The 11 Best Herbs for Sleep & Insomnia

Sleepless nights are something that we all must deal with from time to time. On those nights when it’s hard to wind down, it’s nice to have a list of …

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Written by: Daniel Powers, MS
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Sleepless nights are something that we all must deal with from time to time. On those nights when it’s hard to wind down, it’s nice to have a list of the best herbs for sleep and insomnia.

A natural sleep remedy can be the difference between a sleepless night and a well-rested night.

Studies have shown that about one-third of the world’s population suffers from insomnia.

Lack of sleep can significantly impact one’s overall health and well-being and lead to negative health conditions.

Sleep is one of the most important aspects of human health. It impacts everything from brain function, to energy levels, physical recovery, etc… Thus, getting enough sleep, especially deep REM sleep, is crucial for health.

best herbs for sleep and insomnia

How Do Herbs Help Sleep?

Herbs can work to support restful sleep via a few different mechanisms.

Below are the primary ways that herbs can help to benefit sleep.

  • Sedative – these types of herbs work to slow down your brain activity. These sleep herbs work by increasing GABA, a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter that signals the body to prepare for sleep.
  • Anxiolytic – this category of herbs works to reduce anxiety. This calming mental effect can be very beneficial for sleep, especially for those that struggle with excessive worry.
  • Relaxing – these types of herbs help to relax the muscles in the body. This physically relaxing effect helps to decrease sleep latency (i.e. the time it takes to fall asleep).
  • Pain Dampening – this category of herbs helps to reduce pain perception. While it’s often overlooked, physical pain is a major sleep disruptor.

We’ll list the best-in-class herbs for sleep for each of these actions below.

The Best Herbs for Sleep & Insomnia

Below are the best herbs for insomnia and overall sleep quality improvement.

1. Valerian

Valerian is one of the most widely used herbs for insomnia.

Valerian root contains phytochemicals, including valepotriates and valerenic acid, that are reported to have relaxing, sleep-inducing effects.

Valerian works as a sedative by slowing down the central nervous system. This helps to ‘wind down’ your brain and prepare your body for restful sleep.

Valerian has been studied in a number of clinical trials that sought to assess its impact on sleep. Some trials have produced amazing results, others, not so much. It appears that the dosage and form of valerian are vital for having a good experience.

That said, a meta-analysis review of 60 studies on revealed that valerian root is an effective supplement for promoting sleep.

The studies supporting Valerian can be divided into two categories: those that improved sleep quality and those that reduced sleep latency (i.e., the time it takes to fall asleep).

A clinical study looking at the impact of valerian root extract on sleep found that it worked to decrease sleep latency and significantly improve sleep quality. The researchers noted that improved sleep quality was most notable among indivduals who considered themselves poor or irregular sleepers, smokers, and people who thought they normally had long sleep latencies.

Another clinical study found that valerian root helped to increase sleep quality in individuals with mild psychophysiological insomnia.

Valerian can be taken as a tea, in tincture form, or in a capsule. Just a warning, valerian has a very strong, very particular smell that’s often compared to dirty socks. Taking a capsule may be the best route. Make sure to look for a valerian supplement that’s standardized to contain valerenic acid.

Summary:

Clinical trials show that valerian root is an effective sleep promoter. It helps to reduce sleep latency and improve quality in poor or irregular sleepers.

2. Passionflower

Passionflower is popular a herbal sleep aid due to its strong relaxing properties.

human clinical trial demonstrated that consuming passionflower tea at night worked to improve sleep. The researchers noted that the study participants reported better overall sleep quality as well as a feeling of refreshment upon waking.

Another clinical trial looked at the effects of passionflower on individuals with insomnia. Findings revealed that a small dose of 60mg of passionflower extract could significantly increase total sleep time.

Passionflower appears to improve sleep efficiency while lowering the chance of waking up during the night.

Passionflower can be taken as a tea, in tincture form, or as an encapsulated supplement.

Summary:

Passionflower appears to be a promising natural sleep aid for improving sleep quality. However, long-term human clinical trials are needed to verify its effectiveness for insomnia.

3. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that may have the ability to improve sleep quality and reduce mild insomnia. It helps to improve sleep via its relaxing, anxiolytic properties.

In India, ashwagandha is one of the most popular herbs for sleep.

A clinical trial looked at the impact of ashwagandha on sleep and anxiety. The researchers found that it significantly improved sleep quality and reduced anxiety in individuals with insomnia. It was also noted that ashwagandha helped to reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

Another human clinical trial compared the impact of Ashwagandha on individuals with insomnia versus those with regular sleep patterns. This study found that Ashwagandha helped to improve sleep quality in both groups.

Ashwagandha is commonly used as a tincture or as an encapsulated supplement. You can also buy powdered ashwagandha and sprinkle it on your morning smoothie.

Summary:

Clinical trials show that valerian root is an effective sleep promoter. It helps to reduce sleep latency and improve quality in poor or irregular sleepers.

4. American Skullcap

Skullcap has a long history of use as a natural sleep aid and anxiolytic. In fact, skullcap is one of the best herbs for sleep as it helps to relax the body and mind.

Researchers performed a clinical trial looking at skullcap’s anxiolytic properties. The study participants who received two 100mg capsules of skullcap extract daily, showed a significant reduction in anxiety levels.

Another study was conducted to test the phytochemical compounds in skullcap and their role in binding to the serotonin-7 receptor (5-HT7 receptor). The findings of this study revealed that the flavonoids in skullcap were able to bind to the 5-HT7 receptor, which may help to explain skullcap’s sedative and nervine effects as a natural sleep aid.

In addition, the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia lists skullcap as a mild sedative (British Herbal Medicine Association, 1996).

Skullcap can be taken as a tea, in tincture form, or as an encapsulated supplement. Be aware that it does have a mild bitter taste, so taking it as a supplement is typically the easier way to add this herb to your routine.

Summary:

Skullcap appears to be a helpful sleep herb with the ability to promote both relaxation and sleep. Full-scale human clinical trials are needed to confirm these anecdotal findings.

5. Hops

Hops is one of the best natural remedies for sleep.

In a small human study involving non-alcoholic beer rich in hops, it was found to improve sleep quality in 17 nurses. Alongside its sedative effects, the hops was also found to decrease anxiety levels. 

In a study involving 120 participants, researchers discovered that a herbal formula containing hops helped to improve overall sleep quality. This formula was shown to improve time spent asleep, while sleep onset and nocturnal awakenings decreased. The study participants also reported a reduction in irritability and fatigue.

In another clinical trial using an herbal combination formula (with hops), 184 participants with insomnia were given hops and valerian tablets for a month. Results showed an improvement in sleep quality with no recurring symptoms after the tablets were discontinued.

A variety of animal studies have shown that hops and its active constituents have a relaxing effect on the body and can help to improve sleep quality. The studies also show that hops decreases the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the total time spent asleep. Nighttime awakenings were also found to be reduced. 

Additionally, various government health organizations such as the Commission E, British Herbal Compendium, ESCOP, and German Standard License recommend hops (taken internally) for supporting restlessness and sleep disorders.

Summary:

Clinical research, traditional knowledge, and various govermnment bodies indicate that hops and its active constituents have sleeping-inducing and sleep-improving properties. While there are a number of human and animal clinical trials to support this claim, isolated clinical trials on hops (without the influence of other herbs) would be helpful in understanding its full potential.

6. German Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the most popular herbs for improving sleep. It’s a herb that should be in everyone’s home. Drinking a cup of chamomile tea before bed is a tradition for many people.

In a clinical trial involving postnatal women with sleep issues, sleep inefficiency and depression symptoms improved after drinking German chamomile tea at night. Although the study only lasted 2 weeks, the researchers noted that improvements took effect immediately.

A 2017 study found that chamomile extract helped to increase sleep quality in the study participants. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index was used to rate sleep quality. Researchers noted that although chamomile did not directly impact sleep duration, it did have a significant effect on the sleep latency, sleep efficiency, and sleep quality of the study participants.

A surprising relaxing effect from chamomile tea was discovered in a study observing the cardiac effects of chamomile. The study aimed to observe how chamomile tea might affect heart health in patients with cardiac disease. When the tea was administered, 10 out of 12 patients fell into a deep sleep shortly after ingestion. Although they could be woken up, each patient fell back into a deep slumber immediately. Due to the anxiety of the cardiac procedure they were undergoing, researchers mentioned it is unusual for patients to be able to sleep.

Summary:

Research, as well as traditional use, shows that chamomile may help to support improved sleep quality.

7. Blue Vervain

Blue vervain is a popular traditional herb for sleep. While this herb doesn’t have human clinical trials backing its ability to improve sleep, it is beloved by herbalists as a natural sleep aid.

Herbalist Christopher Hedley notes that blue vervain is a mild relaxant and nerve tonic, that helps to induce ‘dreamless sleep’ (Hedley, 1996).

An animal study showed that hastatoside and vervenalin, two phytochemical compounds found in blue vervain, may aid in increased sleep quality. The study results showed that blue vervain extract helped to increase the duration of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. 

Another animal study showed the effects of blue vervain on sleep. Blue vervain was shown to provide a reduction in sleep latency (i.e. the time it takes to fall asleep), and a considerable increase in both rapid eye movement (REM) and NREM sleep.

Summary:

Traditional knowledge indicates that blue vervain is helpful for sleep problems. Initial animal trials appear to support this claim. Human clinical trials are needed to verify the benefits of blue vervain for insomnia and improved sleep quality.

8. Kava Kava

Research shows that kava is one of the best herbs for sleep.

A human clinical trial looked at the effectiveness and safety of kava in individuals with anxiety-related sleep issues. During the trial, kava was found to be well-tolerated and safe. The kava group showed an improvement in overall sleep quality and a reduction in sleep-related anxiety.

Another study looked at the impact of kava and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) in individuals with stress-induced insomnia. The treatment consisted of kava for the first six weeks of the study, a 2-week intermission, and then valerian for another six weeks. Results showed no significant difference between the two herbs, as they both had a notable impact on reducing insomnia and stress levels.

A clinical study investigated the effects of a supplement combination of kava, black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), valerian, hops (Humulus lupulus), green tea (Camellia sinensis), Panax ginseng, and soy extract in menopausal women with sleep complaints. The study results suggested that this formula worked to lessen sleep disturbances and improve overall sleep quality.

Summary:

Clinical research indicates that kava may help to improve overall sleep quality. However, large scale trials are needed to verify the exact dosing and safety of kava for sleep.

9. Magnolia Bark

Research indicates that magnolia bark is one of the best herbs for improving sleep quality.

An animal study found that honokiol, a phytochemical in magnolia bark, was able to reduce the time it took for mice to fall asleep and increased overall sleep time. These sleep-improving effects are thought to be due to honokiol’s potential to reduce anxiety and stress. 

Researchers saw similar results in another study using magnolol, another phytochemical found in magnolia bark. Magnolol was also able to reduce sleep latency in mice. Additionally, the mice spent more time in a deep sleep state, which resulted in higher overall sleep quality.

In an 1869 traditional medical text, it mentions that magnolia bark has relaxing qualities and can be used for someone who has nervous tension or anxiety.

Summary:

Small-scale animal studies, in addition to traditional usage, indicate that magnolia bark may be effective for improving sleep. Human trials are needed to verify the benefits of magnolia bark for sleep.

10. Jujube

Research shows that jujube seeds may be one of the best herbs for insomnia.

In a clinical trial involving postmenopausal women, jujube was shown to improve total sleep time. It’s thought that this effect on sleep is due to the presence of specialized saponins in the jujube seeds. These important phytochemicals appear to support sleep by relaxing the brain and body.

An animal study noted that a group of saponins isolated from jujube seeds was able to impart a relaxing, sleep-inducing effect on mice. 

Another animal study showed that spinosin, a flavonoid found in jujube, helped to reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep (i.e. sleep latency). It was also shown to prolong sleep at night.

Summary:

Research indicates that jujube is able to improve overall sleep quality, especially total sleep duration. Additional clinical trials are needed to verify initial findings as well as the exact mechanism of action.

11. Lavender

Lavender is considered one of the best herbs for promoting sleep due to its calming properties.

In a study lasting 12 weeks involving women struggling with insomnia, those who received lavender aromatherapy experienced better sleep. The short-term calming effects of lavender aromatherapy may be the result of lavender’s potential to module the parasympathetic system in the body.

Another small study found that lavender aromatherapy improved the sleep quality of participants with mild insomnia. This study also found that lavender aromatherapy worked especially in female and younger participants and measured sleep quality using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index.

Research involving students found that lavender aromatherapy before bedtime decreased sleepiness and grogginess upon waking and that the participants reported feeling more refreshed after waking up. It should be noted, however, that researchers did not factor in details such as participant caffeine intake or stress level that may have affected sleep quality.

Commission E, a German health advisory board, has approved the use of lavender tea for sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Summary:

Several studies indicate that lavender, through aromatherapy, shows evidence of being able to improve sleep quality and decrease feelings of grogginess upon waking up.

Conclusion:

The sleep-supporting benefits of these herbs are well-documented and they appear to be a safe alternative for those who suffer from sleepless nights.

Traditional usage shows effectiveness, and new clinical research is coming out proving the benefits.

If you’ve been looking to add natural remedies into your diet that can help you sleep soundly, consider trying these herbs!

As always, make sure to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or adding a new supplement.

British Herbal Medicine Association. British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. 4th ed. Exeter, UK: British Herbal Medicine Association; 1996.

Hedley, C. (1995). Christopher Hedley: Insomnia. Henriette's Herb. https://www.henriettes-herb.com/chris/insomnia.html

Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.

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About Daniel Powers, MS

Daniel has a master's degree in herbal science from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. He has a passion for herbal medicine and how it can be used to support everyday health & wellness.

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