When it comes to good physical and mental health, one thing nearly always tops the list of doctor recommendations: Get good sleep. But what can you do when sleep just won’t come? About a third of Americans experience insomnia at some time in their lives, with 10 percent suffering from chronic insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Lack of good sleep is something to take seriously, as it can do more than make you feel the need to reach for a mid-afternoon caffeine boost. It can also affect your mood, your motivation and even your memory.
If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, the National Sleep Foundation advises you to review your health and think about whether any underlying medical issues or sleep disorders could be contributing to your sleep problems.
However, if you find yourself somewhere between counting sheep and needing to take some serious sleep medications to fall into slumber, a multitude of herbal allies can help. Many of these remedies also ease the stress, anxiety and muscle tension that can cause sleep disturbances. So put the following plants in your garden, hit play on your favorite lullaby play list, and get ready for a good snooze.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a bit of misnomer for a plant that induces sleep rather than igniting passion within the one who consumes it. In fact, this vining plant with otherworldly purple blooms is among the most important plants for sleep, having been used for more than 200 years to remedy sleeplessness and nervous conditions.
The herb works as a sedative on the medulla oblongata, the part of the brain that oversees sleep, and the cerebral cortex, which processes information. As such, it’s perfect for the chronic worrier who is kept awake by a “chattery brain” or circular thinking. Take it from me—a poster child for the chattery brain—this herb lives up to the hype.
Harvest all aboveground portions of the plant when the flower is in bloom or the fruit sets for use in infusions, tinctures or pills. Michael Tierra, a California state-licensed acupuncturist and founder of the American Herbalists Guild, recommends mixing equal parts passionflower, skullcap, wood betony, valerian and half parts licorice and ginger for nervousness and insomnia, while herbalist David Winston recommends combining it with motherwort for menopausal insomnia. It’s safe for all ages and is nonaddictive, but it can increase the potency of sedative medications, so avoid use if you take MAO inhibitors.
Passionflower vines can be found growing wild throughout the southern U.S. Vines reach as tall as 30 feet, with three-lobed leaves and ornate flowers, and they need plenty of sun. The egg-shaped fruit, while not a medicinal, is edible.
2. California Poppy
If, when you think of poppies, your mind drifts to that scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy falls asleep in a field full of poppies, you’re not far off. While the native California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is related to the opium poppy featured in the movie, it doesn’t contain any of the seriously addictive opioids and is safe for all ages. The active constituent is the alkaloid californidine, which is a non-narcotic sedative.
California poppy is recommended for those who don’t enter a deep enough sleep, therefore wake up too early in the morning or throughout the night. Interestingly, it can also be used in the case of too deep of sleep, such as when a child sleeps through the need to go to the bathroom. People who are pregnant or on MAO inhibitors should refrain from using this herb. Valerian and skullcap (discussed later) are good alternatives in the case of pregnancy.
The beautiful flowers of the California poppy come in bright orange, red, pink and yellow, and they have finely cut leaves. While you can find them growing wild in sandy soils of the western U.S., you can also cultivate them in gardens throughout the country. I planted California poppies under my bedroom window in my first herb garden; I found the symbolic gesture charming.
Scatter seeds before the last frost, and then watch for the flowers to emerge in spring. You can harvest the aerial portions of the plant (flowers and leaves) for use in teas or tinctures, but leave some in the garden to enjoy and allow to self-seed for the following year.
That’s right, the key ingredient in your craft beer could be the very thing to help you get sleep tonight. Hops (Humulus lupulus) have been used for more than 1,000 years in treating insomnia and anxiety. With potent phytoestrogen content, hops can also be used as a hormone balancer, alleviating symptoms of perimenopause and stimulating progesterone production, which could in turn help with sleep.
Hops vines can climb as tall as 22 feet, and it’s the conelike flower, or strobile, that is used as an herbal remedy. Harvest strobiles in early autumn and dry them at a low temperature for maximum storage potential. Prepare as an infusion, tincture or pills.
Avoid use if you’re pregnant, already taking sleep or anxiety medications, or within two weeks of surgery, as it can intensify the action of anesthetics. Because of hops’ estrogen content, it also shouldn’t be given internally to children prior to puberty or to those with already high estrogen levels; it also shouldn’t be taken by anyone suffering from depression. However, even just the aroma of hops is enough to calm the mind and promote rest. Place a sachet filled with hops next to the pillow at night, and let it work its magic.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is the quintessential sleep herb. While many compare the odor of its medicinal root to smelly feet or cat pee—think of it as an acquired smell—it’s exactly these aromatic essential oils that relieve restlessness, nervousness and insomnia. Valerian has been widely used as a sedative since Roman times, though modern studies out of Germany and Switzerland back up its historic use as sleep aid, proving that it addresses sleeplessness and helps improve the quality of sleep. When you wake up in the morning after taking valerian, don’t expect any of the grogginess that comes with over-the-counter sleep aids; you’ll just feel rested and ready to start the day.
Valerian is a perennial plant that stands 4 feet tall with a beautiful light pink flower head, and it grows well in damp conditions. Harvest the rhizome (underground stem, pictured below) of the 2-year-old plant for use in a decoction, tincture or capsules.
Be aware than in a small percentage of people—particularly those with type-A personalities—valerian can have a stimulating, rather than sedative, effect. (It also gives cats a buzz.) It should also be avoided by anyone already on sleep medications.
If you’ve ever had a sleepytime tea, you’re familiar with chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). This gentle herb is an essential herbal go-to for insomnia relief and is just as easy to grow as it is to sip at night. If you have little children in the house, keep this herb on hand (or better yet, in the garden), as you and they can enjoy its relaxing benefits.
Chamomile contains the constituent spiroether, which helps with sleep, particularly in children. It also eases muscle tension and reduces irritability. It’s especially nice to provide a cup of this tea, alone or mixed with apple juice, to overtired or whiney children. It also has a highly assimilable form of calcium, which is important to the body for the production of sleep-inducing melatonin. In addition, the herb acts as an anti-inflammatory, which can reduce pain or headaches that lead to sleeplessness.
Of the two types of chamomile, German chamomile has more potent sleep action, though Roman chamomile can also be used. The German type grows about 2 feet tall with finely cut leaves and cheery white flower heads. For optimal quality, harvest the flower heads on the day they open—though be aware even the act of harvesting the flowers can put you in a dreamy, relaxed state. In fact, the aroma released throughout my house as my chamomile flowers dried in the dehydrator during the two weeks of harvest had me constantly yearning for a nap.
Chamomile is related to the plant ragweed, a known allergen. If you experience ragweed allergies or hay fever, use chamomile cautiously, and discontinue use if any irritation occurs.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) gets its name from its purple flowers, which resemble little helmets. This perennial in the mint family can be found wild and cultivated throughout the U.S. and Canada, growing in damp conditions with plenty of sun. It’s an important nervine herb for insomniacs, particularly those who are stressed out and experience tight muscles and spasms when agitated. The herb is nourishing to the nervous system, which in turn can calm the body and mind and relieve anxiety. If you have trouble falling and staying asleep, this could be the herb for you.
Harvest the aerial parts of 3- to 4-year-old skullcap plants for use in infusions, tinctures or capsules. Tierra recommends combining equal parts skullcap, hops and valerian to relax nervousness and induce inner calm, though it can be just as productive on its own as it is in formula.
7. Wild Lettuce
Yes, this native plant is a species related to the base of your dinner salad. Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and cultivated garden varieties exude a signature white, milky latex from the stem when broken, and this is where the sedative properties are contained.
Wild lettuce—and garden lettuce to a much lesser extent—is used for sleeplessness caused by overstimulation and an overactive mind. It’s safe for adults and children alike, though it’s most recommended for excitability in children.
It can be found growing in disturbed soils of open pastures and roadsides. While the early spring leaves can be harvested to eat, it’s when the spiny stalks grow tall and yellow clusters of dandelionlike flowers emerge on the plant that you want to harvest it for medicinal purposes. At this point, the leaves turn bitter, and while they’re still edible, they’re not a pleasant addition to dinner.
Harvest the stalks and leaves and finely macerate to release the latex, and tincture in vodka or another high-proof alcohol. Leaves can be harvested and dried for tea, though the medicinal action will not be as potent. Avoid use of the tincture before driving, as the sedative action is strong.
Take a Holistic Approach
You might notice that many—if not all—of the herbs listed in this article to help promote sleep also reduce nervousness, tension and stress. Herbal healing differs from allelopathic, or Western, medicine in that the goal is treating the underlying cause of a condition rather than just the symptom. It makes sense, then, that when considering insomnia remedies, we include treating the very things that cause insomnia: nervousness, tension and stress.
With that line of thinking in mind, as you find yourself reaching for one of these herbs, consider other things you can do to help find your inner peace. Pair a cup of tea with a warm bath, a time of meditation or a relaxing massage. Take measures to turn off work or stimulating screens well before you go to bed, then engage in some quiet reading or listen to soothing music. These actions set the stage for a restful night’s sleep and promote habits that result in an overall healthy lifestyle.
We all deserve good rest, and with these herbal allies by your side, you’ll be on your way to the sweetest of dreams.
This article appeared in Healing Herbs, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece, Healing Herbs includes articles on herbs that can help with pain relief, stress relief; herbs for teas; how to cut and dry herbs; preparing and preserving herbs; foraging for medicinal herbs; and becoming an herbalist. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Living Off the Grid and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.