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herbs for sleep: young woman making herbal tea

4 Herbs That Will Help You Chill Out And Sleep

After long stressful days, it can be difficult to fully relax and let go of tension. Given the time-crunched, hectic lives that many of us lead, it’s not surprising that many people have begun seeking out supplements and natural products that support stress management and restorative sleepAnd while the options really run the gamut, many of them feature some of nature’s oldest medicine: herbs.

There are a number of herbs that positively impact our nervous system, making it easier to stay calm and drift off. While each herb works in a unique way and has its own advantages, many sleep-promoting herbs share mechanisms such as positively impacting neurotransmitter production and providing “adaptogenic” (balancing) effects.

Below, learn how herbs can offer a natural way to facilitate relaxation for both mind and body when you need to destress—and which you might want to try out for yourself.

How Herbs Can Help You Unwind

Certain herbs contain active compounds that interact with the endocrine system, brain, nerves, and gut to boost feelings of calmness and help promote sleep. 

Here are some of the ways that herbs can help you feel more rested and restored:

    • Boosting GABA activity: GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, and increasing GABA transmission reduces neuronal excitability which promotes feelings of calmness. Herbs that bind to GABA receptors help the body shift into a more easeful, sleepy state.
    • Increasing serotonin release: Serotonin binds to receptors in the brain and gastrointestinal tract to regulate mood, cognition, appetite, digestion, social behavior, and sleep-wake cycles. Increased serotonergic activity in the brain makes us feel more relaxed, present, and content. For example, optimal serotonin function is associated with emotional resilience, while low serotonin can cause unstable mood, irritability, lack of focus, and poor sleep.
    • Easing physical tension: Regularly taking relaxing medicinal plants or herbal supplements, especially in the evening, can help decrease symptoms tied to occasional stress, which may include stiff or tight muscles, headaches, or indigestion. Feeling physically at ease makes it easier to fall and stay asleep.

4 Herbs for Relaxation and Sleep

With their relatively mild side effect profile, herbal supplements offer an accessible way to hit your own personal reset button after taxing days. There are many supportive options out there, but the following four are some of the most popular (and effective!) for assisting with relaxation and sleep.

1. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an Ayurvedic herb and root that has been used for centuries to reduce stress and anxiety and to promote sleep, according to Dr. Joshua Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., doctor of naturopathic medicine. “It’s an adaptogenic herb that offers benefits for the immune, neurological, endocrine, and reproductive systems, as it can help support overburdened adrenals.” (FYI, the adrenal glands are responsible for producing the stress hormone cortisol.)

Ashwagandha contains active compounds like withanolides that interact with GABA receptors, allowing it to increase “feel good” neurochemical levels in the brain, including serotonin. It’s also been shown to moderate activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, including by lowering cortisol levels.

Read More: 6 Science-Backed Ways To Lower Cortisol

A meta-analysis published in PLoS One concluded that ashwagandha extract appears to have a beneficial effect in improving sleep quality in adults. After analyzing five randomized controlled trials containing 400 participants, the researchers found that ashwagandha exhibited a small but significant effect on overall sleep, in addition to helping quiet an anxious mind.

How to take it: Ashwagandha is available in powder and capsule forms. Based on the analysis mentioned above, it’s most effective when about 600 milligrams per day is taken for eight weeks or longer, although lower doses between 250 and 400 milligrams per day have been used in some studies. According to Axe, you might start around 300 to 500 milligrams per day and can gradually increase to even 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams if needed.

2. Valerian

According to a 2020 systematic review, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an herb that can help you sleep more soundly due to its soothing, snooze-inducing effects. 

“Valerian contains compounds that increase the levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brain, which has a calming effect on the nervous system,” explains dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. Studies suggest these effects are mostly due to the presence of compounds including valerenic acid and valerenol, which promote GABA activity to promote calmness and sleep. Valerian also appears to impact serotonin pathways and may modulate other neurotransmitters involved in sleep regulation.

Another attractive quality of valerian, as demonstrated by a systematic review published in the American Journal of Medicine, is that it’s unlikely to cause dependence or side effects (in addition to being widely available and relatively inexpensive).

How to take it: Valerian can be taken as an herbal tea, tincture, or in capsules. Dosage recommendations vary but usually fall between 300 to 600 milligrams per day. Most often, it’s taken at night to help support sleep.

3. Lavender

Lavender is among the most popular herbs in the world for its pleasant, relaxing aroma, general calming effects, and magnificent purple hue. The primary active constituents found within lavender include linalool and linalyl acetate, which can help to dampen stimulatory neurotransmitters in the brain and help the mind and body wind down.

Lavender essential oil has been shown to help with sleep quality and decrease feelings of anxiety, according to Taub-Dix. The aroma seems to affect the limbic system regions of the brain that are involved in emotion and mood.

According to a randomized trial published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary states, “Essential oils like lavender may be a cost-effective, convenient intervention for addressing sleep issues, given that lack of sleep has wide-ranging health effects; when inhaled, active compounds in essential oils enter the bloodstream through lungs and affect the brain via neurochemical pathways.”

Read More: Make These Changes To Your Evening Routine To Sleep Better

Lavender may have additional mental health benefits too. “Lavender was traditionally used to support cognition, low mood, and more, so it’s exciting to see that the research is finally catching up to history,” says Axe.

How to take it: Lavender is most often used as an essential oil for aromatherapy or topically on the skin before bed. Try breathing it in out of the bottle, diffusing it in your home, or mixing a couple drops with a carrier oil (such as coconut or jojoba oil) and rubbing it into your skin or clothes. One important thing to note: “Take caution if using this oil on your skin if you are sensitive to lavender”, says Taub-Dix. Some people find that essential oils irritate their skin.

That said, lavender is also included in natural supplements and herbal teas, if you want to give ingesting this fragrant herb a try.

4. Chamomile

Chamomile (Chamomilla recutita and Chamaemelum nobile), a species of flowering herbs that are commonly used to make herbal teas, is well-studied for providing mental and emotional comfort, helping people settle for sleep, and improving sleep quality. Chamomile contains compounds including apigenin which binds to GABA receptors, plus it’s high in bioactive compounds that are similar to cannabinoids, which are hailed for providing hemp’s calming effects.

When it comes to soothing your mind, chamomile has been shown to attenuate the stress response. In regards to prompting sleep, research indicates chamomile shortens the time to fall asleep, increases sleep duration, and boosts daytime functioning. Specifically, it seems to improve sleep quality by increasing time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep.

“I’m a big fan of chamomile,” says dietitian Emily Fultz, M.S., R.D.N., of Fit With Food. “Apigenin is a flavonoid found in chamomile that is believed to provide its sedative effect. I personally find that the act of drinking tea (which is a popular way to take chamomile) without any distractions, aids in providing that relaxing effect, as well.”

In addition to offering stress relief, chamomile also supports digestive health, which can be compromised when someone is stressed, adds Taub-Dix. “I’ve recommended chamomile tea to my clients to help cut gas and bloat, as this herb is also known for its calming and soothing effects in that area.”

How to take it: Chamomile is commonly ingested as an herbal tea, with optimal effects seen when used consistently for two to four weeks. Some studies have also used chamomile capsules with good results. A good place to start is 400 milligrams of chamomile twice daily, after lunch and after dinner. It has a gentle action with few side effects and a low risk of dependency, making it a safe long-term ally. However, avoid chamomile if you have an allergy to plants in the Asteraceae family (sunflowers, dandelions, chicory).  

Choosing The Best Soothing Herbs For You

Given that a variety of herbs can work well to ease a stressed-out mind, consider which best fits your health needs and routine preferences. (For example, would you prefer to pop capsules or sip on tea?) “To me, a warm cup of herbal tea before bed is like getting a hug,” says Taub-Dix. “But some people may benefit most from using essential oil diffusers, which fill the room with soothing aromas, all without having to ingest anything.”

In addition to finding these herbs as stand-alone products, you’ll also find them in multi-ingredient formulas that contain a variety of herbs and other supplements known to help your mind and body wind down. For example, Traditional Medicinals makes a Chamomile with Lavender tea, while plnt CBD + Valerian combines valerian with full-spectrum hemp extract.

When choosing products, look for those made with organic herbs to ensure you don’t consume botanicals grown using pesticides and certain other chemicals that may impact the quality and benefit of the final product.

Also worth noting: It’s always a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider before adding some form of stress or sleep support into your routine, even if it’s something as generally safe as an herb, says Fultz. “Believe it or not, herbs can interact with certain medications, and it is best to be certain they are safe,” she notes.

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