Who can forget Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson’s stern warning about the sleep drug Ambien:
I don’t take sleeping pills but somebody said ‘take this [Ambien], it’s mild.’
I got a call in the middle of the night, kind of an emergency, and I almost drove off a cliff 50 yards from my house, and I live up in the mountains in Aspen. So I warn people about it [Ambien] (1).
Using herbs to improve the quality, depth, and duration of sleep makes sense because this type of approach is considerably safer and more time-tested than drug-based sleep aids. Many sleep-promoting herbs can also be safely used with children and are preferable to using hormones like melatonin.
I’ve written before about how I use herbs to help me sleep occasionally when I travel. I live in a semi-rural area with little to no EMFs, so staying in hotels in major cities with very strong WiFi signals can sometimes make my sleep very shallow. Recently when I was staying in midtown Manhattan, my computer picked up over 100 WiFi signals from my hotel room on the 4th floor!
At those times, I find using safe, non-toxic sleep herbs invaluable to help me temporarily adjust.
Top 7 Sleep Herbs to Try
Not all sleep herbs are created equal! Some might tend to give you crazy dreams while others will simply relax you enough to drift off more quickly.
Also, note that not all sleep herbs are appropriate for children!
They also should be of sufficient potency to ensure effectiveness. A box of chamomile tea that’s been sitting in your tea drawer for several years is probably not going to help much! This article details how to properly care for and store dried herbs and teas.
Assuming freshness and potency, the following herbs work wonderfully well for resolving temporary issues with sleeplessness.
Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile, is probably the best-known sleep herb to try for occasional insomnia issues. It is very safe for both adults and children. This gentle herb is also helpful for irritability and digestive upset, which is helpful to know since both conditions could easily lead to a sleepless night if left unresolved!
Back in my twenties when I had issues with panic attacks from my crazy corporate lifestyle, I used to carry chamomile tea bags in my purse to sniff if I felt an episode coming on. The aroma of chamomile worked very well for this purpose!
The mildest way to use chamomile is as an herbal infusion. Place one ounce of dried herb in a one-quart mason jar and fill to the top with boiling water. Screw on the lid and leave at room temperature for 4 hours. An herbal infusion is more potent than a cup of chamomile tea. However, a quickly brewed cup will help in a pinch if it is 2 am and you need help immediately.
Another very easy method is to use a chamomile tincture. This is probably easiest for children too. Thirty drops mixed with a bit of water and then swallowed is the typical dosage, but always follow the directions on the label of the brand you use.
I’ve always thought it interesting that an herb named Passion Flower can actually help you sleep!
Passion Flower, Passiflora incarnata, is a very mild sleep herb best used when the sleep issues are from overwork, anxiety, or exhaustion.
The recommended dosage per Michael Traub, ND who has studied Passion Flower in depth is as follows (2):
- Herbal infusion: 2 g in 5 oz/ 150 ml water, three to four times daily.
- Capsules: 2 capsules, three to four times daily.
- Tincture: .3 oz/ 10 ml, three to four times daily.
Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is a flowering herb in the mint family. The essential oil from this plant is commonly used for aromatherapy to stimulate relaxation and drowsiness via the sense of smell.
Lavender essential oil can be effectively used as massage oil (10 drops mixed with an ounce of olive oil). A few drops can also be added to the bath before bedtime to promote sleep. Some people like to even put a drop or two on their pillowcase. Just be sure that the pillowcase covers a nontoxic pillow or the efforts may be futile!
Lavender oil should not be taken orally. Care should also be taken when using it topically with young boys on a frequent basis. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that repeated topical use of products containing lavender oil may cause gynecomastia, a rare condition resulting in enlarged breast tissue (3).
Kava, Piper methysticum, is an effective sleep herb when nighttime restlessness is from stress or nervousness. Indigenous to Fiji and surrounding islands in the South Pacific, kava is commonly used to prepare a traditional beverage used for relaxation and to enhance dreaming.
Although safe in small dosages, the FDA has issued a public safety alert about kava (4). In addition, Germany, Switzerland, and Canada banned products containing kava because of the risk of liver injury.
As a result, the safest way to enjoy the benefits of kava is as a mild tea rather than an herbal supplement.
I’ve never used the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, but for many, it is their favorite sleep herb. Clinical and laboratory work on the California poppy has demonstrated its ability to reduce the time required to fall asleep along with improving sleep quality. The scientific information available on this herb agrees with its traditional use (5).
The best way to use the California poppy is as a tincture. Use as directed, which for a tincture, is typically 30 drops 2-3 times per day.
Best known as a flavoring component of beer, hops (Humulus lupulu) actually has a very long history as a sedative too. King George III of England and Abraham Lincoln used pillows filled with hops to enhance their sleep (6).
While using a hops sleep pillow is one way to use this herb to improve slumber, spraying your pillowcase with hops based pillow potion, using a tincture, or sipping hops tea is probably more convenient and less scratchy!
Hops tincture should be used as directed on the bottle which is typically 30 drops in a small bit of water 2-3x per day. A cup of hops tea can be sipped in the morning and again in the evening to promote sleep that night.
Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, is possibly the most powerful of the herbal sedatives. It helps in situations where people have a hard time falling asleep. In addition, using valerian before bed reduces nighttime waking.
Some people find that they experience really crazy dreams when using valerian. If you’ve never used it before, start with very small amounts! Valerian works well in combination with other sleep herbs, particularly hops. This is the valerian-hops supplement I personally use on occasion and have found very effective while traveling. The directions say to take 3 tablets before bed, but I only use one, and it totally zonks me out.
Sleep Herbs Should Only Be Used Occasionally
Please note that sleep based herbs are for occasional use only. If you are pregnant, consult with your practitioner before using any herbs to promote sleep.
If you have chronic issues with insomnia or nighttime waking, it could be from hormonal issues or other health problems that need to be addressed by a physician. Also, note that toxins in your mattress can contribute to poor sleep and tossing and turning too. A thorough consideration of your sleep environment is very important to healthy slumber habits. After much research, we switched every mattress in our home to INTELLIbed a few years ago to solve this problem. They are very affordable and durable too with a 20-year full replacement warranty (check out the Organix line here).
Have you ever used herbs as an occasional sleep aid? If so, which did you use and how did they work for you?
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.