Whilst mild insomnia may be treated more easily, for instance, just with one or two herbs (e.g. American skullcap) or even 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 basic lifestyle pointers that can help;
1. Exercise during the day and eat healthily, 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, remain awake, and relax. Avoid watching TV and excess conversation.
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. 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. It is important to make the point that if the insomnia is bad, then one or two simple herbs is unlikely to work. What is required is a complex synergistic formula. I am now going to go briefly through what I call the big hitter sleeping herbs, before describing a few formulae that may help.
One of the great European hypnotic nervines. Used in herbal sleep formula throughout Europe and America. Induces sleepiness instead of just reducing anxiety like most sleep herbs, but does not maintain sleep well by itself. Tolerance is acquired rapidly, but it is suitable for long term use. Often combined with hops in a simple formula, but I haven’t found this combination that useful and we will talk about better combinations later. It isn’t very suited to daytime use as can cause sleepiness. It is also an effective antispasmodic and may help reduce muscle tension. Valerian is best used in an extra concentrated dried tincture or better yet fresh tincture. Doses are 10-15 drops and upwards. It is drying and warming on the constitution.
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, especially the first time you use it, 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.
This is another European herbal remedy and is verstaile in terms of its actions. 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.
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’, it 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.
Passionflower is the last of what I would call the strong sleeping remedies. It is traditionally combined with hops and valerian for sleep, but I find it more effective to combine it with valerian, lemon balm, and skullcap. It will only have a mild effect alone, but combined is more powerful.
An energetic spectrum of sleeping herbal remedies
Another problem is people on the whole under appreciate herbal energetics, it isn’t that complicated to understand. This system common to ancient Greek, Chinese, and Indian medicine classes herbs by their energetic effect on the body in terms of the 4 elemental forces (warming, cooling, drying, moistening). If excess drying and cooling herbs are taken, constipation and dry skin will start to take over. This is especially easy to do in the vata constitution (people who tend to weak digestion, pale skin, and dry skin). Let’s take a look at the energetic properties of common sleeping herbs and their strengths.
We can see the issue with the Western nervine herbs, all of them, apart from hawthorn and milky oat seed are drying on the constitution. When taking these drying nervine herbs just once daily, this may not be enough to see constitutional dryness appearing. However, if using a sleep formula consisting purely of drying herbs especially in a vata person twice daily or more, dry skin will likely occur and constipation. A solution is to formulate with moistening herbs like hawthorn berry and milky oat seed. Hawthorn berry is my favourite moistening nervine herb, it supports regular bowel movements and reduces dry skin. This can balance out drying nervines nicely. I have less confidence in milky oat seed, but this might be because our oat seed is not as good as that available in the USA.
Another option is to include a herb or herbs from the adaptogen materia medica from Chinese medicine, as these are often moistening (e.g. he shou wu, cordyceps, astragalus). However, these vary in terms of stimulation so it may be helpful to consult the adaptogen stimulating spectrum chart.
These formulas are quite strong, if you haven’t already tried lifestyle or individual herbs or pairs first – best to do this. A fresh tincture of American skullcap is good to start with. Start with lower doses first and be especially cautious if combining with sedative drugs.
This triplet is well suited to inducing and maintaining sleep and there is excellent synergy here. Add hawthorn berry if dryness occurs (15-30 drops).
Fresh American skullcap (1 part)
Fresh lemon balm (1 part)
Valerian (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. Not for use by pregnant or breast-feeding women.
This is stronger and can be taken as a single dose before bed. I believe this to be as effective as many conventional sleeping pills.
Fresh American skullcap (1 part)
Passionflower (1 part)
Lemon balm (1 part)
Extra concentrated valerian (1 part)
German chamomile (1 part)
Roman chamomile (1 part)
Magnolia bark (400mg+)
Lavender tincture (1 part)
Dosage: Between 30-75 drops may be taken once before bed, leaving an hour gap.
Contraindications: Be v. careful if using sedative drugs at the same time. Not for use by pregnant or breast-feeding women.
These are on the whole less suited to fixing sleep as they boost stamina and focus. However, that said there are some that are more relaxing, especially ashwagandha and holy basil. KSM66 ashwagandha is more stimulating compared with the traditional root powder.
Adaptogens that are suitable for sleep: Ashwagandha, holy basil, reishi, schisandra, cordyceps.