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Avoid the risks associated with sleep medications carrying "black box warnings" of harm (including death). Nature has several effective sleep aids ready to stop your tossing and turning and escort you gently into dreamland
Sleep is as individualized as it is essential to your health. Whether you generally fall asleep easily or are more of an insomniac, it's good to have a few tried and true sleep aids on hand that are gentle, effective and, most importantly, non-habit-forming. You never know when jet lag, stress or an irregular period in your life may have you counting sheep and praying for sleep.
Despite the potential negative health impacts, drugs for sleep disorders are among the most oft-prescribed medications. When you need occasional sleep support, just say "no" to the hamster wheel of medication. Nature's top sleep aids are safe, soothing and, unlike many insomnia medications, won't leave you chemically addicted and feeling strung out in the morning.
A natural hormone associated with the sleep-wake cycle, melatonin is released by the pineal gland in the brain during evening hours, dropping in production when the sun rises.[i] When the body's natural timeclock, your circadian rhythm, is disrupted by things like shift work, stress or exposure to blue light from screens, melatonin levels can become depleted. During such times, supplementing with melatonin may be a safe way to restore your natural balance.
Experts suggest using supplemental melatonin in harmony with natural practices, like taking it one to two hours before you want to fall asleep or around sundown. Stop using screens (this includes your phone) and dim the lights in your home. If you must watch TV at night, be sure you are at least six feet away from the screen.[ii]
You can further enhance the effectiveness of melatonin by getting exposure to natural daylight during the morning and afternoon hours. If you can't be outside, sit by a well-lit window to stimulate production of your natural melatonin as the daylight fades.
2. Vitamin D
Exposure to sunlight is not only essential for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm, it's a primary source for photosynthesis of vitamin D's precursor, previtamin D3.[iii] There are more than 1,000 known genetic processes that are regulated by vitamin D3,[iv] making adequate intake of this vitamin essential for your body and your sleep.
A 2018 meta-analysis of the association between vitamin D and sleep disorders found that study participants with vitamin D deficiency had a significantly increased risk for development of sleep disorders.[v] Further analysis found that low vitamin D was also associated with poor sleep quality.[vi]
There are two ways to get the right amount of vitamin D: proper diet/supplementation and adequate sunlight exposure. In addition to daylight outdoor activity, adding foods like pastured eggs and fatty fish, and if necessary, a vitamin D3 supplement, to your diet several times weekly will ensure that you are getting optimum vitamin D to support quality sleep each night.
3. Passion Flower
Passion vines produce passion flowers -- a lovely addition to any garden. Did you know that the passion flower is also a treatment for insomnia? If you can't avail yourself to passion flowers with a sunny stroll through a garden, you can enjoy the sleep-inducing benefits of Passiflora incarnata in supplement form and possibly kiss your sleepless nights goodbye.
A 2017 study of the effect of the medicinal plant Passifloraceae on sleep showed that extracts of the plant, when administered via injection, induced a significant increase in sleep time in rats.[vii] More time was spent in "slow wave" or phase 3 sleep, the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement sleep characterized by delta brainwaves. Interestingly, this is the phase of sleep when dreams occur and is also important for consolidating memories.[viii]
4. Lavender Essential Oil
There is no scent so instantly relaxing as fresh lavender flowers. Used since ancient times as pillow stuffing, adding lavender essential oil to a spray bottle with distilled water to spritz your pillows before bed is a modern and convenient equivalent. Similarly, a bedside atomizer can help soothe dry sinus passages while you sleep, adding humidity to the air, which aids breathing.
Beyond adding a fresh scent to your sheets, lavender can help smooth out the wrinkles in your sleep routine. Research has shown that lavender oil can increase your quality of sleep and may have the added effect of reducing anxiety.[ix] Another study found that aromatherapy using lavender increased both sleep quality and quality of life in women experiencing sleep deprivation in connection with menopause.[x]
Valerian root is known for being the inspiration for the anti-anxiety drug Valium. So, it's no surprise that this botanical is valued for its calming, sleep-inducing effects. Valerian is the most widely studied herb for sleep[xi] and is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).[xii]
The plant, Valeriana officinalis, is a popular herb that grows in many parts of the world. Both the mineral-rich leaves and the rhizome have been used in herbal remedies for hundreds of years. Most commonly used as a relaxant, a warm cup of valerian tea may be just what the doctor ordered for a night of sound sleep.
In a study of 918 children under 12 years of age experiencing restlessness and nervous dyskoimesis (tics and involuntary movements), 81% of patients had a "distinct and convincing reduction in severity … for all symptoms" when dosed with a homeopathic remedy combining lemon balm and valerian root extract.[xiii]
Children's symptoms previously described as "moderate/severe" by parents and clinicians improved to "mild" or "absent" in most patients. Researchers concluded that the herbal remedy was effective at treating restlessness in children and was very well tolerated.[xiv] One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to use valerian is in a bedtime tea, which can be made by simmering the root or, for a slightly milder effect, decocting the dried leaves in water just off a boil.
6. Cannabis (cannabinoids)
Cannabis is slowly being integrated into the legal pharmacopeia in the U.S., but this plant has a history as an herbal remedy that spans millennia. Upon ingestion, active phytochemical compounds in cannabis called cannabinoids bind with receptor sites in the brain to deliver a host of therapeutic effects.[xv] One such effect can be deep relaxation and -- yes -- better sleep.
A 2017 study seeking to summarize the state of research on cannabis and sleep, including specific sleep disorders, found that the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) may have therapeutic potential for the treatment of insomnia.[xvi] Another known cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was found to decrease the length of time it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency), although it demonstrated the potential to impair sleep quality in the long-term.[xvii]
CBD further showed potential for treatment of REM sleep disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness, a frequent side effect of poor quality sleep.[xviii]
Is there anything more soothing than a warm cup of chamomile tea when you're winding down? There is a reason that chamomile has become synonymous with sleepiness; this is one superstition that really rings true.
Researchers conducting a study on postpartum women experiencing depression and poor sleep quality instructed a test group to drink chamomile tea for a period of two weeks in addition to receiving standard postpartum care. Compared to the control group that did not drink tea, chamomile drinkers had significantly better sleep scores and fewer symptoms of depression.[xix]
Sleep Finds a Way
Nature has infinite intelligence and sleep will find a way, especially if you provide gentle, plant-based support in measured doses. Remember, everyone experiences occasional sleeplessness. It's safest to avoid sleep drugs with black box warnings about death from sleepwalking, sleep driving and other unconscious activities associated with these medications.
*WARNING: Always consult a medical herbalist or your health care practitioner when using both natural and pharmaceutical medicines for any diagnosed condition. This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be used as medical advice.
[ii] Johns Hopkins Medicine, Health, Wellness and Prevention, Melatonin for Sleep: Does it Work? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/melatonin-for-sleep-does-it-work
[v] Qi Gao, Tingyan Kou, Bin Zhuang, Yangyang Ren, Xue Dong, Qiuzhen Wang. The Association between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 1 ;10(10). Epub 2018 Oct 1. PMID: 30275418
[vi] Qi Gao, Tingyan Kou, Bin Zhuang, Yangyang Ren, Xue Dong, Qiuzhen Wang. The Association between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 1 ;10(10). Epub 2018 Oct 1. PMID: 30275418
[x] Meryem Gürler, Aynur Kızılırmak, Mürüvvet Baser. The Effect of Aromatherapy on Sleep and Quality of Life in Menopausal Women with Sleeping Problems: A Non-Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Complement Med Res. 2020 Jun 9:1-10. Epub 2020 Jun 9. PMID: 32516765
[xi] Psychology Today, Blog, Valerian for Sleep and Weaning Off Anxiety Medications, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inner-source/201503/valerian-sleep-and-weaning-anxiety-medications
[xii] Mount Sinai.org, Health Library, Herb, Valerian, https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/valerian
[xiii] S F Müller, S Klement. A combination of valerian and lemon balm is effective in the treatment of restlessness and dyssomnia in children. Phytomedicine. 2006 Jun ;13(6):383-7. Epub 2006 Feb 17. PMID: 16487692
[xiv] S F Müller, S Klement. A combination of valerian and lemon balm is effective in the treatment of restlessness and dyssomnia in children. Phytomedicine. 2006 Jun ;13(6):383-7. Epub 2006 Feb 17. PMID: 16487692
[xv] Gertsch, Jürg et al. "Phytocannabinoids beyond the Cannabis plant - do they exist?." British journal of pharmacology vol. 160,3 (2010): 523-9. doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.00745.x. PMCID: 2931553
[xix] Shao-Min Chang, Chung-Hey Chen. Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomized controlled trial. J Adv Nurs. 2016 Feb ;72(2):306-15. Epub 2015 Oct 20. PMID: 26483209