Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking of sleep. (No it is not always just idle intellectual curiosity.) It represents a third of our lives and it dramatically impacts the remaining 2/3 and our health in general. (And that’s not even touching the dreams and how we can take that for granted -awesome xkcd cartoon on that topic…) Numerous people suffer from a variety of sleep disorders and various forms of insomnia touch just about everyone at one time or another.
From the Plant Bed to Your Bed – Herbal Sleep Remedies
There is no shortage of information on-line on herbs and supplements that folks swear by when trying to sleep – so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that.
Here are some of the classic herbs used:
- Blue Vervain
- California Poppy
- Lemon Balm
And there are ones that don’t seem to make the “classic” list but really are just as nifty:
- Red Clover
And there are herbs that are good for nervous exhaustion and when you are just too tired to sleep like Milky Oats, Ginseng and Eleuthero. These often work well in blends with the above.
Personally, I’ve been working with a nice sleep blend tea lately that I put together of California Poppy, Lemon Balm, Lavender and Motherwort. It is probably not for everyone since it is a tad bitter and complex in its flavors but it really works wonders for me.
Now there’s a point worth mentioning. Not every herb is good for everyone. Can’t be emphasized enough. Experiment and find what works best for you. Valerian for example is a classic that can have the opposite effect for some folks, like myself, where it just keeps me wide awake. Hops proved another great disappointment for me where it relaxed my body and revved my mind wide awake.
It’s also best to rotate herbs and go off them from time to time. Your body will get used to them, expect them to do its work and/or you’ll find them less effective. I usually fill a small mason jar with my herbal blends and use it until it gone. Then move on to something else the next time I need need help.
It Ain’t What You Do – Assorted Non-Herbal Remedies
There is an almost limitless list of other things you can try as well. Here’s a few I like and have found valuable at different times.
- Don’t eat a couple of hours before bed time
- Foot baths to draw your energy down just before bedtime (regular baths are awesome too!)
- Take a walk before bed time and/or stand barefoot on the earth
- Blocking out lights – less lights the better. Remember to block out all the little electric lights on electronics that lend an unearthly glow to the night. I keep things on power strips which I turn off at night (saves money too!)
- Ear plugs and white noise generators – I’d recommend the latter rather than plugs since ear plugs can be damaging with long term use
- Shifting mode – stop working, watching TV etc. in the hour or so leading up to bed time – instead relax. Read, meditate, light conversation, etc. ease yourself into the move to sleep.
- Electrical – cut down on the active electrical wiring around your bed. Move things around and unplug at night.
And here is one remedy that I have never been desperate enough to try myself from Brother Aloysius: “An excellent remedy for insomnia is to take 1 to 2 raw onions in the evening.”
Maybe that would be good for crying yourself to sleep?
And I don’t need to mention the problems of caffeine and other stimulants and sleep do I? DO I? Don’t make me get out the clue 2 x 4.
Overall, it is best not to try block out things too much though, or you risk making yourself increasingly sensitive to light, sound, etc. (I’ve seen allergy sufferers do similar things.) There is value in get used to some light, noise, etc. instead of protecting yourself so much that you can not deal with the slightest disturbances. And frankly some times you can press your system down so hard into trying to relax it that it resists and causes the opposite effect. I think of that as bounce back.
Sweet Dreams are made of – Honey!
One of the things that appears in a lot of sleep remedies is honey in combination of things, including one of my old favorites two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and one of honey in a cup of hot water just before bedtime, but honey by itself can be a remarkable sleep aid. Based on some readings I had done on honey, I experimented for a time with a tablespoon of honey an hour before bed time and was pleasantly surprised by how well it improved the quality of my sleep.
Here’s an except from the Honey Prescription on why that works:
In a lecture and poster presentation at the First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health on January 8, 2008. McInnes described this complex process, which begins with the ingestion of one to two tablespoons of honey in the hour prior to bedtime.
The glucose portion of honey is digested and passes into the general blood circulation, producing a mild glucose spike. This mild elevation in blood sugar causes the pancreas to release a small amount of insulin into the bloodstream. This in turn drives trytophan (an essential amino acid) into the brain, where it is converted into serotonin, a key hormone that promotes relaxation.
McInnes teaches that in darkness, serotonin is converted to melatonin in the pineal gland. (The melatonin signal forms part of the system that regulates the sleep-wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body’s temperature. McInnes stresses that melatonin inhibits the release of insulin from the pancreas a rapid drop in blood-sugar level.
Liver glycogen, the molecule that functions as the secondary long-term energy storage in animal cells, also plays a role. The liver takes up the fructose from honey, where some is converted to glucose and then to liver glycogen, thus providing the brain with a sustained supply of glucose for the night fast. McInnes maintains that the production of adequate glycogen by the liver can eliminate the release of stress hormones normally released by the adrenal glands to maintain fuel supply to the brain.
Personally, I wouldn’t do it every night, but I did find it worked pretty well and will do it every now and then. The darker and more complex honeys seems to work better that I could see.
Alone in the Dark – The Sleep Cycle Revisited
Now one of the more interesting things about sleep is that we may be thinking of it all wrong. There was an interesting article in the BBC recently on a topic I had heard about before but really want to research more – that our more natural sleeping rhythm may be to sleep for several hours, wake and be active for a while and then have a second sleep for several more hours before starting the day.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.
Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.
This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.
But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
“Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied,” he says.
Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.
I know that I have often woken up in the middle of the night at pretty consistent times and have long suspected there was something actually natural about that, rather than it being a “problem.”
And to wrap it all up
Sometimes you can do all the right things but things beyond your control will still keep you from sleeping. And there is no shortage of advice on how best to get a full night of sleep and almost all of it right. The problem is almost everyone offering advice presents it as this is what will work. The truth is closer to a sleep version of that great quote by Lincoln
“You can help some of the people sleep all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not help to sleep all of the people all of the time.”
Okay cat, now you’re just rubbing it in!
Books of Note:
- Comfort to the Sick by Brother Aloysius
- Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andres Chevallier
- New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey
- Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress
- The Honey Prescription by Nathaniel Altman
- The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann