Firstly to get at the underlying cause, it is good to look at lifestyle with insomnia, spending time outside, exercising, and doing meditation or yoga are good ways to facilitate a good night sleep. Changing habitats like working or bright screens one hour before bedtime, is really important, to allow the mind to shutdown better. Fixing the time you go to bed and get out of bed helps. There are also some herbs that can help restore sleep, in this article, the protocol below can help guide you. Specifically, the nervine tonic herbs listed below are thought to help restore balance to the nervous system opposed to just repressing a pathway (Hoffman, 1988).
Herbs that work on the nervous system are termed nervines, these are suitable for treating insomnia, partly, as they reduce anxiety. Out of the herbs shown below we have one double blind human clinical trial that supports the use of American skullcap in reducing anxiety (Wolfson et al., 2003). St. John’s wort and milky oat seed have not been studied for anxiety or sleep in humans and their anti-anxiety indication is based on strong traditional knowledge (Hoffman, 1988).
Nervine tonic formula
Fresh American skullcap tincture (1 part) (cooling, drying)
Fresh milky oat seed tincture (1 part) (warming, moistening)
Dose: 20-40 drops, 2-3 times daily.
Contraindications: If on sedative medication be highly cautious regarding dose.
Good sleep guidelines
1. Choose a time for bed in order to get 8 hours of sleep. Make sure this is the same time every day. It is best to get up at the same time each day. This way you train your internal circadian clock.
2. Engage in light physical activity in the morning and afternoon. However, no intense physical exercise before bed is a good idea.
3. Do not nap during the day unless you absolutely have to.
4. Eat dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed, do not eat food after dinner.
5. Do not perform intense mental activity for 1-2 hours before bedtime, relax by listening to music, meditation, or very gentle yoga.
6. Do not expose yourself to bright lights 1 hour before bedtime, have only low lights.
7. Take 3 doses of the nervine tonic formula per day.
8. Get horizontal 30-60 mins before bedtime and no TV or bright screens.
9. Keep a balanced healthy diet.
This should help restore normal sleep. The nervine tonics may restore balance in the long term, while providing a gentle sedative action to improve sleep in the short term. The reason nervines are applied 2-3 times daily for sleep is that this helps relax the body during the day, thus preparing it for sleep at night.
The simplest option is just to use fresh American skullcap, it is quite strong and non-addictive in low doses 5-15 drops. This is the best all round herb for restoring sleep I know of. It may be taken more frequently (e.g. thrice daily) as a continuous tonic for the nervous system over a period of time. It combines very well with a fresh milky oat seed tincture for this purpose. Some herbalists also combine it with fresh St. John’s wort tincture in a three-way nervine tonic formula.
There are other Western nervine herbs that may be helpful, namely; wood betony and blue vervain, lavender, chamomile, or lemon balm, these nervines have a gently relaxing effect that may help sleep (Bartram, 2013). Kava kava is the strongest option, although potentially addictive at higher doses. Lemon balm is best used as a fresh tincture.
Bitter nervines are drying and often cooling so it is best to be wary about causing constitutional imbalances such as dry skin and constipation (especially in the vata constitution). Therefore, it is usually best if taking bitter herbs long term to formulate them with moistening nervines such as milky oat seed or other moistening herbs such as licorice. Also, in long term use, it may be useful to combine cooling nervines with those that are warming, like milky oats or valerian to balance the formula energetically.
Ashwagandha is a more calming Indian adaptogen which may help sleep (Kaushik et al., 2017), it also has an impressive array of other benefits and can be taken as a long term protective herb. However, it can actually over stimulate some more sensitive people, as many adaptogens can so could be counter productive. Similarly, holy basil or tulsi, reduces anxiety and is another more calming adaptogen for sleep (Saxena et al., 2011). Reishi is another option in this class of herbs that can be sedating.
Overall, the adaptogens are not the best herbs for restoring sleep compared with tonics like American skullcap and milky oat seed because of their tendency to stimulate and relax instead of just relax. One option is they may be used at low doses and or in combination with nervines.
In summary, the best solution for insomnia is a holistic one that takes into account underlying problems and the individual. The Western nervine tonics can be very effective for sleep, however, most important is sensible lifestyle changes.
Bartram, Thomas. Bartram’s encyclopedia of herbal medicine. Hachette UK, 2013.
Hoffman, David. Holistic herbal. Element Books, 1988.
Kaushik, Mahesh K., et al. “Triethylene glycol, an active component of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) leaves, is responsible for sleep induction.” PloS one 12.2 (2017): e0172508.
Koetter, U., et al. “A randomized, double blind, placebo‐controlled, prospective clinical study to demonstrate clinical efficacy of a fixed valerian hops extract combination (Ze 91019) in patients suffering from non‐organic sleep disorder.” Phytotherapy research 21.9 (2007): 847-851.
Saxena, Ram Chandra, et al. “Efficacy of an extract of ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the management of general stress: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2011).
Wolfson, P., and D. L. Hoffmann. “An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers.” Alternative therapies in health and medicine 9.2 (2003): 74.