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Chasing The Sleep Fairy: Does Tea Help?

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Teas That Help You Sleep

Herbal teas are consumed worldwide to tackle sleep problems. Some popular herbs that are thought to help insomnia are chamomile, valerian, lemon balm, and passion flower. Ayurveda prescribes ashwagandha as a potent herb against insomnia. Scientific research has not conclusively proved the efficacy of herbal teas to combat sleeplessness. While most herbal teas are safe to drink, experts caution that people on medication should check with their medical service providers.

Tea and sleep, really? A hot cuppa is typically thought to energize the body and refresh the mind, right? Not always, it seems. Some herbal teas may help you do just the opposite – fall into a deep, relaxed sleep.

Why Herbal Tea?

If you find it difficult to sleep at night, won’t a cup of regular tea do? A 2012 study conducted by a UK-based bed linen company reported that, of the 2000 people surveyed, those who enjoyed the best sleep typically ate dinner an hour and a half before going to bed – and also relaxed over a cup of tea around 9 pm!1

As happy and easeful as that sounds, hold on a bit! One swallow doesn’t make a summer and that’s true for this finding too. Mainstream research has still to greenlight this controversial finding; until then, the caffeine in your cuppa continues to be labeled a stimulant and therefore a no-no, especially near bedtime.2

Which brings us to non-caffeine herbal teas that have been around for ages and are typically prescribed by alternative medicine practitioners. While mainstream scientific research has yet to conclusively prove the efficacy of herbal teas for sleep, surveys and self-report studies indicate that significant numbers of people still put their faith in such “non-prescription remedies” (United 2002 National Health Interview Survey Data).3 There is also sufficient evidence available now of the adverse effects of anti-stress and anxiety medication. As one study points out, in view of their having limited or no major side effects, it would be worthwhile including herb-based therapy in any treatment regimen of sleep problems.4

So, which teas can you choose from?

A Bouquet Of Herbs Teas For Sleep

1. Chamomile: Numero Uno Of Herbal Teas

Chamomile, both the German and English varieties, has been widely researched for its varied medicinal properties. A native of eastern and southern Europe and western Asia, its daisy-like flowers are used to make tea and herbal supplements.

German chamomile is thought to be especially helpful in combating sleeplessness. One study was cautiously optimistic, reporting that chamomile extracts provided modest benefits against insomnia among volunteers. Importantly, the study says there were few or no adverse effects observed in drinking chamomile tea for sleep.5

Recipe to follow 

Making chamomile tea is easy.

  1. Place 1 teabag or 1 heaped teaspoon of loose leaf tea in a cup.
  2. Pour in 250 ml of hot (but not boiling) water and allow the tea to steep for about 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the bag or strain the tea and enjoy this pale gold, soothing tea either plain or with a few drops of lemon and honey or some mint leaves.

You can also make chamomile tea with fresh or dry flowers.

  • Steep 2 tsp of flowers in 1 cup of hot water for about 10 minutes and strain before drinking. Follow this routine one hour before bedtime.

Who should avoid

Having too much of concentrated chamomile tea can cause vomiting. So stick to just one cup in the night to be safe.

  • If you are asthmatic or prone to allergies, especially to asters, chrysanthemums, daisies, or ragweed, steer clear of chamomile as it may trigger a reaction. Pregnant women are also advised against consuming chamomile to avoid the risk of a miscarriage.
  • Chamomile has blood-thinning effects, so stop taking it at least 2 weeks before any surgery, including dental.
  • Chamomile can also interfere with hormonal, diabetes, blood thinning, and blood pressure medication. So keep your doctor informed if you want to have chamomile tea regularly.6

2. Valerian, An Ancient Folk Remedy For Insomnia And Anxiety

The use of Valerian root tea goes way back to the second century. This native European perennial doesn’t score high on the taste chart, so it’s often sold as a blend with other soothing herbs like lemon balm, passionflower or kava. As with other herbal teas for sleep, the jury is out on how genuine a remedy it is for curing insomnia, but it’s comforting to know that valerian’s mildly sedative properties are categorized by the US Food and Drug Administration as “Generally Recognized As Safe” and approved by Germany’s Commission E (the German equivalent of the FDA).

Researchers think valerian works by mildly stimulating the brain to produce more of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that soothes the nerves and relieves anxiety. It seems to be effective when taken over a longer period, say 28 days, rather than two weeks; also, it appears to promote deep, relaxed sleep. You can take up to three cups of this tea a day, with the last one closer to bedtime.

Recipe to follow

  1. To make a cup of tea, place a piece of valerian root in a cup, pour boiling water and allow to steep for about 5 minutes.
  2. Strain and have the tea one hour before you hit the sack.

Who should avoid 

  • While valerian is generally free of side effects, doctors advise against giving this tea to children and pregnant or nursing women as many of its properties are not conclusively verified by research. It’s unlikely you will become dependent on valerian; however, if you decide to stop consuming it, cut back gradually on its consumption.
  • If you are on other medication (e.g. sedatives, antihistamines, statins) or scheduled for surgery, check with your doctor before starting on valerian as the herb can have interactions with these drugs or heighten the effect of anesthesia.
  • The University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide also cautions against taking valerian before undertaking tasks that require a normal to high level of alertness such as driving or operating heavy machines.7 Which shouldn’t apply to you if you just plan to go to bed!

3. Aromatic Lavender For A Good Night’s Sleep

And then there’s lavender, whose delightful smell is associated more with fragrance than tea! This herb has long been used to induce relaxation.8. One study in 2005 reported that volunteers who inhaled the aroma of lavender oil reported deeper sleep and increased energy levels next morning. Thus, it’s possible that lavender acts as a mild sedative.9

In another interesting study, mothers who had recently delivered babies – and were hence extremely fatigued – reported better sleep quality on drinking lavender tea. These effects, however, wore off when they stopped having the tea.10.

Even as scientific research continues to probe and build a body of evidence for the benefits of lavender, countries such as Germany have approved the use of lavender flowers for making tea to combat problems like insomnia and restlessness.11

Recipe to follow 

  1. To make lavender tea, boil a cup of water, add 1–3 teaspoonfuls of dried lavender flowers, and steep well for 10 minutes.
  2. Strain the infusion and allow it to cool completely before drinking one hour before sleeptime.12

Who should avoid

  • Since lavender induces relaxation, it may have an adverse reaction on people who are already on medication for depression, anxiety, pain, or insomnia.
  • Children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are also advised against using lavender. Speak to a qualified professional in herbal medicine to clear any doubts you may have.

4. Ashwagandha: An Ayurvedic Cure For Sleeplessness

From India comes ashwagandha (a.k.a. winter cherry or Indian ginseng), a herb that been used for centuries by ayurvedic practitioners to treat a host of disorders, including insomnia. Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb – in plain speak, a naturally growing substance that helps our bodies adapt to stress.13 Modern research indicates that ashwagandha has a host of therapeutic uses thanks to its invigorating and regenerative properties.14

Traditionally, the root of ashwagandha or extract from the whole plant has been used to treat insomnia. Studies also indicate that the leaves of ashwagandha contain triethylene glycol, a compound that induces sleep.15

Recipe to follow 

  1. Ashwagandha isn’t particularly a flavorful drink, so one way to improve its taste is to boil a small portion of ashwagandha root in milk and sweeten with molasses.
  2. You can also boil the root in water for 15 minutes.
  3. For both recipes, strain the liquid and allow it to cool before drinking. You can do this one hour before bedtime.

Who should avoid 

  • Ashwagandha is not recommended for pregnant women, as large doses of the herb may induce abortion.
  • Since it works on the central nervous system, alcohol and sedatives should also be avoided while consuming this tea.16

5. The Relaxing Effect Of Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is a herb that is understood to relieve stress and anxiety. If these are the causes of your sleeplessness, tea made from this herb would be well worth a try.

In one study, volunteers were administered an extract of lemon balm. Symptoms of anxiety dropped considerably; encouragingly, those who suffered from insomnia were able to fall asleep with less or minimal difficulty. Like other herbs, lemon balm is thought to work on the brain chemical GABA which regulates our nerve cells and eases anxiety. By gently increasing GABA levels, lemon balm brings down stress that could be inhibiting the onset of sleep. While the study concludes that more research is needed, it cites Germany’s food and drug regulator Commission E as having approved the use of lemon balm to treat nervous insomnia.17

Recipe to follow 

  1. Make an infusion by adding a 1/4 teaspoonful of fresh or 1 teaspoon of dried lemon balm leaves to 1 cup (8 oz.) of freshly boiled water.
  2. Allow it to steep for 5–10 minutes.
  3. Strain and enjoy the lemony aroma and flavor of this tea an hour before you sleep.

Who should avoid

  • Lemon balm is generally considered a safe, well-tolerated herb. However, if you are already on medications for sleep disorders or anxiety or thyroid-related problems, consult your doctor before trying lemon balm tea.18

6. The Lilting Presence Of Passionflower

Passionflower has historically been used in the Americas and, in more recent times, across Europe to relieve anxiety. This herb has also traditionally been used as an antidote for insomnia, seizures, and hysteria.

Like lemon balm, passionflower too works to relieve anxiety by acting upon GABA. Passionflower is a very mild herb and is hence often combined with other herbs like lemon balm and valerian in the treatment of anxiety. The flowers, leaves, and stem of this perennial climbing vine are used to make medicinal products. Passionflower is sold as a tea, infusion, or liquid extract.19

Recipe to follow

  1. Make an infusion of 1 teaspoon of dried tea in 1 cup of freshly boiled water.
  2. Cover and steep for 10–15 minutes, strain, and cool before drinking.
  3. You can also sweeten this tea if you wish.

Sip a cup of this calming tea half an hour before bedtime to promote good sleep. If you’re more concerned about anxiety relief, you can have up to 3 cups a day.20

Who should avoid 

  • Passionflower should not be consumed by pregnant or lactating women. It is thought that certain compounds in the herb can stimulate uterine contractions.21
  • Passionflower could increase the effect of medications containing sedatives such as anticonvulsants, anxiety and insomnia medications, and antidepressants. It may also enhance the effect of blood thinners. If you are on any of these medications, don’t take passionflower until you have consulted your doctor.22

References   [ + ]

1. Drink tea, wear pyjamas and retire at 10pm. Daily Mail.
2. Caffeine And Sleep. National Sleep Foundation.
3, 5. Zick, Suzanna M., Benjamin D. Wright, Ananda Sen, and J. Todd Arnedt. “Preliminary examination of the efficacy and safety of a standardized chamomile extract for chronic primary insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled pilot study.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine 11, no. 1 (2011): 78.
4, 17. Cases, Julien, Alvin Ibarra, Nicolas Feuillere, Marc Roller, and Samir G. Sukkar. “Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances.” Mediterranean journal of nutrition and metabolism 4, no. 3 (2011): 211-218.
6. German Chamomile. University of Maryland Medical Center.
7. Valerian. University of Maryland Medical Center.
8. Koulivand, Peir Hossein, Maryam Khaleghi Ghadiri, and Ali Gorji. “Lavender and the nervous system.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013 (2013).
9. Goel, Namni, Hyungsoo Kim, and Raymund P. Lao. “An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women.” Chronobiology international 22, no. 5 (2005): 889-904.
10. Chen, Shu‐Lan, and Chung‐Hey Chen. “Effects of Lavender Tea on Fatigue, Depression, and Maternal‐Infant Attachment in Sleep‐Disturbed Postnatal Women.” Worldviews on Evidence‐Based Nursing 12, no. 6 (2015): 370-379.
11. Lavender. University of Maryland Medical Center.
12. Duke, James A., and Michael Castleman. The green pharmacy anti-aging prescriptions: Herbs, foods, and natural formulas to keep you young. Rodale, 2001.
13. Milind, Parle, Bansal Nitin, and Bansal Seema. “Is Life-Span Under Our Control.” International, 2011.
14. Verma, Sitansu Kumar, and Ajay Kumar. “Therapeutic uses of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) with a note on withanolides and its pharmacological actions.” Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research 4, no. 1 (2011): 1-4.
15. Kaushik, Mahesh K., Sunil C. Kaul, Renu Wadhwa, Masashi Yanagisawa, and Yoshihiro Urade. “Triethylene glycol, an active component of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) leaves, is responsible for sleep induction.” PloS one 12, no. 2 (2017): e0172508.
16. Pratibha, Ashwagandha-Chaurasia, Bora Madhumati, and Parihar Akarsh. “Therapeutic Properties and Significance of Different parts of Ashwagandha-A Medicinal Plant.” Int. J. Pure App. Biosci 1, no. 6 (2013): 94-101.
18. Possible Interactions with: Lemon Balm. University of Maryland Medical Center.
19, 22. Passionflower. University of Maryland Medical Center.
20, 21. Vukovic, Laurel. Overcoming Sleep Disorders Naturally. Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2005.