Insomnia affects approximately one-third of the adult population and contributes to increased rates of depression, anxiety, health problems, and social disability.
Understandably, people experiencing sleep problems are increasingly seeking medicinal ways of addressing the problem.
Due to personal experience, I don't recommend sleeping pills, but I am a huge advocate of better diet and lifestyle changes to improve sleep quality. And herbal sleep aids can form part of this holistic approach.
Indeed, the plant kingdom offers some interesting and scientifically proven natural alternatives to pills in the form of sleep herbs.
In this article, I'll look at three herbal extracts that have science on their side for proven improvements in sleep quality, and introduce you to another fairly new nature-inspired supplement.
The Best 3 Herbal Sleep Aids
The root or whole plant extract of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is used to help induce sleep in the Indian system of traditional home medicine, Ayurveda.
It is also used to treat stress, anxiety, and depression.
Subject to numerous studies, ashwagandha has shown positive improvements on sleep – largely because it helps to reduce anxiety.
In a 60-day study in 64 people with chronic stress, those in the supplemental group reported a 69% average reduction in anxiety and insomnia, compared to 11% in the placebo group (1).
Indeed, insomnia is often a symptom of underlying causes such as stress and anxiety, and several controlled human studies have shown that ashwagandha can effectively reduce stress and anxiety disorders (2 ,3).
Another study found that triethylene glycol, an active sleep-inducing component of ashwagandha leaves, is also potentially useful for insomnia therapy (4).
There is also evidence ashwagandha can boost fertility and testosterone in men and may even boost brain function. So supplementing with ashwagandha may not only improve your sleep but overall quality of life.
Ashwagandha Side Effects
Ashwagandha side effects are rare and it is widely considered a safe herbal supplement. However, potential side effects are said to be a rise in body temperature, nausea and irritation in the gastrointestinal system, but these are rarely documented.
Physicians recommend taking a break after two months of continuous supplementation.
2. Passion Flower
Passion Flower, also know as Apricot Vine and Maypop Herb, is commonly found in the woods of the United Sates. A long vine plant, it grows to 30 feet in length and blooms from May to July – producing flowers and a yellow, ovate seed plenty berry.
Historically, passion flower was used by the Indians of Peru and Brail as a medicinal sedative, and one variety of passion flower in particualar, Passiflora incarnata, is said to treat insomnia.
Due to its sedative effect, passion flower is often prescribed for people who experience trouble falling asleep, and those who experience sleep cramps.
A double-blind placebo study showed the effectiveness of passion flower tea: Of six sleep-diary measures analyzed, sleep quality showed a significantly better rating for passion flower compared with placebo (t(40) = 2.70, p < 0.01).
These initial findings suggest that the consumption of a low dose of Passiflora incarnata, in the form of tea, yields short-term subjective sleep benefits for healthy adults with mild fluctuations in sleep quality (5).
Another study found that the extracts obtained from Passiflora incarnata can be considered as appropriated sleep inducers. A significant decrement in wakefulness (W) was observed (p<0.05) (6).
Additionally, an animal study found that passion flower reduced the time it took to fall asleep and increased the duration of sleep (7).
For best results, take drops (tincture) in the evening up to a couple of hours before sleep.
Passion Flower Side Effects
Side effects are rare, but if an overdose is ingested a person may experience fatigue, nausea, drowsiness and/or vomiting. That said, passion flower has been passed as safe for inclusion in food by the FDA.
3. Valerian Extract
Valerian is a perennial plant native to Europe and Asia.
Many scientific studies have shown that valerian can reduce sleep latency and aid in achieving better sleep (8).
It is also prescribed for anxiety, nervousness and headaches.
In a controlled study of 27 young and middle-aged adults with sleep difficulties, 24 people reported improved sleep and 12 of those reported “perfect sleep” after taking 400 mg of valerian root (9).
Another study in adults with insomnia found that a single dose of valerian allowed them to achieve deep sleep 36% faster. Additionally, the time they spent in deep sleep increased during 14 days of taking valerian (10)
Valerian may also help children with sleep problems. In an 8-week study of developmentally delayed children with sleeping disorders, valerian reduced the time it took to fall asleep, increased total sleep time and led to better quality sleep (11).
Valerian is available in pill form, a tea, and a liquid extract. Taking 450 mg or 900 mg of valerian root at night should help improve your sleep quality.
Valerian Extract Side Effects
The aforementioned cited studies report no side effects on subjects taking valerian. The only recommendation is for future research to look at detecting possible tolerance and withdrawal effects. It has been classified as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for food use in the United States and the UK.
A Stronger Option than Sleep Herbs
If you've been sleeping badly for some time and you don't think these herbs will be strong enough to help you, another natural option is the popular Performance Sleep supplement.
Unlike many over the counter supplements (Night Nurse and such) that cause next-day grogginess, there are no synthetic ingredients used in this formula – so no side effects.
Performance Sleep contains natural melatonin from premium Montmorency tart cherry. This is the richest natural source of melatonin; a hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps improve sleep time and quality and regulates the circadian rhythm.
In addition, it contains L-Tryptophan, which works together with the tart cherry to effectively raises serotonin levels, which in turn stimulates the pineal gland’s production of melatonin.
It also contains magnesium, which among other things relaxes an excitable nervous system, reducing anxiety and night twitches. Magnesium serves as a cofactor in the conversion of L-Tryptophan to serotonin, which is a key brain chemical for melatonin release and sleep.
Indeed, research shows that supplementation of magnesium improves sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, and early morning awakening (12).
Performance Sleep is only available from the Performance Lab website
My Experience with Sleep Herbs
If you're going through a stressful period in your life and you're having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night, then these herbal sleep aids are definitely worth a try.
Because these are natural extracts from the plant kingdom, the only potential dependency would be psychological rather than physical, and there is unlikely to be any withdrawal symptoms.
However, it goes without saying that you should always seek to address the underlying causes of sleep problems rather than continue to take supplements.
You need to treat the root cause of the issues, be that stress, depression, or lifestyle influences such as alcohol, recreational drugs, poor diet, working too late into the night on a computer, etc.
Sleep is something that should come very naturally to us. You should get to the end of the day and be yearning for your bed, worn out mentally and physically from the day.
There is no magic sleep herb to cure long-term insomnia, and this is why people tend to turn to sleeping pills – because they provide instant relief.
That said, sleep herbs such as those in this article will help with the underlying problems of anxiety and stress that are causing the insomnia and therefore help you sleep a bit better.
But if you are a long-time sufferer of insomnia, or someone who is experiencing a bad bout of insomnia, sleep herbs may not help.
There is of course no harm in trying; but you might choose to try a course of the Performance Sleep supplement instead, or even in addition to the herbs,
In my experience passion flower and valerian have more direct impact on sleep, and effects should be seen after a couple of days once the extracts have worked their way into your system. Ashwagandha is more of a holistic herb that works on overall health.
Of course it is better to take a natural herb to improve sleep quality than a sleeping pill, and without doubt I am in full support of natural medicine over sleeping pills.
However, in addition to these herbal sleep aids, you should implement a routine of good sleep hygiene, which ultimately will remap your sleep-wake cycle and help you get deeper, more restorative sleep.