Natural and Herbal Treatments for Insomnia

When I was younger, and therefore foolish, I never understood insomnia. Insomniacs are really tired, so don’t they eventually just fall asleep?  It wasn’t until my beloved grandfather died that I experienced my first true fight for sleep. My grandfather was eighty-five and not immortal. I knew he wasn’t going to live forever. In fact, towards the end, he was so very sick and so terribly miserable, I knew death and the beautiful afterlife that awaited such a kind, gentle soul was far more beneficial to him than living a painful, cruel existence just for the sake of checking off another excruciating day on this planet.

But I so naively underestimated the sorrow I would experience.

I thought I was ready. After all, I was nearing my third decade on this wondrous planet. I’d experienced death of loved ones before. But my grandfather was unlike anyone I’d ever known, and when he died, it broke my heart. I mean, Broke. My. Heart. Despite my struggles to return to normalcy after a mere week (I mean, that’s enough mourning time for someone you knew was dying, right?! Poor, ignorant Michaela), I spent the next year grappling with my emotions. After a few weeks the numbing misery wore off, but I found myself unable to be passionate about much of anything, including my biggest passion—writing. It took me a solid year—a year—before I could return to writing. Instead of allowing myself to grieve, I fought the emotional transition tooth and nail. In hindsight, I think my healing would have been quicker if I just allowed myself to grieve unencumbered. But I spent so much time refusing to accept that such an extreme loss required deep healing that I instead threw my whole system into shock.

Annnnd that’s how I found myself praying for the alluring pull of slumber that frustratingly eluded me no matter how hard I tried to sleep.

I’m firmly anti-chemicals. Well, let me rephrase that. I’m 99% firmly anti-chemicals. Antibiotics are a modern miracle. I’d be dead from strep throat by age 8 were they not discovered. My husband would have died from appendicitis if it weren’t for anesthesia and surgery. I’m not totally against modern medicine; I just believe it is all too commonly used when there are natural and (generally) safer alternatives in nature. But when I was on day number four of no sleep, I mean NONE, I was thisflippingclose to buying a bottle of anything that promised to knock my ass out and tossing back a handful. Fortunately, I had a friend talk some sense into my too-tired-to-function brain and recommended an herbal product that had me counting sheep in no time.

I now use a singular herb, which I’ll get to in a moment, but that day I used:

Deep Sleep by Herbs Etc
I like this company not only because their products are all natural, but they come in liquid-gels, which I think helps the body absorb them quicker and easier. This is a blend of several different herbs, all of which I’ve found to be gentle but effective. The only reason I don’t use this product as my main go-to is because it contains lemon balm (which is the balm….get it?!?!). While wonderfully sedative, lemon balm can lower thyroid function and is therefore not recommended for long-term use in people who have hypothyroidisim. It is fine for periodic use; you just don’t want to use it daily. I took Deep Sleep for three days and found myself back in a normal sleep pattern by night four. Another awesome thing about this company is they sell small-quantity cards, so you can try something without having to purchase a whole bottle. While you probably can’t find the small-dose packages online, I see them all the time in health food stores.

Now, my FAVORITE sleeping herb is:

Valerian Root**
Two capsules and I no longer care about anything in the world! I HIGHLY recommend you get an organic capsule if you’re buying it pre-packaged, because the non-organic capsules can sometimes contain bulking agents, which companies don’t always disclose. I was using the non-organic version and felt very hungover the next day, even after only one use. I also found my sleep to be deep but very short, usually only 3-4 hours. This has not happened with the organic.

Learn from my mistake and spend the extra couple of dollars for the organic. I take this brand and I’ve never slept better (2 capsules, 1030 mg/cap). I sleep deeply and soundly and sometimes even sleep COMPLETELY through the night, which I haven’t done in…well, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. No hangover. No grogginess. Just restful sleep. I usually take this for just a couple nights before getting off to allow my body to re-situate.

Don’t let this scare you but…
NOTE: You want to avoid taking valerian in large doses for more than two consecutive weeks. Valerian can cause depression in some individuals, so just hop off if you’re finding yourself unusually blue. Avoid if you have low blood pressure or hypoglycemia. Valerian can increase the effects of sedatives and antidepressant/anti-anxiety medications, so please consult your doctor before use. Do not use when driving or operating heavy machinery.

While this may seem too everyday to be beneficial, I actually find chamomile to be quite effective. I often have a cup with milk and honey before bed and find myself pretty chiiiiiiilled out by the time I drag my rear-end upstairs. I’ve also taken the capsules if I’m not in the mood for tea. Chamomile is extremely safe, but I usually take two capsules.

And, if I’m being honest, I *may* be known to take a mouthful of water, rip open an organic tea bag, and swallow the chamomile as is. Listen, if you’ve ever been to an acupuncturist and have experienced the taste-bud offense that is Chinese herbs, you’ll understand why I can choke down pretty much anything without gagging. Dirty! (Did anyone else hear that in Lorelai Gilmore’s voice???)

Hot Magnesium Bath
No, this is not an herb. And it’s probably not going to work if you’ve been on a four-day, no-sleep stress bender. But under normal tossing-and-turning circumstances, I find a hot magnesium bath leaves me pooped! I buy this brand of magnesium fakes, dump a handful into a hot bath, mix it around with my foot until all those pointy pieces are dissolved, and slip in. And while magnesium can burn, a reasonable handful in a full bath-tub’s worth of water is enough dilution to avoid the sting.

*Clears throat and straightens tie* In conclusion, the wonderful aspect of herbal sleep aids is that they are non-habit forming. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from people about over-the-counter “traditional” sleep aids is that they can’t just take them for a night or two and resume normal sleep patterns. That’s precisely what I do with sleep-inducing herbs. In fact, I think it’s important to take a break from sleeping herbs after a few nights. You’re trying to gently nudge your body back into a normal rhythm. Therefore, unless I’m severely sleep-deprived, I try to take valerian root for two nights and then get off it for a while. This allows me to gauge whether or not my body has found its new groove and is adjusting accordingly.

And if you’re looking for general sleep tips, Katie fromWellness Mama has some great tips on improving your sleeping environment! (Found towards the bottom of the post.)

**Some information is cited from the wonderful Brigitte Mars, AHG. Check out her fantastic herbal reference guide, The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicinefor more information!

Have you ever tried herbs to help you sleep? What’s worked for you?

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NOTE: As with any recommendation found on this blog, consult your doctor or naturopath before use.