The inability to fall asleep is actually considered a symptom of hard to recognize conditions. It is believed by many that insomnia is simply being unable to fall asleep but studies show it involves much more. The inability to sleep through the night, waking up throughout the night, or waking earlier than you plan to are a part of insomnia. These symptoms may be caused by lifestyle, diet, physical pain, a major illness, medications, anxiety, depression, tension, or even an uncomfortable mattress.
Although it might be difficult to discover the reason for your sleeplessness, this is the best way to find a cure. Herbs can provide a natural alternative to prescriptions for insomnia. Most sleeping pills and other conventional medicine can result in excessive drowsiness, disorientation, a hangover feeling, and even physical dependency. Natural medicine has proved to work with the same effectiveness as chemical medicines but it is very important that you never mix the two.
Studies have shown that valerian is a very effective sleep aid. Botanicals such as chamomile, kava, and passionflower reduce stress and promote relaxation. Melatonin is a synthetic sleep hormone much like the one produced by the body. Nutrient deficiencies can be a key factor in sleep disorders. Calcium, vitamin B and magnesium replenish nutrients drained by anxiety. Chia seeds calm the nerves. Parsley tea is a mild sedative. Skullcap is nervine and good for the heart. Basil will help strengthen the nerves. Garlic and onions are both powerful sedatives. And if you find you always sleep better after that big Thanksgiving dinner, it is because the turkey is rich in an amino acid called tryptophan which is a natural sleep inducer.
Other things you can do to help alleviate insomnia include, setting up a regular sleep schedule, avoid caffeine, tobacco or alcohol, exercise regularly, use your bed just for sleeping and take warm relaxing baths before bedtime.
Insomnia and Sleep Aids
There is so much that can be done for problems with sleep without taking anything at all. Finding the perfect substance to put you to sleep is not going to do anything for insomnia- hangover or no hangover, dependence or no dependence.
Generally, there is some reason for trouble sleeping such as erratic schedules, stimulant use, chronic disease/pain, or mental imbalance such as anxiety or depression. One major reason for waking at 3-4 AM is blood sugar imbalance, whereby the blood sugar gets too low and cortisol is released to stimulate the production of more glucose (gluconeogenesis). A protein snack before bed can eliminate this problem.
Another common reason for insomnia is an imbalance in the timing of the release of epinephrine (adrenaline). Normally, you produce more in the morning than in the evening. This makes sense if you just think of adrenaline as ‘energy’. If you take samples of saliva from people who have chronic stress and trouble sleeping, you will often find that they have adrenaline drops in the morning and spikes in the evening. This is a result of adrenal gland function not being optimal due to the effects of chronic stress, stimulant use, etc. There are a set of herbs which optimize adrenal function and set you back up in the morning adrenaline pattern. My favorite ones are ashwagandha, eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), licorice, and Schisandra. Licorice can raise blood pressure in people who have high blood pressure.
Even having one cup of coffee every morning is enough to perpetuate insomnia and cause an imbalance in adrenaline production. Caffeine also decreases melatonin production and can disturb blood sugar balance, both of which interfere with sleep. Following are a couple of articles addressing caffeine and epinephrine (adrenaline):
That being said, getting sleep is essential to the functioning and a necessary place to start. There are a number of sedative herbs that are extremely effective.
Valerian is the most popular sedative herb because it is one of the strongest and is quite effective, but is by no means the best. Many people report a hangover effect and about 5% of people, unfortunately, report a stimulant effect! Plus it smells like dirty socks! The volatile oils, particularly valerenic acid, bind to GABA-A receptors leading to the release of g-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which inhibits the release of other neurotransmitters. These volatile oils also inhibit the degradation of GABA. The net effect is sedation of the central nervous system (CNS). Valerian is also a muscle relaxant.
Other great sedative herbs include passionflower, hops (not alcohol- it will cause that fun dopamine dump 2-3 hours later that makes it not desirable as a sleep aid), skullcap, oats, and California poppy. None of these have been shown to produce any physical dependence, but anything that helps you sleep can produce a psychological/behavioral dependence. “I took this and it helped me sleep. If I don’t take it, I might not be able to get to sleep.”
For problems falling asleep, the best herbs to use are passionflower and ashwagandha. For problems staying asleep, the best herbs to use are skullcap and St John’s Wort. Valerian is good for both types.
Magnesium is a muscle relaxant. Taking a calcium-magnesium combination is a perfect and simple solution for many people for whom the cause of insomnia is physical- muscle pain, spasm…
Melatonin is a hormone and regulates your sleep cycles- whether or not it has direct sedative properties is under debate- but it is not a classic sedative. Therefore, taking more will not make you more sleepy. It is interesting to note, however, that melatonin is one of the most potent antioxidants and has great results in cancer treatment with doses for cancer patients being ~20 mg per day. Melatonin does not work in people who do not have low levels of circulating melatonin already– thus the variation in effect. Long term melatonin supplementation has been associated with rebound insomnia as well as disruptions in the body’s melatonin production.
5HTP has been shown to reduce trouble falling asleep as well as staying asleep. It increases REM sleep and deep sleep while decreasing the time it takes to fall asleep.
Using some of the above suggestions can help you sleep right away- they will not cure insomnia. If you want to change insomnia and actually be able to sleep, you need to determine the cause and change that. I can help you to be free of insomnia.