If you can’t enough sleep, you can’t function – it’s that simple! Maybe you’re struggling to focus, or you’re moody, or perhaps you’re feeling run down and it’s affecting your personal life, work life and overall health!
I’m sure by now you’ve heard it all before and tried all the usual sleep management techniques that you’ve read online (eg. sleep hygiene, stress management, avoid stimulants etc).
While these tactics can help improve sleep long term, the truth is that you may not have time to do all these things and need and good night’s rest ASAP!
You might get desperate and start taking sleeping pills, however the problem with taking these is that they’re highly addictive and have a bunch of negative side effects.
That’s why natural sleeping aids such as herbal supplements can be extremely helpful as some herbs are proven to be effective for improving sleep and reducing anxiety with only minimal side effects.
In fact, some of these herbs have been used for thousands of years to reduce stress and manage sleep disorders! More recently the scientific community have realised the powerful effects of these herbs and how effective they can be for many health complications including stress, anxiety and improving sleep!
In this week’s blog we’ll give you the ins and outs about what natural sleep aids are, how they can help to improve sleep and reduce stress, and what the scientific evidence has suggested so far!
1. Valerian root
Valerian root or sometimes referred to as “Natures Valium” is a plant native to Europe and Asia that has been used medicinally used since Ancient Greece and Rome. Valerian is used to manage insomnia, anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause, and headaches.
One of the ways that valerian exerts these effects in the body is by regulating a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
GABA is known as the “calming neurotransmitter” as it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals and reduces the activity of your nervous system that can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep. This is important as anxiety and poor sleep quality are associated low levels of GABA (1, 2, 3).
Valerian root works in the same way as common anti-anxiety medications (eg. Valium and Xanax) by inhibiting the breakdown of GABA in the brain leading to increased feelings of calmness and tranquillity with a far less risk of becoming addicted! (4, 5, 6).
Valerian root may also be particularly effective for menopausal women and postmenopausal women. Menopause can often cause complications like insomnia. Two separate trials have shown both sleep quality and sleep disorder symptoms to improve during menopause when taking a valerian root (14, 15).
Passionflower is a popular herb used for insomnia that is native to North America and is also grown in other parts of the word including Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
There are approximately 500 different species of passionflower, with certain species demonstrating many medicinal benefits including helping to treat anxiety and insomnia.
Passionflower works in a similar way to valerian root by boosting levels of GABA in the brain that helps slow brain activity allowing you to relax and sleep better.
A recent high-quality study compared a passionflower extract to a placebo in people with insomnia over a 2-week period. The people who took the passionflower extract had significant improvements many areas of sleep including total sleep time, sleep quality and later waking time (16).
In another trial, people either drank a daily dose of herbal tea with purple passionflower or placebo for 7 days. After the 7 days, the people who drank the passionflower tea reported improvements in quality of their sleep (17).
Other studies suggest that passionflower may also to relieve anxiety. A 2008 study looked at the effects of passionflower on anxiety in patients waiting for surgery. The patients who consumed passionflower reported less anxiety than those who received placebo (18).
3. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (melissa officinalis) is a lemon-scented herb that comes from the same family as mint. Lemon balm is native to Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, and is also grown around the world.
Lemon balm has many benefits including reducing stress and anxiety, boosting brain function, improving menopause symptoms and may even help to reduce sleep disorders such as insomnia.
Lemon balm contains a compound called rosmarinic acid that has not only potent antioxidant properties, but also helps to prevent the breakdown of the GABA that induces anti-anxiety and relaxing effects (19).
Research has shown that lemon balm can reduce stress and improve performance. In a 2004 study, stressed individuals took either 300mg of lemon balm, 600mg of lemon balm or a placebo over different time periods. Results showed that 600mg of lemon balm improved mood and increased calmness, while 300mg increased academic performance compared to placebo (20).
A similar finding was found in a 2014 study that showed that a drink that contained 300mg of lemon balm extract reduced stress, and improved mood in a group of healthy young adults compared to a placebo. While another 2010 study found that lemon balm extract relieved stress and improved insomnia (21, 22).
Lemon balm may also be useful in treating menopausal symptoms such as insomnia and sleep apnoea. A 2013 study of 100 menopausal women found that lemon balm combined with valerian root significantly improved sleep quality in when compared to a placebo (23).
You might know hops as the ingredient they commonly add to beer, but did you know hops is also a mild sedative used for anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia!
It is believed that hops benefits your nervous system by regulating serotonin (happy brain chemical), melatonin (sleep hormone) and GABA (relaxing brain chemical) that are important brain chemicals and hormones for sleep (24).
Currently there are no standalone studies for hops, however studies have shown that when hops are combined with other herbs it can be beneficial for your sleep!
In one study, people with insomnia were give a herbal supplement of valerian extract combined with hops extract at bedtime that resulted in falling asleep faster and a waking up later (25).
Another study used the same combination of valerian extract combined with hops extract. They found interesting results in that valerian extract used alone was not better than the placebo, but when combined with hops extract was better than the placebo at improve falling asleep faster (26).
Why don’t I just take a GABA supplement?
Great question! If most of these herbs work by regulating GABA, why shouldn’t you just take a GABA supplement? The problem with taking a GABA supplement is that GABA supplements may not be able to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and reach the brain where they would have these effects. The BBB controls what enters and doesn’t enter the brain to protect itself against harmful toxins and infections (27).
Sometimes we don’t have time to be able to implement a million different sleep strategies and need a good night’s rest immediately to help us get on with life. Sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication are addictive and can have many side effects so should be avoided as much as possible.
There are many herbs that you can take that have shown to reduce anxiety and improve sleep that have minimal side effects that aren’t considered addictive. They include valerian root, passionflower, lemon balm and hops that can all be used individually or together to help improve your sleep and improve your mood.
Speak to your doctor or healthcare profession before making any changes to your diet or supplements.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at email@example.com
This article does not constitute as medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.