If you have insomnia, you are not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services around 60 million people suffer from it yearly. While many will turn to prescriptions for help, it is important to recognize that the insomniac has many excellent alternative health options to choose from. With this article I will recommend my favorites in the hopes that more people will enjoy the right to a good night sleep.
The constantly suffering insomniac wakes to many dawns of exhaustion. But even as sleep eludes them, they are still driven to experience it. Unfortunately, the desire and need for sleep is not always enough to balance sleep cycles, making intervention a necessary step. Intervention that often involves pills.
While I’m a firm believer in sleep, medications for such are not our best options. They are habit forming, have side effects and don’t always solve the problem. That is why I refer my clients to plant medicines. In my experience, they work just as well if not better then medications.
What follows is a compendium of tools from my practice for insomnia. It includes a Materia medica with sample aromatherapy and herbal tincture formulas, and a few recommendations for pre-bedtime lifestyle modification.
Ill effects of Sleeplessness
A decent night’s sleep is our investment in tomorrow. While it can’t guarantee a perfect day, it can support us in dealing with the less than perfect one, and better attune our body to good health.
Here are a few of the ways lack of sleep adversely affects the body.
1. The immune system and body’s ability to heal kicks in when we sleep. If we don’t, we are more prone to acute and chronic illness, and take longer to recover.
2. Appropriate rest and relaxation gives our adrenals and nervous system a break. This enables us to deal with stress better, and be more emotionally balanced when we are awake.
3. Insomnia can lead to anxiety, depression and emotional distress. Not only can these conditions, in turn, perpetuate insomnia, but they can also worsen heart conditions, autoimmune disease and digestion.
The following herbs are some of my favorites for insomnia. From them, you can pick a single plant to try, or you can create a formula. There is a diverse selection here which will suit a variety of needs, from the chatty mind and the heavy and burdened heart to those with anxiety and tension.
The plant descriptions provided focus on the use of these plants for insomnia, but they have other applications as well. For more information on each please visit my web site, www.redrootmountain.com, or refer to books by Matt Wood.
Note: It is important to check drug contraindications before using herbal medicines.
Blue vervain (Verbena hastata): Tastes: acrid bitter; Energetics: sedative, diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic and antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac; Dosage: 10-35 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily
Blue vervain has an affinity for the spine, nervous system, and stomach. It is a relaxing acrid bitter, making one shiver when the herb is ingested. It is specific for unbreakable patterns of tension and constriction in the nervous system that lead to nervous exhaustion, insomnia, autoimmune disorders and headaches. When used in insomnia formulas it relaxes to sedate, is a great long term nervine tonic and can relieve anxiety that propels nervous system disorders when tension in the nervous system and spine are the culprit.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) Taste: sour, sweet; Energetics: astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-spasmodic, cardio tonic and regulator, diuretic, autoimmune disease, circulatory stimulant; Dosage: 20-40 drops of tincture 3-4 times daily
Hawthorn has an affinity for the large intestine, heart, mind and circulatory system Hawthorn tones the heart muscle, and acts as an anti-inflammatory, thereby normalizing arrhythmias and regular heart function where there is deficiency and disease. The high flavonoid content makes it a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, thus increasing its ability to re-instill and maintain cell wall integrity. It has also been observed to relieve pain associated with angina. For insomnia, I use hawthorn leaves, flowers and twigs to support heart function when a person has an autoimmune disease, deficient heart function, suffers from excessive stress or chronic anxiety.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Taste: Aromatic, mildly bitter; Energetics: anti-inflammatory and analgesic, anti-spasmodic, carminative, antiseptic, skin cell regenerating, nervine tonic, diaphoretic and antiseptic; Dosage: 10-20 drops 2-4 times daily
An old remedy for epilepsy, lavender has an affinity for the digestive tract, immune system, nervous system, skin, muscles and head. It is the emotional balancer whose action is dependent on what the person needs, whether lifting the spirits or sedating. As an essential oil, lavender out did benzodiazepines in a sleep study. People not only slept better with lavender, but their moods were better during the day as well. Decreased anger and tension during the day were also reported by those in the study. I use lavender as a tincture and essential oil, and find that it is especially effective and safe for the elderly and children. It also reduces other symptoms associated with insomnia, such as exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Motherwort flowers and leaves(Leonurus cardiaca): Taste: acrid bitter, aromatic; Energetics: anti-spasmodic, anti-anxiety, nervine tonic, cardio tonic, vasodilator, hypotensive, emmenagogue, sedative in larger doses, mild diuretic; Dosage:10-45 drops of tincture 3-4 times daily
Motherwort is a cardio and nervine tonic. It relieves anxiety and tension, thereby strengthening the heart, elevating mood, and encouraging restfulness. To quote Maude Grieves, “there is no better herb for strengthening and gladdening the heart.” The flower stalk of motherwort resembles a spinal cord. The seeds are very prickly, therefore indicating to me that it is a good plant for those who are emotionally sensitive with anxiety that stresses the heart muscle. I love motherwort in formulas or as a simple for insomnia because of its ability to calm and sedate the heart and nervous system, and reduce anxiety during the day.
Oat seed (Avena sativa): Taste: sweet and moistening; Energetics: nervine tonic, anti-anxiety, stimulant, anti-spasmodic; Dosage: Fresh plant tincture 15-60 drops 2-4 times daily
Milky oat seed tincture is sweet, and specific for the dry, hot and withered constitution. The fresh plant tincture has an affinity for the nervous system, while the dried oat straw tea is specific for joints and tendons. When someone is burned out as a result of too many life excesses or is feeling frayed and fried, milky oat seed tincture is a gift. Examples of a few of these excesses are: adrenaline stress, insomnia from stress, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, nicotine, late nights, taking care of the infirmed.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate) Taste: acrid bitter; Energetics: sedative, anti-anxiety, anti-spasmodic, antioxidant; Dosage: tincture 20-40 drops 3-4 times daily
Passionflower has an affinity for the head, heart respiratory tract and nervous system. It is a useful sedative, tames tremors that emanate from the nervous system (as in Parkinson’s), and decreases pain in headaches accompanied by anxiety. When used for insomnia, I love how passionflower deepens sleep, and calms restlessness. I also find that it quiets the chatty mind.
Skullcap leaf and flower (Scutellaria lateriflora): Taste: bitter, pungent; Energetics: nervine tonic, anti-spasmodic in stomach, lungs (when the trigger is nerve related), heart, mild cholagogue; Dosage: 30-60 drops of tincture
Skullcap strongly supports the nervous system, lungs, gallbladder, and heart. It is a tonic that can help rebalance an over agitated nervous system, and this is why I like it in insomnia formulas. Like passionflower, it calms the tremors and ticks which cause Parkinson’s, mild Tourette’s, and restless leg syndrome. For those who are nervous and agitated, it is excellent medicine, combining well with the other remedies that are more sedative, but acting as a tonic to rebalance the nervous system over time.
Herbal Treatment Ideas
When using herbs for insomnia, there are a few things to take into account.
1. Use tinctures, not teas! Many of us grew up believing that a cup of tea was a positive bedtime habit, but I avoid teas when trying to get someone to sleep. I don’t want my client disrupting their sleep cycle to visit the bathroom.
2. There are those who wake up naturally during the night as their body and mind work to rebalance the sleep cycle. For those who do, I recommend they don’t get too worked up about it, and that they just take another 35-70 drops of tincture, or reapply the aromatherapy formula and go back to bed.
Sample Tincture Formulas
Insomnia with cold and depressed function, prone to acute infections: equal parts tinctures of lavender, blue vervain, passionflower, 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
Insomnia with anxiety and heat rising to the head: equal parts tincture of passionflower, motherwort, and hawthorn; 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
Insomnia that stems from excessive use of stimulants, leading to an inability to sleep and exhaustion during the day. This takes retraining the rhythm of the body a little differently. Daytimes tincture: equal parts of Siberian ginseng or American ginseng, with holy basil, 10-20 drops 3-4 times daily. Cease use of this tincture after 5 pm. Nighttime tincture: motherwort, California poppy, passionflower, 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed. (Note: I have had successfully used this approach with former drug addicts. Of course, they have to be off drugs for it to work.)
Frazzled nerves with a dry and withered tongue: equal parts oats, hawthorn, skullcap and passionflower; As a restorative tonic, take this formula without the passionflower (equal parts of the three plants, 35 drops 3 times daily) during the day. Add a non-stimulating adaptogen for daytime use, also. At bedtime: 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
Anxiety with excess adrenaline and shaky nervousness: equal parts motherwort, hawthorn, skullcap and passionflower; For daytime use eliminate the passionflower, and take 20-35 drops 3 times daily. At bedtime: 35-70 drops 30 minutes before bed.
There are many reasons that I sometimes prefer aromatherapy for insomnia over internal plant medicines. Here are a few of the most important ones.
1. Scent perception occurs in less than a second with body wide effects, bypassing organ system processes and overriding conscious thought. This makes aromatherapy an effective ally in stress related disorders.
2. Whenever I’m working with a client who has insomnia, there is a pretty good chance they are on other medications. Because essential oils are applied topically, I can avoid herb drug interactions while still treating my clients. And in cases where someone is already ingesting plant medicines, aromatherapy allows me to simplify how many plants are being taken internally.
Formulas for insomnia should be applied to the feet, heart and back of the neck at least 20 minutes before bedtime, and can be reapplied overnight if needed. The veins in the feet bypass the liver and run directly to the heart and respiratory tract therefore making foot application a direct way to calm the heart, while inhaling scent calms the mind.
Healing baths are also an excellent way to de-stress and get to sleep. To take a bath, apply your formula to your body before stepping into a tub, and add 1 cup of Epsom salts. Soak for at least 20 minutes.
All formulas, bath and other, should be made at a 1-2% dilution, which translates as 7-14 drops of pure essential oil in a carrier oil. Here are a few sample formulas to try.
Sample Aromatherapy Formulas
Anti-Anxiety Formula: clary sage, lavender, and lemongrass; or vetiver, lemongrass, lavender.
Insomniacs Dream: sweet mandarin, spikenard and rose (or rosewood and geranium). By far, this is one of the most potent formulas for insomnia. The three oils combine to make a sedative combination that quiets the mind and relaxes the heart and nervous system.
Aphrodisiac Formula: rose (or rose geranium), clary sage, cardamom, sweet mandarin. This general formula relaxes the nervous system, decreases anxiety and is sedative, but it can also increases sex drive.
Once herbal protocols are in place, there are other things that may need to be addressed to improve sleep patterns. A few things to avoid 30-60 minutes before bed are: T.V, the computer, and foods that are high in sugar or that contain caffeine. Instead, engage in activities that slow the mind down and prepare one to rest, such as taking a bath, writing in a journal, knitting, drawing or reading. And for those who can’t get tomorrows tasks off their mind, this is also a good time to make a to do list for the next day.
Insomnia has many causes and complicating factors which perpetuate it. In my clients alone I’ve seen it result from stress, drug addiction, chronic illness, weaning from night nursing or tending an ailing loved one. Despite each person’s difference, most everyone found relief in plant medicines. They were happy to leave the status of statistic behind, and remove their name from the list of 60 million plus yearly that lie awake at night wondering when sleep will come.
Everyone deserves a good night sleep. With plant medicines, that goal can be achieved naturally, allowing us to improve our ability to bear life’s random burdens, and positively affecting the quality of our days. And that is what healing insomnia is all about.