While a lack of sleep is linked to tiredness, tiredness can also be an indicator for high blood pressure, diabetes and a number of other conditions (e.g. sleep apnea). If you are unsure why you are tired talk to a professional. If you have existing medical condition, are taking prescriptions or are pregnant or breastfeeding please consult a Doctor or medical herbalist for professional advice before using the remedies suggested here.
Sleep is a natural and necessary state which we all need to experience in order for our bodies to function. While we are asleep, we have reduced consciousness, experience far less sensory activity and nearly all voluntary muscles are inactive. This reduction in activity allows our bodies to devote more energy to growth and repair and allows time for the brain to rest and help store memories. How much sleep a person needs varies and also depends on factors such as season and age. 7 to 9 hours seems to be right for most people.
“The key measure of whether we are getting enough sleep is whether or not we wake feeling refreshed. “
Human sleep cycles move through 5 distinct phases which are characterised by the frequency of brain waves produced. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the one we consider most important for health based on current science and it accounts for 20-25% of total sleep time.
It is during REM that dreaming occurs, muscles are least active and the brain consumes more oxygen than when we are awake. Without REM sleep, our ability to learn complex tasks is greatly decreased. Usually REM sleep is reached approximately 90 minutes after first falling asleep and can last up to an hour before a new sleep cycle begins (although usually the duration of REM sleep starts shorter and increases with consecutive sleep cycles which explains why uninterrupted sleep often feels more restful than the same duration split into parts).
Our bodies have a special mechanism, called the Circadian Rhythm, to control physical, mental and behavioral activities based on daytime and night time. This rhythm is mostly dictated by light and dark cycles and affects many aspects of our bodily functions, for example; temperature, hormone release, digestion, sleeping and waking.
When there is less light (usually at night time), the brain makes more melatonin, which makes us sleepy. This means one of the most important ways to maintain a healthy sleeping pattern is to be aware of your exposure to light. Avoiding artificial light in the evenings, especially in the blue spectrum such as from phone and TV screens, and seeking out sunlight (or a daylight lamp) in the mornings is one of the best ways to regulate your circadian rhythms and support optimal health.
If you are a shift worker artificially creating a reverse sleep cycle can be done with very careful consideration. Good curtains and good discipline when it comes to using light emitting devices to keep your environment dark during your sleep time, and exposure to light with daylight wavelengths can go a long way to improving sleep.
Another option is to give your brain a hand to create Melatonin when you are ready for sleep. Although supplemental melatonin is not available for sale in the UK, 5-HTP is a commonly used supplement which the body can convert into serotonin. Serotonin plays a large role in regulating mood and, importantly, is converted to Melatonin when the body is in a dark environment. If sleep struggles are potentially related to low mood 5-HTP might be a supplement worth considering although it should be noted that it is incompatible with some prescription medications and you should consult your doctor if you are considering its use.
Jet Lag occurs because the body’s circadian rhythm does not synchronise quickly with the actual time. When our bodies travel through time zones, we gain or lose hours of the day and it takes time for our body clocks to adjust. Jet lag can make us feel groggy, tired and often disorientated.
Going for walk or spending time outside can help your system to adjust especially if you follow the advice above regarding your exposure to light and dark. Another method which is used with some success is a diet called the Argonne Diet which moderates your eating pattern for a few days before and after travel.
Some herbs used during the day to stay awake may help to normalise the body clock : Ginseng (Korean or Siberian), Gotu Kola, and Garlic.
Rosemary essential oil is stimulating both physically and psychologically and can help with feelings associated with jet lag. Some people find a 5-HTP supplement helps them fall asleep more readily and adjust to the new time zone when arriving in their new country.
Herbal Remedies for Sleep Issues
At Woodland Herbs, we have many customers asking for options to help them with their sleeping difficulties. Insomnia affects 30% of us during our lifetime and for many people it can be a complaint that lasts for many years. Whether you are insomniac, jet lagged, or just have a temporary sleep issue there are many natural remedies that may help you to achieve a good night’s rest.
In the shop we generally ask a couple of questions to help find out the reasons for sleeplessness and then try to find the appropriate remedy for the individual.
- Do you have difficulty falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep?
This question is important because it can highlight whether stress and anxiety are contributing to sleep issues. People who find it difficult to fall asleep often find this is due to an inability to quiet their active minds. In this case we will often suggest Passionflower which is traditionally used to calm an active mind and reduce anxiety.
We sell Passionflower both as a dried herb and in tincture form in our online shop.
The essential oil of Lavender or Roman Chamomile can also be helpful to calm nerves, soothe an active, worrying mind and relax the body. A couple of drops on a tissue under your pillow should be enough to aid restful sleep but be aware that too much can be over stimulating!
- If you wake during the night, what is the first thing you do, see or feel?
Sometimes the root of a sleep issue is in another body system and this question helps us to determine if that is the case.
People who wake in the night because they need to go to the toilet may have an underlying urinary system problem and the right remedy will take that into consideration.
Waking due to either overheating or feeling cold would suggest a temperature control issue, this may be as simple as an extra blanket or an open window but in menopausal women a cold preparation of Sage tea can be helpful when waking with night sweats.
Stress can also be a factor when people wake through the night, the herbs mentioned above may be helpful here as well as a B Vitamin supplement or other herbal support for stress may be appropriate here.
There are also herbs that are generally sedative and many people take these to help improve the depth of their sleep. Valerian has been shown to promote a deeper sleep as well as being generally relaxing, Hops and Californian Poppy are other sedative herbs and can also help promote restful sleep.
Calcium or Magnesium, available in both capsule and liquid forms, are necessary for the functioning of muscles and nerves. Calcium or Magnesium deficiency can lead to tension and irritability which can contribute to insomnia. For example people who find “restless legs” wake them up then it may be worth considering additional magnesium which could be beneficial.
L-Theanine, an extract of green tea, is often used to improve concentration as it calms and focuses the mind, and studies suggest it can enhance the quality of sleep (increasing time spent in REM and slow-wave sleep without increasing overall sleeping time) as it allows the mind to relax.
Other things to consider to help sleep
Avoid stimulants in the evening e.g. avoid coffee, tea, sugar, watching exciting/violent TV programmes and exposure to artificial light.
Try not to eat your evening meal after 7pm.
Try to do something relaxing before bedtime e.g. a relaxing herb infused bath, drink a relaxing herbal tea, (Lavender, Limeflower, Chamomile and Lemonbalm are all gently relaxing herbs) or relax with a book or music.
Try to have a regular bedtime/waking routine which helps your body maintain a healthy schedule.
Snoring or blocked nasal passages can interfere with sleep, and remedies are available to help both these.
Some people can find ancient treatments of acupuncture or shiatsu beneficial for insomnia.