This old religious taboo against “folk medicine” carried over in the early 20th century, when the study of herbs was dropped for good in favor of the more profitable chemical methods of synthesization.
The sleep aid industry has a powerful grip on the world, but even the most effective prescription drugs have their downsides: side-effects, limited access and prohibitive costs. That’s why countless people turn to herbs, which have been tested for hundreds of years by herbalists and naturopaths –versus the standard 6 months of testing for the average pharmaceutical.
Folk medicine was suppressed in Europe thanks to the cultural forces from Rome, and many herbalists were burned at the stake for their uncanny knowledge of the natural world.
Much of this suppression was due to women herbalists’ promotion of safe and effective birth control through the use of herbs, as well as their wisdom in procuring altered states of consciousness for healing and shamanic information retrieval. Western culture sent these healing methods underground and repressed all kinds of herbal knowledge along with it.
Herbal Knowledge is Doubly Tabooed
So we have a double taboo against studying herbs: an ancient religious doctrine combined with commercial scientific interests.
This hasn’t stopped the modern pharmaceutical industry from plundering indigenous knowledge bases about herbs, of course, but it has limited the public funding opportunities for current studies on the effectiveness of many revered and powerful herbs and plant medicines.
A quick note: Herbs do not = safe. Some herbs may actually counteract other prescription drugs or be dangerous if used in combination with alcohol or sedatives, and others may be dangerous when combined with antidepressants.
See your medical provider if you have doubts, and do your homework before trying any herbal remedy. I am providing some reputable resources at the end of the article to consult for further reading.
Valerian root has a long history of use as a mild sedative. Taken as supplement, valerian reduces the amount of time to slip into deep sleep. Valerian with hops also has some clinically proven results for sleeplessness, according to a 2005 study reported in the journal Sleep. It is also regularly combined with kava kava, but beware of this if you have diagnosed liver or kidney problems.
Several clinical studies suggest that valerian alone is not effective in the long-term for insomnia. I would say that, in general, any difficultly sleeping that lasts over two weeks may require more medical assistance than any herb can provide.
Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, has been used as a relaxant since the Middle Ages in European folk medicine. It has a clean, refreshing citrus smell so you can take it in a tea or as a supplement. Add it to your dream pillow, while you’re at it.
The effects of lemon balm are more than wishful thinking/placebo. A 2003 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmolocology found that lemon balm indirectly encourages sleep by improving mood and inducing mental calmness. Lemon balm can be called a nootropic, or a brain-enhancing supplement, as it can improve cognitive performance too.
I just brewed a mead (honey wine) with lemon balm and mugwort: it’s still fermenting but we’ve already named it “the Dreamer’s Mead.”
Most European herbal sleep remedies contain passion flower, or Passiflora incarnata, even though the plant comes from the tropical regions of the Americas, where it was widely used by the Aztecs, according to journals from 16th century conquistadors.
The leaves and flowers have a mild flavor, and has a reputation for reducing anxiety and sleeplessness caused by anxiety.
While few peer-reviewed studies have been funded for passion flower, it is actually listed as a herbal tranquilizer in Germany. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, the active ingredients may be harmaline and harmine, so do not use passion flower if you take MAOI antidepressants, as sedative effects may be amplified.
Chamomile may be the most recognized sleep aid, but actually many clinical studies have shown no effects of the herb for those suffering with chronic insomnia. Is chamomile a placebo due to its yummy scent? I don’t think so. Chamomile may indirectly promote sleep by increasing mental calmness.
A recent study by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that chamomile significantly reduces the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. This double blind study even pitted the active ingredient against a placebo pill that smelled like chamomile.
So stock up on chamomile if you haven’t already. By the way, there are many grades and species of chamomile: make sure you find German chamomile, or Matricaria recutita.
Our knowledge of Kava, or Piper methysticum, comes from indigenous cultures in the Western Pacific, who have used the roots of this shrub in intoxicating beverages for centuries. Like many of the “sleep herbs” listed here, kava is not technically a sedative, and has had mixed results in treating insomnia. Most clinical sources say it’s not effective, although it remains classified as a hypnotic.
Like chamomile and lemon balm, kava can promote sleep by decreasing anxiety. In fact the National Institutes of Health suggests that kava may be just as effective as Valium for promoting calmness.
Be warned, kava has a bad reputation because several herbal remedies with kava have been implicated in cases of liver toxicity in Europe. We do not know what exactly is to blame in these cases, such as kava overdosing or contaminates from other sources. Definitely do not take kava if you have liver issues or are taking drugs that affect the liver.