Not being able to sleep well can be frustrating and detrimental to your health. Herbal remedies offer a natural way to help improve sleep without the side effects of prescription medications. But with so many herbs claimed to help with sleep, how do you know which one is the most powerful? Let’s take a look at some of the top contenders for the strongest sleep-promoting herb.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is one of the most commonly used and researched herbs for sleep. It contains compounds called valerenic acids that interact with receptors for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that calms nervous system activity. This can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Numerous studies have shown valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and improves sleep quality, without causing morning drowsiness. A review of 16 trials concluded that valerian significantly improved sleep quality compared to placebo. The effects were most pronounced after 2-4 weeks of consistent use.
Valerian is considered very safe at recommended doses. Potential side effects include headaches, dizziness, and upset stomach when taken in large amounts. It should not be combined with other sleep aids or sedative medications.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a popular herb taken as a tea for its mild sedative effects. It contains apigenin, a compound that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain which helps initiate sleep. It also contains the antioxidant luteolin which reduces inflammation that may interfere with sleep.
In a study of people with chronic insomnia, those who drank chamomile tea before bed for 2 weeks reported significantly better sleep quality compared to a placebo tea. Chamomile can help you fall asleep faster, sleep through the night, and feel more energized in the morning.
Chamomile is very gentle and safe to use on a nightly basis. You can drink 1-2 cups of strong chamomile tea before bedtime. It may cause drowsiness, so avoid driving or operating heavy machinery after use.
Magnolia bark comes from the magnolia tree (Magnolia officinalis) and has been used for sleep in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. It contains magnolol and honokiol, compounds that have powerful anti-anxiety and sleep-enhancing effects.
According to research, magnolia bark works in a similar way as the prescription sleep aid Ambien. It activates GABA receptors and increases time spent in deep, restorative stages of sleep. A study on menopausal women found taking magnolia bark for 6 weeks significantly improved sleep quality and duration compared to placebo.
Magnolia bark can be taken 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Side effects may include drowsiness, dizziness, and digestive upset. So do not take magnolia with alcohol or sedatives.
Lavender is a Mediterranean herb known for its calming, soothing fragrance that promotes relaxation. Inhaling lavender oil has been shown in studies to decrease heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature, all physiological signs of relaxation.
Multiple studies show lavender improves quality of sleep. Smelling lavender oil for 2 weeks helped college students fall asleep faster and wake up fewer times in the night. And in elderly people, lavender increased time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep and made them feel more energized in the morning.
To use lavender for sleep, add 5-10 drops of lavender essential oil to an oil diffuser in your bedroom or place near your pillows. Lavender is safe and non-habit forming.
Lemon balm is a minty herb that contains antioxidants that relieve stress and calm the nervous system. It also helps improve sleep by increasing GABA levels in the brain. In one study, participants who took lemon balm extract for 15 days slept an average 42 minutes more per night with improved sleep efficiency compared to placebo.
Drinking lemon balm tea or taking a supplement 1-2 hours before bed can help induce sleepiness. Look for standardized lemon balm extract containing at least 500 mcg of hydroxycinnamic acids. Do not use lemon balm with sedatives or other sleep medications.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) has been used for centuries as an herbal sleep aid and to calm anxiety. It contains compounds that modulate GABA receptors similarly to prescription benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax.
Several studies show California poppy can reduce sleep disturbances and improve sleep quality. In one trial, participants who took poppy extract slept longer and reported feeling more refreshed in the morning compared to placebo. It works best when taken regularly.
Look for capsules containing at least 500 mg California poppy extract standardized to 2% glucosides. Take 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Side effects may include mental fogginess. Do not combine with alcohol, sleep aids or psychiatric medications.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is believed to work primarily by increasing GABA levels in the brain, producing a sedative effect. There is evidence it can help alleviate anxiety and insomnia, especially in people with anxious depression.
In a 4-week study, participants taking passionflower as a tea reported improvements in sleep quality compared to placebo. They woke up fewer times at night and felt more rested. Passionflower can also help you fall back asleep after waking in the middle of the night.
For sleep, drink a cup of passionflower tea before bedtime or take 350-500 mg of dried passionflower or 90 mg standardized extract. Occasional side effects include dizziness and confusion. Do not combine passionflower with prescription sedatives or antidepressants.
Which is the Strongest for Sleep?
All of these herbs have been shown to help promote sleep and have unique mechanisms of action. Valerian and magnolia bark are considered the strongest and most potent, but they can cause more side effects than gentler herbs like chamomile and lavender.
Ultimately, the “best” sleep herb depends on your individual needs and preferences. Most herbal sleep aids work best when taken regularly for 2-4 weeks. You may need to experiment with different herbs or combinations to see which ones work well to improve your sleep without any bothersome side effects.
It’s a good idea to first try safer herbs like chamomile, lavender and lemon balm. If those are not effective, then consider stronger herbs like valerian, magnolia bark or California poppy. And always make sure to follow dosage guidelines to avoid interactions with other medications or supplements.
Getting a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis is vital for physical health, mental well-being, productivity and happiness. Instead of prescription sleep aids with unwanted side effects, try an herbal remedy made from nature. Valerian, magnolia, chamomile, lavender and passionflower are examples of the many herbs that can help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. Pay attention to dosage, potential side effects and interactions to find the most effective herbal sleep aid for you.