If you have trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. According to research, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the United States and affects approximately one-third of the general population. “The symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking up very early, and waking up feeling unrefreshed,” Dr. Peter Polos, M.D., sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert for Sleep Number, tells TZR. Considering the U.S. population was around 333 million as of 2022, about 100 million people suffering from these types of disruptive symptoms is a lot. And while some turn to prescription medications or supplements to help them fall asleep, if you’re looking for a more natural solution, herbs are a great alternative, as they don’t typically include any negative reactions.
“Prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids can be habit-forming and may have unpleasant or even dangerous side effects,” Michael Breus, Ph.D., founder of TheSleepDoctor.com, tells TZR in an email. “Some of these can include sleepwalking, cooking, and even driving while you’re asleep. On top of that, many sleep aids can cause insomnia.” He says this is because you can develop a dependency on them, which gets worse as you develop a tolerance to them. “As a result, you then need to take even more to be able to get the sleep you need.”
And while a more natural remedy may seem less impactful, you’d be surprised. In fact, herbs have been used to improve sleep (and other health issues) for centuries, at least 5,000 years. People would employ plant extracts — such as chamomile, valerian, and lavender — to help alleviate pain for ailments like hay fever, inflammation, menstrual and overall pain, digestive problems, and — that’s right — insomnia.
Ahead, we tap experts to break down some of the best herbs to help you sleep better, as well as glean tips on how to easily work them into your nighttime routine.
But... Before Trying Herbs, Examine Your Sleep Hygiene
Before adding herbs to your bedtime routine, Jovanka Ciares, integrative herbalist, nutrition coach, and author, says it’s critical to first analyze your sleep habits. “It’s important people take an inventory of their life — that may include going to a doctor to rule out underlying health conditions that may be causing their sleeplessness,” she says. For instance, you could have a nutritional deficiency (you could be low in omega-3s or magnesium). Or, your hormones may be out of whack, for which there are many possible causes, from diet to lifestyle to being perimenopausal or menopausal. “No amount of herbs will help you if your sleep and lifestyle habits are so detrimental to your inability to sleep,” Ciares adds.
You should also consult with your doctor since you want to make sure no sleep-friendly herbs will interfere with any prescription medicines you may be taking. And certain people may not be good candidates to take certain herbs, such as pregnant or breastfeeding women, those with certain autoimmune disorders, and so on.
So this is where practicing good sleep hygiene comes into play. “Your quality of sleep plays a large role in your mental, emotional and physical well-being,” says Polos. “Straying from a regular sleep routine can disrupt our circadian rhythm, which is our body’s internal clock. This internal clock keeps the various bodily functions on track, and when it is disrupted, we can see the consequences of poor sleep health, like insomnia.”
To improve your sleep hygiene, Polos recommends going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, seven days a week (yes, even weekends); sleeping in a dark, quiet, and cool environment; avoiding caffeine, heavy foods, alcohol, and screens two to three hours before bed; and using a relaxation technique, like deep breathing or meditation, before lying down.
Deciding Which Herb Is Best For You
Once you’ve taken the above steps and are ready to embark on an herbal sleep journey, proceed wisely and practically. “Regarding your sleeplessness, you did not get here overnight and will not get out of it overnight,” Ciares says. “There might be one herb that works best for you but not best for someone else. When trying a certain herb, monitor yourself and journal about it — listen to cues your body is giving you and do what’s best for you and your circumstances.”
She says you can ask yourself: Do you wake up drowsy? Does it still take you longer to fall asleep? Are you falling asleep faster (and how much faster)? Ciares suggests trying one to two herbs at a time. “If they’re not working for you, the beauty is there are so many others to try,” she says.
These are some of the most common sleep-promoting herbs to consider:
Research has found chamomile to be highly effective when it comes to sleep quality: not just for falling asleep but staying asleep. In addition, some studies have found it can have an antidepressant effect and help alleviate anxiety and depression. Aside from tea (the most common form of consumption for the plant), chamomile also comes in many forms these days, including capsules, tinctures, and gummies.
“Research shows that valerian can help people fall asleep more quickly, improve the quality of sleep, and increase amounts of nightly sleep. Valerian can also help ease the symptoms of insomnia,” says Breus.
However, because valerian does not stay in your system long — around four to six hours — Ciares recommends combining it with other herbs, such as hops or ashwagandha. “And, since it has a strong scent, it’s not as easy to drink as a tea, so you may opt for a pill form instead,” she says.
Magnesium can help prepare you for a good night’s sleep by calming your central nervous system and relaxing your muscles. “It does this by helping your brain produce neurotransmitters that reduce stress and encourage sleep,” says Breus. “With a calm body and mind, it’s much easier to get the healthy sleep you need each night. Magnesium also helps your brain regulate its melatonin production, which is important for a functioning sleep-wake cycle and healthy circadian rhythm.”
Lemon balm is an herb that can help ease the central nervous system and reduce overwhelm. Research has found that it helps promote sleep and lower anxiety, stress, and depression. Some studies have found lemon balm works especially well when combined with other herbs including valerian, hops, and chamomile.
Lavender is another well-known natural solution for better sleep, renowned for its overall calming effects. “There are several great ways to use it before bedtime,” Ciares says. “You can take a bath with some lavender essential oil or massage some onto your feet, along with valerian,” she says. “You can also put some on your sleep eye mask or pillow, or onto your wrists, neck, or behind your ears.”
Passionflower is not only great for insomnia, but also other preexisting conditions like anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. The botanical is most popular as a tea but can also be taken in pill or tincture form.
If racing thoughts are keeping you up at night, ashwagandha might be the solution for you. The popular plant has become buzzy in recent years for good reason. Whether in pill form, tincture, or as a powder supplement, this adaptogen is truly everywhere and can aid in everything from sleep to mental stress and anxiety.
Black cohosh, often taken in pill form, is an ayurvedic supplement. Research shows it can help with more than just sleep disorders — it can be used as a natural painkiller and help alleviate pain associated with perimenopause and menopause, as well as overall joint pain. Some research has also found it can reduce anxiety and depression.
Hops is stronger than some other sleep-promoting herbs, like lavender or chamomile, and is often taken in pill form. That said, the natural supplement may have a laxative effect, so take caution prior to use.
How To Work Herbs Into Your Sleep Routine
Ciares recommends trying the herb(s) of your choice for seven to 10 days and in a specific order: First, try essential oils. She suggests mixing an oil — a calming one, such as lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, or passionflower — with a base oil like sesame, almond, or coconut, which will help prevent skin irritation from the essential oil itself. She then suggests rubbing your feet with the oil, starting at your ankles and going to your toes. This will help relax you and get your body into sleep mode.
You can also put some drops of essential oil into a diffuser, as well as on your pillow or sleep eye mask. (She recommends chamomile or lavender for that.) Or you can simply put a few drops onto your forehead, behind your neck, or onto your wrists. “This will help your body cool down and help your system’s natural rhythm,” Ciares explains.
If you do not feel the essential oils are effective enough, then try your herb in tea form, if available. “If you use loose tea, you can create your own strong blend with a few herbs,” Ciares says. She recommends drinking one cup two to three hours before bed so it can kick in by the time you lie down. If you are still not feeling sleepy, or not sleeping through the night, try a pill form. If that is not working, then try a tincture, wherein you add a few drops of the herb’s extract to water.
At the end of the day, your best herb plan is the one that works for you, your body, and your specific needs, so feel free to play around with these various natural solutions to see what sticks and actually allows for total relaxation. “As infants, we know how to fall asleep on our own, but as adults, we have all these distractions,” Ciares says. “But remember: We do have the ability to reclaim our sleep, and it’s essential to do so. And herbs may help in this process.”