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Sleep is a bodily function which is vital to our health and wellbeing.
We are awake and busy for two thirds of our life. And we need the other third to restore: to help the brain and immune system to function and to maintain the microbiome in the gut.
But during the pandemic, many of us have found it harder than usual to get a good night’s sleep – perhaps because of the extra stress of worrying about infection, missing loved ones or loss of income.
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If you read a magazine article or an internet feature on sleep, it may talk about good ‘sleep hygiene’, such as not using screens in the hour before sleep and the importance of having a dark and quiet bedroom.
It might also suggest using sedative herbs such as valerian or chamomile to promote a restful state.
These are good habits to get into. But if they don’t improve your sleep, it may be because there’s an underlying problem that hasn’t been addressed.
– Credit: Christine Herbert
In my experience as a herbalist, when people come to me for help with their sleep problems, the things we eat or drink, including supplements and medication, are probably the most important consideration when trying to find a cause for restless nights.
It is probably easiest to start by removing any known stimulant foods and drinks. These would include coffee, tea (including green or white tea), chocolate and energy drinks.
If a couple of days without these has no effect other than giving you a withdrawal headache, then it is time to look at your diet.
Elimination diets, where foods are taken out and then gradually reintroduced, are helpful.
A good herbalist, nutritionist or naturopath specialising in food intolerances should be able to help untangle this area.
Foods that can cause sleep problems include animal milk products (cheese, milk, cream, yoghurt), gluten grains, soya products, nightshade family foods (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines) and high salicylate foods (berries, turmeric, cinnamon, etc).
Assuming sleep is improved, add a new food every two days and observe what happens. Also, bear in mind that as we age our digestive systems become less efficient, and trying to sleep with a stomach full of undigested food is a recipe for failure.
Following the old adage, eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunchtime and a pauper in the evening, should also help anyone who has trouble with sleep. With supplements, it should be no problem to stop all of them and put them back one at a time to see if they are causing the problem.
Medications are less simple, unless it is known for sure that a few days without it will not exacerbate any medical problem. There are some medications well-known for causing sleep issues and it’s possible that an alternative can be found by the prescriber – it’s very important not to stop taking medications without consulting your doctor.
It is also worth looking into whether mineral deficiencies could be at play.
Magnesium is required for muscles to relax. Those who have experienced restless leg syndrome will know exactly what it is. For many people, taking a standard dose of 500mg magnesium citrate will fix the problem.
Deficiencies of iron, vitamin B6 and/or folate are other possible causes.
Insomnia caused by stress and anxiety is also very common. If sleep is only affected for a few days, then it’s not a problem.
But for some it becomes a chronic issue, severely affecting their quality of life. It also becomes a vicious circle, with not sleeping causing its own stress and anxiety.
Cortisol is the primary stress response hormone in the body, a steroid hormone released by the adrenal gland, which helps our bodies to synchronise patterns of waking and sleeping.
Any stress results in more cortisol being released, leading to a higher level than is desirable in the evening, which prevents sleep.
– Credit: Christine Herbert
However, there are some natural remedies based on what are known as adaptogenic herbs which may help regulate cortisol.
Some that might be useful for sleep include:
● Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) is traditionally used in India as a bedtime drink mixed into warm milk (animal or plant) and honey, for insomnia and anxiety. It can be too heating for some, but is excellent for anyone who is not already hot.
● Eleutherococcus senticosus can improve sleep quality for young stressed people, but it can be too stimulant for older people.
● Reishi mushroom (ganoderma lucidum) has a gentle sedative and calming effect and is good for all ages and constitutions.
● Holy basil (tulsi ocimum sanctum) is a gentle adaptogen that lifts the spirits, normalises the HPA axis and is useful when someone is worn down by stress.
They don’t work instantly and need one to two weeks to become effective.
There are also many herbs that can help with insomnia by creating a feeling similar to medications such as the benzodiazepines (which include Valium) and the non benzodiazepine sedative Z drugs (eg zopiclone), which target GABAA receptors in the brain and produce a calming effect.
Valerian (valeriana officinalis)
California poppy (eschscholzia californica)
Hops (humulus lupulus)
Jamaica dogwood (piscidia piscipula)
Passionflower (passiflora incarnata)
Lemon balm (melissa officinalis)
Skullcap (scutellaria lateriflora)
Nutmeg (myristica fragrans)
Speak to a local herbalist for advice on how to use these ingredients to get a good night’s sleep and, if you’re taking medication, always consult your doctor to ensure there will be no contraindications.
As spring comes in, you could grow something at home to help induce sleep – maybe lemon balm or chamomile.
These can be grown in the garden or in a pot on a balcony or window ledge, so are accessible to everyone.
Mostly these are side effect free, and non-addictive.
Finally, here’s a suggestion that applies to everyone, sleepless or not: getting outside in nature will always help you to sleep better.
What you need to know
Christine Herbert FAMH, DipAET, BA(Hons) qualified as a herbalist in 1997 and has been practicing and learning herbal medicine ever since and served on the council of the Association of Master Herbalists. Before that she worked as a senior biomedical scientist for 19 years for the NHS.
Her book, Sleep, the Elixir of Life; how to restore it with herbs and natural healing, was published by Aeon Books in May 2021 (currently 20 per cent off until April 30, using the code SE20 at aeonbooks.co.uk).
Food and Drink