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Treating Sleep Problems with Herbs

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 110 - April 2005

A good night's sleep for at least six to eight hours is vital for health of mind and body and to enable us to perform optimally during waking hours. Poor sleep has its origin in many different problems of both mind and body, but also becomes a problem of its own that then predisposes us to further health problems. Ascertaining the underlying cause is the first step towards effective treatment.

Insomnia is largely caused by stress and tension, but many other factors may also contribute, including menopause, allergies, hypoglycaemia, nutritional deficiencies, overwork, overtiredness or physical problems. According to Ayurveda, sleep problems can also be caused by disturbance of one of the doshas, particularly Vata.

Herbs with sedative properties can be taken in a variety of different ways. A warm herbal bath before bed with added strong infusions or dilute essential oils will relax tense muscles and calm an overactive mind. Herb pillows have traditionally been used for sleep problems.

According to Ayurveda, drinking warm milk before bed promotes peaceful sleep. Adding ground almonds and a pinch of cardamom or nutmeg will help nourish the nervous system and settle the digestion. In India they use a salve of nutmeg and ghee around the eyes, and on the forehead, to promote sleep.

A cup of herbal tea or one to three teaspoons of tincture (diluted in a little warm water) can be taken nightly before bed until a proper sleep pattern is re-established and then the dose can gradually be reduced.

Lime/linden flower tea (Tilea Europea) relieves anxiety, calms restlessness and agitation, relaxes muscle tension and thereby aids sleep. Its decongestant action helps clear catarrhal congestion, while its soothing action relieves irritating coughs and sore throats, which can contribute to sleep problems. In a randomized double-blind, controlled clinical trial, a valerian/hops mixture was as effective as benzodiazepines for non-chronic and non-psychiatric sleep disorders. This herbal mixture also had the advantage of lacking the withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepine treatment.[1]

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnato)is one of the best tranquilizing herbs for chronic insomnia, whether from tension or exhaustion, and relieves many stress-related symptoms. Being both sedative and antispasmodic, it relaxes spasm and tension in the muscles including the gut, it calms the nerves and lessens pain. In-vitro trials have suggested the flavonoids apigenin and chrysin both may mediate anxiolytic effect by means of their action as benzodiazepine receptor ligands.[2][3] Apigenin is also well-known for its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties.4 Passionflower apparently exerts its beneficial effects on the nervous system by improving circulation and nutrition to the nerves. Its cooling properties help relieve symptoms related to excess heat in the system. Its relaxing effects in the chest relieve spasm and soothe irritating and nervous coughs.

Nervine herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, wild oats, vervain, rosemary, lime flower, wild oats and skullcap can also be taken three times during the day to reduce accumulating tension and thereby aid sleep at night. Such nourishing herbs also help prevent nervous depletion from stress and poor sleep. Over-tiredness can create a viscous circle and predispose further to insomnia.

Ashwagandha is a well-known Ayurvedic herb, an excellent sedative and nourishing to a depleted nervous system, particularly recommended for all problems associated with excess Vata. Between a quarter to half teaspoon of the powder taken with raw sugar and ghee at night is traditionally used.5 It can also be taken in warm milk with a little raw sugar or honey, both morning and night. Brahmi (Centella/Hydrocotyl asiatica), also known as gotu cola, has a relaxing effect, calming an agitated mind and can be given before bed. It can be mixed in equal parts with Bringaraj (Eclipta alba), jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) and shankapushpi (Convolvulus pluricaulis). Steep a quarter to half teaspoon of the mixture in half cup of hot water for ten minutes, sweeten with honey if required. Draksasava, (two to eight teaspoons at night) is helpful. This is a mildly alcoholic sweet preparation of grapes and spices, and considered ideal for children.

A recipe I often use with success in my practice comprises:

• 1 part gotu cola (Centella asiatica)
• 1 part jatamansi
• 1 part shankapushpi
• 1 part ashwagandha
• 1/2 part cardamom
• 1/2 teaspoon of the powder mixture can be heated in a little warm milk, sweetened with jaggery or honey, and taken morning and night.

Oil massage using sesame oil at night, particularly to head, limbs and soles, followed by a warm shower or bath, and instilling oil in ears has a relaxing and calming effect, and helps balance Vata and promote good sleep. Hair oil made from aloe vera juice (Kumari) and sesame oil boiled together can be rubbed on the head before bed to calm the mind. Brahmi/gotu cola oil works well when massaged on the soles of the feet and the scalp at bedtime. Medicated nose drops (nasya) are popular in Ayurvedic medicine for sleeping problems. Brahmi ghee or plain ghee is used. About two to four drops in each nostril.


1. Schmitz M and Jackel M. Comparative study for assessing quality of life of patients with exogenous sleep disorders (temporary sleep onset and sleep interruption disorders) treated with a hops-valerian preparation and a benzodiazepine drug. 148(13): 291-8. Wien Med Wochenschr. 1998.
2. Viola H, Wasowski C and Levi de Stein M et al. Apigenin, a component of Matricaria recutita flowers, is a central benzodiazepine receptor-ligand with anxiolytic effects. 61: 213-215. Planta Med. 1995.
3. Wolfson P and Hoffmann DL. An investigation into the efficacy of Scutellaria lateriflora in healthy volunteers. 9(2): 74-8. Altern Ther Health Med. Mar-Apr 2003.
4. Wren RC, Williamson EM and Evans FJ. Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations. 1985.
5. Dastur JF. Everybody's guide to Ayurvedic Medicine. 218. DB Taraporevala Sons & Co. 1960.


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

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