Whilst mild insomnia may be treated more easily, even just with one or two herbs or better yet simple lifestyle changes, treating a more serious case is harder. It has taken me considerable work to learn what helps, before going into the herbs, these are some lifestyle pointers that can help;

1. Exercise during the day and eat healthy, but do neither 1 hour before sleep.
2. Do not stare at bright screens at least 1 hour before sleep.
3. For the hour before bedtime aim to lie horizontally and listen to music or read a book or just relax in some gentle way.
4. Cultivate a calm mind using techniques like meditation, qi-gong, yoga, etc.
5. Fix the time you get into bed and when you get up, even on weekends.

The nervine herbs

Although lifestyle changes can get you a long way, certainly herbs are often required to induce and maintain sleep. The nervine herbs are those that act on the nervous system and we are looking for those with a sedative action. I am now going to go briefly through what I call the big hitters, before describing a few formula. A lot of people use adaptogens for sleep, but sometimes this can be a mistake as they can over stimulate. Comparatively important Western nervine herbs like American skullap are being over looked.

Valerian

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One of the great European hypnotic nervines. Used in herbal sleep formula throughout Europe and America. Induces sleep, but does not necessarily maintain it by itself. Tolerance is acquired rapidly, but it is suitable for long term use. Often combined with hops in a simple formula, but hops tastes awful and isn’t that effective. Valerian does not taste too bad. It isn’t very suited to daytime use as can cause sleepiness. It is also an effective antispasmodic and may help reduce muscle tension. Doses are 10-15 drops and upwards. It is drying and warming on the constitution.

American skullcap

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American skullcap is a Native American remedy and is probably the most important nervine sedative in Western herbalism. In the specific form of a fresh tincture it is gentle in its relaxing effect and suitable for daytime use, but also effective to induce and maintain sleep. It is effective from 10-15 drops upwards. This is my favorite nervine herb, the dried tincture is almost useless, but people continue to sell it. If you have a good quality tincture the herb should cause a gentle relaxing feeling on the upper skull, hence the name. It is also an effective antispasmodic and may help reduce muscle tension. American skullcap is cooling and slightly drying on the constitution.

Lemon balm

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This is another European herbal remedy. It is a nice sedative, gently relaxing which can help support healthy sleep. It is suitable for daytime use as well. It also has a nootropic action, so boosts cognitive abilities, whilst also functioning as an anti-depressant. Again it is reasonable to start around 10-15 drop doses and work up, especially when combining with other herbs. Like skullcap, a fresh tincture is preferred, but a recently dried one will also function. It is also an effective carminative and may help reduce excess gas. Lemon balm is cooling and drying on the constitution.

Magnolia bark

This is a traditional Chinese herbal medicine. It seems to be a pretty good sedative. I have been using 400mg capsules of the bark powder 1-2 per night. Otherwise known as, ‘houpo’, magnolia bark has been traditionally used in China and Japan for the treatment of anxiety, asthma, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, headache, and other disorders. It is warming and drying to the constitution.

Constitutional notes

Most of the nervine sedatives are drying to the constitution. If observing excess dryness on the body because of the use of drying herbs, e.g. dry skin, constipation. Either reduce the dose or add moistening herbs. For example, the nervine, hawthorn berry is a moistening herb and could be added to balance the dry tendency of these herbs. Another solution is to add more oils to the diet, such as flaxseed oil, algae omega3, or evening primrose oil.

Formula I

This is strong and can be taken as a single dose before bed. I believe this to be as effective as many conventional sleeping pills. The formula is as follows;

Fresh St. John’s wort tincture (1 part)
Fresh American skullcap tincture (1 part)
Fresh milky oat seed tincture (1 part)
Fresh or recently dried lemon balm tincture (1 part)
Dried valerian tincture (1 part)

Dosage: Between 30-75 drops may be taken before bed, leaving an hour gap.
Contraindications: Be careful if using sedative drugs at the same time. St. John’s wort may stop any drugs working properly, so be warned. Not for use by pregnant or breast-feeding women. St. John’s wort is contra indicated with SSRIs and may cause easy sun burning.

Formula II

This is stronger, and also has less contra indications because St. John’s wort is removed. Motherwort and hawthorn can help alongside valerian and lemon balm to deal with a rapid heart beat.

Fresh American skullcap tincture (1 part)
Fresh or recently dried lemon balm tincture (1 part)
Dried valerian tincture (1 part)
Motherwort (1 part)
Hawthorn (1 part)
Lavender tincture (1/3 part)
Chamomile tincture (1/3 part)
2x 400mg magnolia bark capsules

Dosage: Between 30-75 drops may be taken before bed, leaving an hour gap.
Contraindications: Be careful if using sedative drugs at the same time. Not for use by pregnant or breast-feeding women.

Conclusions

Treating insomnia, like many conditions, requires a holistic attitude. The Western nervine tonics are good to get familar with when dealing with this problem. A simple formula of milky oat seed and skullcap can be tried first of all, if not, a more complex several herb synergestic formula is called for. This article has given some suggestions of potential herbs that may be of help.