`And, now I lay me down to sleep...'.


Section: Herbs
4 pillow-friendly herbs

Robert was missing again. Wouldn't you know it? Three truck loads of echinacea root to move, 95 degrees, and our heftiest, though perhaps laziest, co-worker was gone. "Check the valerian bed," I said, "that's where he usually hides."

We each had our favorite hang-out, our special spot where we would go to relax, eat lunch, and, if we were lucky, catch some sleep on hot afternoons.

Such sweet resting places were one of the perks of employment on an herb farm. Depending upon physiology, habits of the night before, and general inclination, one could choose afternoon breaks among a variety of soothing and scented plants, including valerian, catnip, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, and hops.

Napping in a patch of any one of these herbs guaranteed a deep, peaceful, and restorative sleep.

Field of dreams
Obviously, not everyone has a field of chamomile or valerian in which to lie when sleep beckons. In fact, few insomniacs have herb gardens from which to harvest the very plants which might help them sleep. But these same herbs are readily available in a variety of commercial markets, and in lots of forms.

With so many sleep aids available, picking the one that is right for you depends on the reasons for your insomnia, and on choosing the plant medicine that suits both your health issues and your taste buds.

Insomnia happens for a variety of reasons. A busy mind at bedtime, fear, anxiety, muscle pain, heart palpitations, and hot flashes are among the most common causes. Insomnia itself can exacerbate tension, and lack of sleep can result in poor health, increased pain, and decreased work performance. In fact, insomnia is a major health issue, driving thousands to seek medication and medical care to solve the problem.

If you suffer from insomnia, consider learning more about several botanical medicines which have been effectively used in the treatment of insomnia for hundreds of years. While many herbs are labeled "sleep aid," each one is distinct. Herbs used to treat insomnia usually have indications for particular types of insomnia. It is also true that individuals will respond differently to different plants.

Unlike my co-worker, Robert, I would never be found in a valerian bed. Instead, I invariably chose chamomile, because I felt good when I was around this gentle, aromatic herb. Chamomile has been a favorite medicinal plant for thousands of years, not only for humans, but for other plants, as well. Walking on the plant releases its fragrant volatile oils, and, in fact, enhances the plant's growth. M. Grieve, in her book, A Modern Herbal, gives us an untitled poetic reference to this feature:

Like a chamomile bed,
The more it is trodden
The more it will spread.
Chamomile has antispasmodic and general relaxant properties. It is also considered a pain reliever, especially in cases of inflammation- or spasm-related pain. This property may be why I found resting amongst the chamomile to be so soothing during my time of hard, physical farm labor. Extracts and infusions of chamomile are also sought after by parents seeking effective, but gentle, ways to relieve insomnia in young children.

In children's sleep problems related to excitement, worry, stomach ache, or teething, chamomile is a treasure.

Of perhaps greater interest to middle-aged readers is chamomile's use in menopausally induced insomnia. One of the herb's generic names is Matricaria, a term coming from the word matrix, meaning mother or womb, and underscoring the plant's use in a wide variety of female reproductive complaints, such as painful periods, mastitis, morning sickness, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Additionally, chamomile is a "cooling" herb, making it clinically very useful for hot flashes, especially those that come on at night, causing anxiety and sleeplessness.

Humulus lupulus is the funny name of the plant known to most for its use in brewing beer. Records indicate that the plant was used in breweries in the Netherlands as far back as the 14th century. As beer remains a popular beverage, hops continue to be a popular commercial crop today. Traveling through Oregon's Willamette Valley, one will easily see acre after acre of hops, its leafy green branches busy climbing many feet up trellises specifically erected to facilitate the plant's growth.

The plant is a mild sedative, usually used medicinally in conjunction with other herbs. Hops pillows (cloth sacks stuffed with fresh hops and used as a nighttime pillow) are another popular way that this herb is used for insomnia.

Some cautions:
Hops is a bitter and is best avoided by those who dislike or have adverse reactions to bitter tastes.
Like beer, the sedating effect of hops can result in a slight depressive effect, and is not recommended in cases of depression.
Hops contain plant hormones which are similar in effect to estrogen.
Melissa officinalis, melissa, or lemon balm, is another "cooling" plant with both nervine and antispasmodic properties. A member of the Labiatae family, a family which also contains both peppermint and spearmint, lemon balm is native to southern, eastern, and central Europe and can be found widely cultivated throughout the world. It flowers between June and October and can be recognized by its distinct lemony scent.

Like chamomile, it is lemon balm's essential, volatile oils which are responsible for much of the plant's medicinal effect. These oils are temperamental; they degrade with high temperatures and with changes in season. Wildcrafters and manufacturers of herbal products give particular care to lemon balm, harvesting it on mild midsummer afternoons, and drying it at temperatures no greater than 95 degree F.

Although lemon balm is a seemingly uncomplicated plant, it, like many other botanicals, can deliver potent cures. I recall a difficult case of a 65-year-old man suffering with a wasting disease, characterized by symptoms including stomach pain and intractable insomnia. The simple addition of lemon balm after meals and before bed brought him a relief that no prior medication had delivered.

In my practice, I have found lemon balm to be useful in cases of insomnia with nervous excitement. It has a pleasant, mild flavor and can be combined nicely with hops, chamomile, valerian, or linden.

In the world of botanical sleep aids, valerian is an herbal bigshot. Many a former insomniac owes his now regular sleeping habits to Valeriana officinalis. Although some find valerian to be a "stinky" herb, many an herbalist, like my former co-worker Robert, love valerian for the smell and taste of the plant, despite the fact that sleeplessness is not a problem for them.

Valerian is a native of Europe, growing wild along river banks and in damp areas of forests and woods. It has been cultivated in England and in America, and is now raised by farmers specifically to fill an ever-increasing consumer demand for its powerful sedative effects. Valerian is a perennial, and can grow to a height of almost five feet. Its flowers appear at the top of the plant, numerous white, tinged with pink. In the hot summer sun, the plant emits a peculiar odor, nauseating to some, alluring to others.

Valerian root contains volatile oils, esters known as valepotriates, and alkaloids. According to Rudolf Weiss, author of Herbal Medicine, valerian's volatile oils have a sedating effect, while the valepotriates balance the autonomic nervous system.

In my practice, I have found valerian to be effective for most types of insomnia. In sleeplessness caused by anxiety, valerian compounds have the ability to quiet the mind, assisting the nervous system in screening out the white noise of "mind chatter" that often revs up in volume as one lies down to sleep. While not a true sedative, in the manner of many prescription drugs, valerian can help reduce the overactive mind that often interferes with the ability to fall asleep.

This calming botanical is also very helpful in sleeplessness in the elderly. Plant constituents aid in relaxation, allowing an older person, who may not re quire eight hours of sleep, to rest quietly, gaining health benefits from the act of lying down, resting, and eventually falling into sleep. The herb also has a calming effect on nervous palpitations, a symptom which often creates worry and insomnia in older people.

Whatever the reason for insomnia, be it caused by worry, by pain, by schedule changes, or an upset stomach, one of nature's many nervine herbs is sure to offer the beginning steps toward finding a solution.

Felter, H.W., M.D. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Portland, Ore.: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985 (first published 1922, Cincinnati, Ohio).

Fugh-Berman, A., M.D. Alternative Medicine: What Works. Tucson, Ariz.: Odonian Press, 1996.

Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publishing, 1971 (first published 1931).

Tyler, Varro, Ph.D. Herbs of Choice. New York: Hawthorne Press, 1994.

Weiss, Rudolf. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, Ltd., 1988.

Sleep: are you getting enough?
Probably not. In fact, on average. American adults are getting only 7 hours of sleep per night. While sleep needs vary, scientific research shows that 8 hours of sleep is the amount most adults need. The lucky few are rested, and ready, after 5 or 6 hours of shut-eye; others can't perform at their peak unless they've slept a full 10 hours!

[SOURCE: National Sleep Foundation, phone: 202-347-3471]

Sleep Resources
1. National Sleep Foundation
729 15th Street, N.W., 4th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
phone: 202-347-3471
site: www.sleepfoundation.org

2. American Sleep Apnea Disorders Association
2025 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Suite 905
Washington, DC 20005
site: www.sleepapnea.org

3. American Sleep Disorders Association
6301 Bandel Road, Suite 101
Rochester, MN 55901
site: www.asda.org

4. Narcolepsy Network
277 Fairfield Road, Suite 310B
Fairfield, NJ 07004
site: www.websciences.org/narnet

5. Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation
4410 19th Street, N.W., Suite 201
Rochester, MN 55901
site: www.rls.org

By J. Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., Contributing Writer

Adapted by J.D., N.D.

J. Jamison Starbuck, J.D., N.D., is a licensed naturopathic and homeopathic physician. Her Missoula (Montana)-based family practice treats the whole person via constitutional homeopathy, botanical medicine, nutrition, counseling, and other natural modalities. Dr. Starbuck is also a consulting editor for Time-Life Books.

A 1998 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 67 percent of American adults have a sleeping problem; and more than one in three (37 percent) are so sleepy during the day it interferes with daily activities.

In the past 100 years, we have reduced our average sleep time by 20 percent and, in the past 25 years, added a month to our average annual work/commute time.

Our "national sleep debt" is on the rise. Though our society has changed, our bodies have not. We are paying the price.

[SOURCE: National Sleep Foundation, phone: 202-347-3471]

Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate) and nicotine (cigarettes, tobacco products).
Don't drink alcohol to"help" you sleep.
Exercise regularly, but try to complete your workout at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine (such as taking an aromatherapy bath).
Associate your bed with sleep -- don't use it to work or watch television.
If you often have insomnia, don't nap during the day.
[SOURCE: National Sleep Foundation, phone: 202-347-3471]

Make a conscious choice about how you spend the 30 minutes before bed. Avoid hurriedly trying to fit in everything that did not get done during the rest of the day. Don't initiate conversations about difficult or emotional topics, and try not to begin planning, or worse, worrying about tomorrow. Give your body and mind a break, and recognize that going to sleep is a process. By transitioning gently from wakefulness to sleep, you stand a better chance of successfully falling asleep, and you will improve the quality of your sleep. Good 30-minute transition options include: deep breathing exercise, yoga, a warm bath with low light or candles, or reading something which invokes relaxation.

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