Young or old, we all function so much more effectively, and enjoy life so much more after a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and anyone who has had chronic sleep problems can relate to that! Also, we may become anxious that we won’t be able to sleep, which makes it even harder to relax and doze off.
And there are so many things that disrupt our sleep patterns, such as jet-lag, or shift work. Folks who stay up late using devices like TV, video games and computers face a double whammy. Firstly these devices rev up the nervous system, and secondly, the blue light from them inhibits the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Sleep problems fall into 2 main categories:
1) Difficulty getting to sleep, called sleep onset insomnia
2) Difficulty staying asleep, called sleep maintenance insomnia
If you need some help with your sleep, there are many herbs and other natural supports you can try.
To help you doze off, herbs that calm and soothe the nervous system, classified as nervines, are helpful.
Gentle herbs for children and adults:
Lavender - as a soothing scent, in a bath or a bag of lavender flowers by the pillow
These top choices for children can be made into teas, and drunk warm or cold. If necessary they can be mixed with fruit juices to improve the flavour, or a little honey (say 1/4 tsp), brushing the teeth afterwards of course!
To make teas, use 2 teaspoonfuls of fresh herb or 1 teaspoonful of dried herb per cup. Pour boiling water over it and let it steep for a few minutes, then strain it, just like making a regular black or green tea.
Adults may need something a little stronger, such as:
Hops - yes, the herb that is used to make beer!
Passionflower - you might expect more passion, but it helps you sleep!
Catnip - it winds cats up but it calms people down
California poppy - it’s gentle, despite being in the same family as the opium poppy!
Valerian - helps most people sleep, but 10% get the opposite effect
Zizyphus - a Traditional Chinese herb
Holy Basil, or Tulsi - especially good for stress and anxiety
Skullcap - has a bit more of a knock-out effect than the herbs above
These are often used in combination, for a broad spectrum effect. Most health food stores carry various combinations, in capsules or tinctures. You can take any of these as single herbs, if you find that one suits you best.
Other natural calming agents
Theanine is a calming extract from green tea, often helpful for people with anxiety.
GABA is an amino acid neurotransmitter that has a calming effect, and can be taken to help wind down in the evening. But don’t take this with alcohol, or use it before driving.
Magnesium promotes physical relaxation. To help sleep, use the bisglycinate form for better absorption. It also helps reduce muscle cramping, whether those cramps are at night, getting in the way of good sleep, or during the day.
Magnesium may promote a bowel movement, usually about 8 hours after taking it, which is a bonus for some who need help in that department! See Happiness is a Good Poop, for more on this topic.
Melatonin can help you get to sleep, if taken within an hour before bed. It is particularly helpful after shift work, or to reset sleep patterns disrupted by jet-lag. For those who can’t take pills, liquids and sublingual pastels (that melt under the tongue) are available. Melatonin can leave some people feeling a bit groggy in the morning, so you might want to try it at a weekend at first, while you work out your optimal dose for a good night’s sleep without the morning hangover. The regular dose is 3mg, but melatonin has been shown to be safe in much larger doses; for example 10mg a night.
Trouble staying asleep?
Use melatonin in a timed-release pill
Saint John’s Wort helps some people stay asleep longer.
Using melatonin with St John’s Wort is not a problem, but if you are on antidepressants, do not use Saint John’s Wort without the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
Withania somnifera, also known as Ashwagandha, is good for the “tired but wired”, who fall asleep exhausted, but wake with whirling thoughts in the middle of the night.
Magnolia reduces anxiety and relieves stress to promote better sleep.
If you wake and need help getting back to sleep, any of the approaches listed above can be used again, but may leave you feeling a bit groggy in the morning. Meditation (while lying in bed) can help you relax your mind and use the time in a way that is beneficial to you, or you may find you fall asleep while meditating: either is good!
The time you wake may be important:
If you are consistently waking between 1 and 3 am, you may want to take better care of your liver. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, waking at that time often indicates that your liver is complaining.
Waking at 3 am feeling peckish? Look to your blood sugar level: this is a time it tends to drop, making some people wake and head for the kitchen. A protein snack before bed may help with this, as can avoiding high carb treats like cookies or popcorn before bed. And some people report that eating 25 grams of protein at breakfast helps them sleep better at night.
Do remember that while alcohol may make us feel dozy, it is well known for disrupting sleep later on the in night.
Please don’t forget the benefits of changing your environment if it isn’t already the best for sleep. See Getting a Good Night’s Sleep. No lights in the bedroom (including illuminated clocks), and we have found that black-out blinds make a huge difference for us. Using an eye mask is an easy way of checking whether less light on your eyes will help you sleep better.
These are all things you can use to help yourself. If you have a significant sleep problem, get professional help to manage it: when you have had insomnia, a good night’s sleep is a dream come true!!