Written by Simon Mills
If you have trouble sleeping you will know how desperate you can get to find something to help, preferably something to knock you out! Various conventional sleep medications aim to do just that: benzodiazepines like lorazepam (Ativan), temazepam (Restoril), nitrazepam (Mogadon) or other hypnotics like Zolpidem or Zopiclone work by downregulating various alert mechanisms in the brain. Even the popular antihistamine versions (eg. Nytol) in effect do the same thing.
Some familiar herbal approaches are gentler versions of this approach. There are many calming ‘relaxant’ herbs well suited as a late night drink to reduce restlessness, temporary difficulties in settling down, children’s wakefulness, or simply to improve sleep quality. Chamomile is probably the most well-known family remedy here, being particularly used for children. Here we can highlight two other relaxing sleep remedies that are well worth trying for the same purpose.
Limeflowers (Tilia spp.)
It used to be common in France in the springtime to see families out for a weekend gathering limeflowers (tilleul) from the massive lime or linden trees in parks and countryside. One of the main reasons for this was to collect and dry enough of this calming family to see them through the year. It is especially suitable for children, for a wide range of common ailments and notably as a night time drink to help sleep. Children may welcome a touch of honey or other flavouring.
Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
This is a favourite calming remedy from North America and is widely used by herbal practitioners for its ability to calm excitable, tense and nervous states. If you can get the right species (there are a number of common substitutes for lateriflora so this is important to check) this is definitely one to add to the list of remedies to help reduce restlessness ahead of sleep.
Such relaxant remedies should ideally be for short-term use and should always support a wider ‘sleep hygiene’ regime (where bedtimes and the bedroom are tightly regulated) and used with any other measures to reduce stress and adrenal alertness at bedtime (a brisk dose of exercise in the late afternoon is a good way to diffuse the day’s adrenal-cortisol buildup).
They could also be used with remedies that have a more sustained benefit.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
This is a remedy that crosses over from short- to long-term benefits. It was traditionally used to aid sleep during convalescence. The old reputation therefore was as a tonic (the name come from the Latin for strength) and although this may mean that for a few people it can be a stimulant, it also means that for most sleep patterns may be benefited long term.
The herbal approach to sustaining sleep takes a more enlightened approach. It sees sleep as a body affair to be supported rather than sedated. Traditional views of insomnia assumed that it was a condition of depletion, not just that lack of sleep wears you down, but that being worn down interferes with sleep. A classic vicious circle. Thus the favoured approach of old was to use restorative remedies. We might think of these like charging the batteries that are needed to run an effective sleep, and be reminded that sleep is a busy housekeeping activity that needs ‘batteries’ to run it. Common European sleep tonics include oatflower and vervain (Verbena officinalis) and there are many from other traditions. Two classic examples of this genre of restorative sleep remedies are St John’s wort and ashwagandha.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
This is a particularly useful sleep remedy from European tradition. Although associated in modern times with reducing depression it used to be another convalescent tonic, used to calm agitated states and support recovery, in part by supporting sleep. (The link with depression in not a conflict as insomnia associated with restlessness and alertness in the middle of the night is a classic feature of this problem.)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Perhaps the most striking example of a sleep tonic. This is one of the most popular strengthening remedies in south Asia, whose botanical name refers to its simultaneous reputation for aiding healing sleep. Ashwagandha features in many herbal practitioner formulations aimed to rebuild good sleep.