Picture this. You’re going on week two of tossing and turning at night, and you’re not sure why. You dread going to sleep because you know you won’t be able to, and that makes you feel stressed. You’re starting to make mistakes at work, and you can barely stay awake at your desk. There are bags under your eyes, and your skin appears dull. You want to try a sleep aid, but you’ve heard bad things about prescription pills. Enter natural herbal sleep aid supplements.
Herbal supplements for sleep have come a long way. Scientific studies show they are no longer inferior to prescription pills. Some are even safer and more efficient than synthetic pills. Plus, you are less likely to become addicted to them or experience nasty side effects. Here are the best herbal supplements that can help you get to sleep.
For a long time, herbs took a backseat to prescription drugs because they weren’t well understood. But recent research has debunked the myth that herbs aren’t capable enough to be used as natural medicine. A few exciting studies even show that many herbal supplements are just as effective as their synthetic counterparts at treating medical conditions, minus the side effects.
The Chinese are most famous for using herbal medicine for thousands of years. Under the Han Dynasty, Chinese herbal medicine was categorized by five different tastes. Spicy herbs were used to improve circulation and treat upper respiratory infections such as the common cold. Sweet herbs were used to support the spleen, treat pain, and boost the immune system. Bitter herbs provided support to the cardiovascular system. They were also used to treat asthma and constipation. Sour herbs were used to treat liver disorders and assist with digestion. Finally, salty herbs aided in kidney health (1).
Unlike most prescription medicines, herbs contain antioxidant properties that possess many health benefits. Antioxidants are protective compounds found in plants that neutralize dangerous molecules called free radicals (2). The term “antioxidant” refers to any molecule that deactivates a free radical toxin before it attacks healthy cells (3). Free radicals are chemically unstable molecules with an unpaired electron that invade healthy cells and cause damage. The accumulation of too many free radicals in the body can lead to disease and other homeostatic imbalances. Antioxidants bind to free radicals and donate an electron to them, which makes them chemically stable and no longer a threat to your health (4).
Below is a general list of the health benefits of herbs:
Herbs contain plant compounds such as antioxidants, phytosterols, essential oils, vitamins and other substances that fight germs and toxins. Recent research shows that sleep boosts your immune system by increasing the production of anti-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines as well as other antibodies that protect against disease (5). Sedative herbs that help you sleep may also help boost your immune system by giving you a good night’s rest.
The plant compounds found in herbs are useful for reducing inflammation. Research shows that some herbs inhibit an inflammatory enzyme called cyclooxygenase or COX (1). Because of this, herbs can be used to treat inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. According to a 2010 study, the anti-inflammatory properties of herbs can be used as a safer long-term treatment of chronic pain than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications such as ibuprofen and aspirin (6).
Various herbs can be used to support the pancreas, which is responsible for producing insulin to maintain blood sugar levels. According to a 2002 study, herbs are often used to treat diabetic patients. Authors of the study concluded that doctors who care for people with diabetes should encourage their patients to use herbs as they may help manage their disease (7).
Some herbs have also been shown to lower cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. One study found that in addition to lowering cholesterol, some herbs may assist with cardiovascular disease because they inhibit lipid oxidation, which results in cellular damage (8).
Due to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-amyloid properties, herbs can be used to keep the brain healthy by preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. According to a 2016 study, herbs have therapeutic benefits on dementia patients and may be used to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (9).
Because they contain free-radical neutralizing antioxidants, some herbs can be used to prevent cancer by eliminating toxins from the body. According to research conducted at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, several herbs have been shown to treat and prevent breast, colon, gastric, and hepatoma cancers by purifying the blood and preventing cancerous cell mutations. The report revealed that the volatile oils (essential oils) derived from certain herbs worked to inhibit cancer cells in the pancreas, colon, and prostate (10).
Herbs can be used to reverse skin damage to give you younger looking skin. They can also be used to promote hair growth and prevent hair from falling out. A 2011 study found that herbs contain antioxidant properties that can reverse skin damage, premature aging, wrinkles, and sunburns (11). A 2015 study found that rosemary oil worked just as well as conventional medications at treating hair loss and promoting hair growth (12).
Herbs contain natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that can keep your mouth clean and healthy. A 2011 study found that some herbs contain antimicrobial properties in their stems, roots, and bark that fight dental plaque and prevent oral diseases (13). Many people use herbal toothpaste in place of those that contain artificial dyes and colorings, especially if they have sensitive teeth or gums.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 49.2 million people can’t focus properly because they are so sleep deprived (14). Being unable to focus doesn’t just make you more forgetful or less productive at your job. It also makes you a hazard on the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that millions of people nod off while they drive (15).
Turning to a prescription sleep aid won’t help. In fact, many of them cause daytime drowsiness that can make you even more prone to having a car accident. According to research conducted by NBC News, taking the prescription sleep aids Ambien and Restoril may double your risk of getting into a car crash even after the effects of the sleeping pill wear off (16). It may also increase your risk of getting into an accident as much as that of a drunk person (16).
So if it’s dangerous to drive while tired yet it’s dangerous to drive while under the influence of a prescription sleep aid, what do you do? The answer is easy. You take a natural sleep aid with the following herbs:
Valerian root is a medicinal herb with healing properties found in the herb's root. It is commonly used for its anti-anxiety and sedative properties (17), but it has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Valerian root helps you sleep by boosting a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA. Studies show that valerian root helps the brain stimulate GABA production and then prevents it from being taken back by nerve cells, so you continue to feel sleepy (18). Valerian root also inhibits the production of an enzyme that destroys GABA (18).
One study found that 44 percent of test subjects who took valerian root reported having a perfect sleep. Another 89 percent of subjects claimed that they had improved sleep. Most importantly, the study found that there were no side effects associated with taking valerian root (19).
Because of its ability to boost GABA, valerian root can also be used to treat anxiety. In addition to making you feel sleepy, GABA also regulates nerve cells that make you feel anxious. Many prescription anti-anxiety medications work by increasing GABA in the brain (20). But unlike many prescription drugs that treat anxiety, valerian root is a much safer way to enjoy a clear mind.
Blood pressure increases as a result of high stress and anxiety levels. Valerian root has been shown to reduce blood pressure and improve heart health (21). A 2014 study found that valerian root reduces both psychological and physical stress, which affects just about every area of your health (22). It has also been shown to reduce heart palpitations, improve stomach issues, ease menstrual cramps, protect your skin, and boost brain power.
Research shows that passion flower lowers anxiety levels equally as well as the prescription drug benzodiazepine oxazepam (23). This is exciting news as benzodiazepines are highly addictive and have been known to cause drowsiness and difficulty breathing. They may even put you in a coma (24). One study found that subjects who took passion flower for four weeks reduced their anxiety just as well as those who took oxazepam (23). While the study noted that oxazepam appeared to work a little faster, the passion flower did not cause drowsiness or impair job performance, unlike the prescription drug (23).
Another study found that patients with insomnia who took an herbal combination of passion flower and valerian root improved several symptoms associated with the condition. They woke up fewer times during the night, improved their quality of sleep, and reduced the amount of time it took to fall asleep (23). Authors of the study concluded that passion flower and valerian root are a safe and efficient alternative to the prescription drug zolpidem for treating primary insomnia (23).
Passion flower is also safe enough for children to take. According to Doctor Mary Bove, author of the Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants, passion flower can be used to support restful sleep, ease muscle twitching, and calm anxiety in children, teens and adults alike (23).
The herb chamomile has been shown to improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, and even fight cancer. Research from the Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and Pharmacognosy Review found that chamomile is one of the best medicinal herbs for treating stress and promoting relaxation (25). It can be used in either tea, tincture, essential oil or capsule form. When taken as an herbal supplement, chamomile has been shown to produce mild sedative effects to reduce anxiety and calm nerves (26).
According to a 2011 study, chamomile is regarded as a mild sedative that can be used to treat insomnia, nightmares, and other sleep problems (27). It can also be used to treat digestive disorders, colic, hay fever, and pain due to inflammatory disorders. Various health benefits of chamomile include:
Ashwagandha may be able to help you sleep by calming the nervous system so you can relax. It is especially beneficial if you have problems with turning your brain off at night. According to a study published in Phytomedicine, Ashwagandha may be just as effective at treating anxiety as the sedative and anti-anxiety drug lorazepam (28), but with fewer side effects. It may also be used to treat nervous breakdowns, memory loss, insomnia, stress, and digestive problems (29).
Herbs are no longer being brushed off as a natural remedy that doesn't work. Many studies even support taking herbs over prescription drugs to treat health problems such as insomnia and anxiety because they are just as efficient and don’t produce such harmful side effects. If you’re suffering from sleep problems, try an herbal sleep aid as a safe and gentle alternative to a prescription sleep aid with proven results.