Plant-based Sleep Aids: What are they and how do they work
Do you spend hours turning over and over in bed, counting thousands of sheep, and wake up feeling like your eyes haven’t even closed? Let me take you through some of the best plant-based sleep aids nature has to offer, and give yourself the best chance of a peaceful night’s rest.
One of the most versatile of the sleep aids, lavender can be ingested, or more commonly used as an oil or tincture to infuse rooms with its relaxing scent. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in women in the postpartum period especially, and can also reduce heart and respiratory rates according to several small studies. It can be brewed into an herbal tea, bought in capsule form, or used as aromatherapy essential oil sprayed onto bed sheets or into bathwater for a truly relaxing pre-sleep ritual.
Passionflower, also known as passiflora incarnata, purple passionflower and maypop, has been used to flavor beverages for thousands of years. It works well to promote sleep by boosting the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which itself slows brain activity, allowing relaxation and sleepiness to set in. When consumed nightly as an herbal tea, it has been shown to improve the quality of sleep within seven days. Furthermore, pre-surgical patients on passionflower supplements reported less anxiety in the days before surgery when compared to similar patients taking a placebo. As if all this were not enough, passionflower contains antioxidants, which have been shown to heal stomach ulcers in laboratory studies. It is commonly found as an herbal tea, but can be taken as a supplement in capsule form.
Perhaps one of the better-known plant-based sleep aids, Valerian is native to Europe and Asia. Sometimes known as “nature’s Valium”, it has been used for thousands of years to aid sleep. Originally used in perfume due to its musky-sweet scent, it was recognized for its ability to promote a restful night soon after. Just like passionflower, Valerian is said to interact with GABA, preventing its breakdown in the brain and therefore leaving lower levels of anxiety and stress in a similar way to Xanax or Valium. Another natural source of antioxidants, Valerian contains hesperidin which might have its own sleep-enhancing effects. The compound isovaleric acid, also found in valerian, may work similarly to valproate, a medication used both to prevent seizure activity and to stabilize mood, and hence could be useful in those with restless legs, though more research is needed. Valerian can be consumed as a tea or in compressed tablets each night to relieve anxiety and enable sleep.
Jujube is native to Asia and Australia, but is now grown widely wherever the climate allows. It is packed full of phytochemicals such as saponins and flavonoids, that affect the levels of serotonin – otherwise known as the happiness chemical – in the brain, leading to feelings of relaxation and contentedness and helping you to fall asleep and stay there. Jujube fruits are similar in many ways to dates, in that they are sweet and full of fiber. They also contain large amounts of vitamins A, B and C, as well as vital minerals such as iron, phosphorus, and calcium. The seeds are often taken as supplements in their native lands, as they have long been known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Alongside this, one of the saponins within jujube, called jujuboside A, helps to selectively reduce activity in the hippocampus in the brain, where memories are stored, so may be useful as an adjunct in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
From the pepper family, kava has been grown as an herbal remedy in the Pacific Islands of Polynesia. It contains kavalactones, which have sedative properties, and have been shown in laboratory studies to reduce the time taken to fall asleep in sleep-deprived subjects. Additionally, kava perform favorably when compared to placebo in a six-week trial of supplementation. However, kava has been given recent warnings by the National Institutes for Health, as it can trigger liver problems and has side effects in some people, so it is best to take the advice of your physician before starting.
Whenever sleep aids are mentioned, melatonin is usually somewhere on the list. One natural source of melatonin is tart cherry juice or capsules. Normally far too sour to consume fresh, tart cherries are sold dried or juiced to make them more palatable. High in vitamins A and C as well as manganese, tart cherry juice has been shown to offset muscle soreness in long-distance runners compared to placebo. Alongside melatonin, these cherries contain tryptophan and anthocyanins, which help to prolong the effects of melatonin, which helps to naturally induce sleep. Use the juice to sweeten tea at bedtime, and look forward to a cosy, comfortable night of restful sleep.
Somewhat more under-the-radar than other plant-based sleep aids, magnolia officinalis is native to China, where it has been used for thousands of years to treat allergies, anxiety, and even insomnia. The magnolia tree is useful in many ways: both the bark and the flowers are used in all sorts of topical creams, herbal teas, and even toothpaste! Two of the compounds in magnolia bark, honokiol and magnolol, are responsible for increasing the amount of GABA in the brain, and activating cannabinoid receptors to elevate mood, relieve pain, and reduce inflammation. In terms of sleep, magnolia increases the amount of time spent in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, both of which are vital for brain recovery each night. On top of this, magnolia appears to downregulate the production of adrenaline, reducing alertness and hypervigilance, which can only help in those twilight hours.
Whether you are looking for a new night-time routine equipped with an herbal tea and a good book, subtle sleepy aromatherapy oils, or prefer a nutrient-packed capsule to take last thing at night to bring you natural sleep, hopefully there is something here to suit you. If you’re struggling to switch off, try one of these great plant-based sleep aids and enjoy every one of those forty winks.
XO - Serena