As a clinical herbalist, I find insomnia to be incredibly responsive to herbs. But it's important to remember that they often stop working if you never address the underlying cause—such as stress or poor sleep hygiene—especially in severe or longstanding insomnia problems.
Be diligent, and be sure to incorporate nonherbal lifestyle changes at the same time. Not every sleep herb works for everyone. So if you notice no improvement after one to two weeks on an herbal formula, try different herbs or discuss with a practitioner or herbalist. Here are a few main factors to keep in mind:
Diet: In general, eat a quality diet that promotes balanced blood sugar, limits stimulants, and avoids late-night meals and snacking. Consider therapeutic foods like tart cherry juice or warm milk with honey, or a pinch of nutmeg in your recipes.
Lifestyle: Find a good sleep ritual and minimize stimulation before bedtime. Address any stress factors. And use the sleep tips below.
Herbs: Nervine and sedative herbs quell overstimulation while promoting sleep. Top herbs include valerian, hops, passionflower, skullcap, California poppy, and chamomile.
5 Steps To Better Sleep, Starting Tonight
It can be hard to get out of an insomnia rut. Here are some general tips and common culprits to keep in mind:
1. Manage stress.
Stress is a major factor in most cases of insomnia. Sedative herbs at night or stress-relieving herbs during the day can help, but also try to reduce the stressors directly. Maybe you need to back out of stressful situations (bad job or relationship, not saying no when you should) or schedule more R&R time for yourself.
Consider regular meditation, yoga, daytime exercise, or an evening wind-down ritual of reading and sipping tea.
2. Avoid or moderate stimulants.
Stimulants of various sorts can make you restless and more apt to wake up.
Caffeine: Coffee, chocolate, yerba maté, soda, and tea are obvious late-night no-nos, but you may be surprised by the effect that morning drink has. Cut down slowly (to avoid withdrawal headaches) to see if sleep improves.
Medications, herbs, and supplements: Even if they don’t contain caffeine, many remedies can cause restlessness, especially if you take them later in the day. This could include B vitamins, stimulant adaptogens, blood pressure medications, antidepressants, dementia medications, antihistamines, glucosamine and chondroitin, and statins. Try switching herbs and supplements or avoid late doses. Talk with your doctor if you suspect medications are the cause; ask if you can try a different medication or change your dose time.
Alcohol: Booze may initially sedate but ultimately makes you restless and prevents restful deep sleep.
Late-night eating: Late dinners and snack binges wreak havoc on a good night’s sleep, especially when digestion and liver involvement kick in a few hours after you eat. Try to stop eating at least four hours before bedtime and particularly avoid big, heavy dishes and sugar- or fat-laden food.
Physical activity is phenomenal for insomnia and stress. But not right before bedtime—aim for morning or midday activity instead. That said, late-day exercise is better than none.
4. Unplug before bed.
Light—especially artificial light from TVs, smartphones, tablets, and indoor lighting—messes with the circadian rhythm that governs when you’re asleep and awake. Avoid all electronics an hour or so before bedtime, and dim the lights. Keep your bedroom tech-free, and hang curtains or use an eye mask so that you sleep in total darkness. Earplugs help if it’s noisy.
Stimulate your “wake” cycle during the morning and daytime with exercise, sunlight (or full-spectrum lighting), and exercise, which will improve your overall circadian rhythm.
5. Develop a sleep ritual.
Parents of young children know that consistency and ritual make all the difference. Now that you’ve unplugged, get ready for bed and get comfy!
Enjoy a small cup of relaxing tea or warm milk with honey (but not so much that you’ll have to pee at midnight). Good before-bed activities include reading a book (not a page-turning suspense novel), journaling (a good time for that gratitude journal!), making love, listening to calming music, cuddling up with loved ones, meditating, inhaling relaxing essential oils or incense, and taking a bath. For me, nonfiction works like a charm!
A Relaxing Herbal Tea Remedy To Inspire Sleep
This potent yet tasty sedative tea can be used for all ages, adjusting the dose as needed. You can take it as a daytime anti-anxiety tea, but it may make you sleepy. Using more lemon balm and less passionflower and skullcap will make it less sedating.
The formula listed below is for a small cup of tea at just 4 to 6 ounces, so that you’re not drinking too much liquid right before bedtime. You can premix a larger batch and keep it on hand.
- ½ teaspoon lemon balm
- ½ teaspoon passionflower
- ½ teaspoon skullcap
- ½ teaspoon spearmint
- 1 heaping teaspoon honey (optional)
Combine the herbs. Pour 4 to 6 ounces of near-boiling water over the herbs and let steep, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain, then sweeten to taste with honey, if desired.