properties.
My two favorite methods of using chamomile are in a high-quality tea or by aromatherapy. Additionally, chamomile oil can be combined with lavender oil in a healing bath. Some of my patients report that after a healing bath with lavender and chamomile oils they have gotten some of the best sleep of their life!
Regular use of chamomile will also benefit oral health, inflammation due to oxidative stress, better immune function, and digestion.
Linden flower is commonly found alongside chamomile and valerian in teas for relaxation. While the research on linden flower is pretty low, it has been used for thousands of years for the purpose of relaxation.
Many report to have successfully used Linden flower as a relaxing agent before bed and a small amount of research supports the sedative properties of this herb (6).
Although probably not the most potent sleep aid on its own, a blend of known relaxing herbs along with linden flower may be beneficial.
It’s likely that we’ve all witnessed the effect that catnip has on our feline friends at some point in our lives. Upon smelling the stuff cats take on a mix of erratic and affectionate behaviors that have led it to being equated to cannabis for cats. Can this herb so endeared by our pets also give us a sense of calm and relaxation?
The evidence on this one is slim in terms of formal research and yet it can be found in many herbal sleep blends. There is a decent amount of anecdotal evidence that catnip is able to settle the nerves and help one relax and typically is regarded as safe for human consumption.
It is said by some herbalists that catnip also contains a similar composition to valerian which provides a little more insight into why it may improve sleep quality for many individuals.
Nighty Night Tea (Traditional Medicinals)
I love this brand of tea because they are one of the few that use all organic ingredients and a strict set of quality/potency standards for every one of their herbs.
This blend contains many of the herbs mentioned in this article including passion flower and chamomile alongside some other herbs traditionally used for lifting the spirits including lemon verbena and lemongrass. I always recommend this tea for my patients who are having sleep issues although it is great for anyone who would like to improve sleep quality.
It can be purchased in most grocery stores, health food stores, or online here. This same brand also makes a Nighty Night tea with the addition of valerian that has great reviews. It can be found here.
Give these a try and leave some feedback, I’d love to know how they work for you!
Occasional inability to fall asleep can be remedied with the use of natural herbs such as the ones found in this article. If you find yourself consistently unable to fall asleep and must rely on these substances then it is possible that some deeper issues need to be addressed.
I would recommend that anyone who is experiencing chronic insomnia first take a look at their nighttime routine and ensure they are properly priming their mind and body for a night of rest. For a deeper dive into how to naturally improve sleep quality, check out the strategies outlined in this article.
Sources For This Article Include
- Hattesohl, M., Feistel, B., Sievers, H., Lehnfeld, R., Hegger, M., & Winterhoff, H. (2008). Extracts of Valeriana officinalis L. s.l. show anxiolytic and antidepressant effects but neither sedative nor myorelaxant properties. Phytomedicine, 15(1–2), 2–15. PMID: 18160026
- Taavoni, S., Ekbatani, N., Kashaniyan, M., & Haghani, H. (2011). Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Menopause (New York, N.Y.), 18(9), 951–955. PMID: 21775910
- Becker, A., Felgentreff, F., Schröder, H., Meier, B., & Brattström, A. (2014). The anxiolytic effects of a Valerian extract is based on valerenic acid. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 14(267), 1–5. PMID: 25066015
- Liu, L., Liu, C., Wang, Y., Wang, P., Li, Y., & Li, B. (2015). Herbal Medicine for Anxiety, Depression and Insomnia. Current Neuropharmacology, 13(4), 481–93. PMID: 26412068
- Amsterdam, J. D., Shults, J., Soeller, I., M., Rockwell, K., & Newbwerg, A. (2012). Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) May Have Antidepressant Activity in Anxious Depressed Humans – An Exploratory Study. Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine, 18(5), 44–49. PMID: 21959306
- Aguirre-Hernández, E., Martínez, A. L., González-Trujano, M. E., Moreno, J., Vibrans, H., & Soto-Hernández, M. (2007). Pharmacological evaluation of the anxiolytic and sedative effects of Tilia americana L. var. mexicana in mice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 109(1), 140–145. PMID: 16930893