The best herbs for sleep

With nearly a third of adults in the United States suffering from the symptoms of insomnia, herbal remedies can be a safe and effective alternative to alleviate the symptoms with little to no adverse side effects. 

Let’s explore some of the most effective herbs for treating sleep problems and conditions that commonly affect sleep. Many of the herbs presented have been used to induce restful sleep in traditional Chinese medicine, with a long track record of success dating back more than two thousand years. 

The Chinese herbs highlighted in this article include more commonly known botanicals that benefit sleep, but it also includes those that are lesser known or recognizable, but equally effective in supporting sleep issues and promoting wellness.

We’ve included several key botanicals from Western herbalism as well, since they are central to Remrise formulations and reflect the integrated approach that we are taking to solve the problem of sleep.

Spine Date Seed (Suan Zao Ren)

Source: Chinese herbalism

Suan zao ren is one of the most common herbs used in traditional Chinese Medicine to reduce insomnia and calm the mind. Spine date seeds, also referred to as jujube seed, come from the ziziphus jujuba plant, a fruit-bearing shrub that grows naturally in southern Asia. 

This botanical is typically consumed as an extract, or as a powder when ground from dry ripe seeds. It can be taken alone or most typically, it is combined with other herbs to create a potent synergistic calming effect. 

The seeds contain over 50 bioactive components including various alkaloids, saponins, and flavonoids. Suan zao ren’s hypnotic properties are primarily a result of its action on the GABA and serotonin systems. It has been found to bind to GABA receptors and activates an enzyme that is involved in GABA synthesis. 

In a 2018 meta-analysis of six studies, suan zao ren resulted in better objective sleep scores compared to placebo as measured by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. In the same analysis, two studies found that suan zao ren functioned as an effective adjunct therapy to the anti-anxiety prescription, diazepam. It improved sleep scores compared to just diazepam alone. 

Valerian Root

Source: Western herbalism

Valerian root, or valeriana officinalis, is native to Europe and Asia but also cultivated in the United States, China, and many other countries. It has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years to promote relaxation and better sleep. It is commonly found brewed in teas, or available as an extracted supplement in liquid or capsule form.

Valerian root owes its sedative properties to the bioactive constituents valerenic acid, isovaleric acid, and several antioxidants. Valerenic acid, in particular, has been found to exert modulating action on GABA receptors in the brain. In a 2015 meta-analysis that examined 16 studies evaluating valerian root’s effect on sleep, demonstrated that six of the studies showed a statistically significant benefit of valerian root on sleep quality and induction.

Hops flower

Source: Western herbalism

Hops are the female flowers of the sedative hops plant, humulus lupulus. While widely known for flavoring in beer-making, hops is used in herbal medicine to aid in sleep and alleviate anxiety and restlessness.

Hops flower is commonly prepared in teas, tinctures, infusions, and encapsulations. The dried flower is also popularly stuffed in sleep pillows or used in cosmetic formulations. 

Hops works by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which produces inhibitory effects on the central nervous system. It’s commonly combined with valerian root when used to alleviate sleep disturbances. Most of the research evaluating the effects of hops flower on sleep has been with this combination. 

In a 2008 study of 22 participants, a liquid extract of hops and valerian root significantly increased total sleep time and subjective sleep quality. Another study found that a hops-valerian preparation was equally as effective as benzodiazepines in increasing sleep quality without creating adverse withdrawal symptoms.  

Spirit Poria (Fu Shen)

Source: Chinese herbalism

Spirit poria, or fu shen, is actually a medicinal fungus called poria cocos, which grows around the roots of pine trees throughout Japan, Korea, China, and North America.

It is the innermost part of the surrounding root that has stronger spirit-calming properties that address restlessness, insomnia, and memory loss or forgetfulness. Spirit poria can be found in extract form as a powder or liquid for maximum potency, or in whole form when used in teas or soups.

Studies indicate potent immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory properties due to bioactive components such as triterpenic acids, adenine, choline, histidine, lecithin, ergosterol, and porin. Its effects on sleep are a result of its enhancement of GABA signaling in the brain. 

One study found that an ethanol extract of fu shen administered for one week increased total sleep time and NREM sleep in rats.

Dragon Eye Fruit (Long Yan Rou)

Source: Chinese herbalism 

Dragon eye flesh, or long yan rou, is the fruit from the Longan tree, which is an evergreen native to Southern China. The fruit and pulp is sweet and considered  Longan may be found processed in powders, simmered in boiling water, eaten raw, or its pulp may be added to beverages. 

Longan has been used for medical purposes as early as the Han Dynasty. Long Yan Rou is used to enhance energy, improve sleep, increase longevity, improve blood circulation. It is frequently combined with Dang Gui, Ren Shen, Suan Zao Ren, and Bai He for insomnia. The fruits contain a very high amount of vitamin C, as well as antioxidants and minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

Polygala (Yuan Zhi)

Source: Chinese herbalism 

Yuan Zhi refers to the roots of several species of the Polygala plant, an important herb in traditional Chinese medicine. It is used to promote sleep, calm the spirit, and boost mood. The dried root can be taken in powder form, or found in a liquid extract or tincture.

Active compounds include TMCA and polygalasaponins. These have been found in rodent studies to have sedative-hypnotic effects and prolong sleep time. 


Angelica Root (Dang Gui)

Source: Chinese herbalism 

Angelica root, or Dang Gui, is the dried root of Angelica Sinesis. It is a commonly used herb in traditional Chinese medicine to promote blood circulation, enhance the immune system, enrich the blood, and alleviate pain. Angelica root can be found as a tincture, decoction, or dried root in powder or whole form for preparing teas or capsules.

The main bioactive components are polysaccharides, Z-Ligustilide, and ferulic acid, which act on the GABA and serotonin systems. Angelica Root can be found in insomnia formulas such as Gui Pi Tang that improve sleeplessness related to blood deficiency.

 Anemarrhena Rhizome(Zhi Mu)

Source: Chinese herbalism 

Zhi Mu, also known as Anemmarhena, is a small plant native to Northern China. It has been a foundational part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and is used to treat a variety of conditions. Zhi Mu can be prepared from the dried rhizome in a water decoction. It is also commonly purchasable in powder and extract form.

Zhi Mu is used for many disorders that can interfere with sleep, including high fever, excessive sweating, dizziness, cough, dry throat, and lower back pain.

Salvia Root (Dan Shen)

Source: Chinese herbalism 

Dan Shen, also known as Salvia Root or Red Sage Root, is used as a staple in traditional Chinese medicine. Red Sage is native to the Mediterranean region, but currently, it is cultivated in both Japan and China. Dan Shen is available in whole form, either fried or raw, or in a powder form for teas and capsules.

It is used to treat irregular menstruation, improve blood circulation, relieve inflammation, and calm the mind. One 2010 study supported its claims of potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Gastrodia Rhizome (Tian Ma)

Tian Ma, or Gastrodia elata, is a perennial herb found throughout Asia. It is used for treating headaches, dizziness, epilepsy, tetanus, and relieving pain and inflammation.

Gastrodia is commonly boiled in water and served as a tea. Gastrodia tuber can also be found in extract and powdered form. One study found Gastrodia elata extract possesses potent anxiolytic properties through its bioactive effects on GABA and serotonin.

Conclusion

When it comes to sleep aids, we know there are a variety of options to choose from. At Remise, we take an integrative, holistic approach to addressing poor sleep with rotational sleep formulas that balance the most calming herbs of the East and West. 

Glossary

Tincture: A medicine created by dissolving the medicinal substance in an alcohol solution

Decoction: An extraction method for water-soluble compounds done by boiling the herbal or plant materials.

Sedative: Any substance that induces sedation and calmness and promotes sleep.