This brings us to the subject of sedative herbs, and it is a big area because there are a lot of them, and they have been around for a long time. Some of these herbs have been in use for hundreds- or even thousands- of years. They include chamomile, hops, passion flower, lavender, and many more.
Because these herbs are plants, people tend to regard them as safe. And, I do think that, overall, they have better safety profiles than any comparable drugs. In fact, I would say that there is no comparison. But, each herb is separate and distinct, and we should evaluate each one separately. And, we should never forget that there are plenty of potent and deadly plant toxins. Hemlock, anyone? Being a plant or being derived from a plant does not guarantee safety.
For instance, I am not a fan of valerian, which may be the most popular and widely used herb for sleep. For one thing, some studies have shown elevated liver enzymes from prolonged use of valerian. Nobody ever died from it, that I know of, or needed a liver transplant. But still, it is a little concerning. But, there was a famous case of a woman who tried to commit suicide by swallowing a whole bottle of valerian. But, they rushed her to the hospital, pumped her stomach, and she was OK afterwards. Still, I am not enthused about valerian. It is thought to work in a manner similar to the benzodiazepine drug Valium. But, that is not a selling point to me. It tells me that I have no reason to think that valerian supports normal sleep mechanisms. Valerian really is just a drug that happens to be a plant. Plus, it happens to be a stinky plant, which doesn’t help matters.
Another once popular sedative herb is Kava kava from the South Pacific. But that too resulted in reports of elevated liver enzymes, and worse yet, there were a few cases of liver failure. Several individuals had to undergo liver transplants. However, it’s puzzling because there were only a few cases out of many hundreds of thousands of known users. And all of the cases were in Europe. Not one in the USA despite widespread use here. So, was it a source issue? A contamination issue? And in all the reported cases, kava was not taken alone, but rather, with alcohol and/or other sedative drugs, particularly benzodiazepine tranquilizers. And it’s well known that kava should never be combined with alcohol or other tranquilizers. There is an additive effect that is so strong, it can knock a person out.
I know that my friend and colleague, Dr. Ward Dean, believes that there is a safe use of kava. And, he believes that the “kava lactones” do support sleep through normal sleep mechanisms. However, like many companies, VRP has voluntarily ceased offering kava out of safety concerns. Note that the FDA never did ban it in the United States. And, it’s probably because there were no catastrophes here- and nor have there been any in the South Pacific, where strong kava is drunk as a traditional social beverage, the way coffee is consumed here.
But, even though kava is still available online, I don’t recommend it. For one thing, there is a Catch 22 in effect now: You take it to relax, but how can you do so with the worry that it could damage or even destroy your liver? Being my mother’s son, I’d figure that if there’s a one-in-a-million chance of liver failure from taking kava, that I would probably win that lottery. So, how can I sleep through that? Therefore, it’s sianara, kava kava.
Sedative herbs are often sold in combination formulas, and we offer two such formulas on this website. However, I am not so keen on the idea because how can you judge what is helping you and what is not if you take a bunch of herbs at once? This isn’t like mixing up a salad where it’s the more the merrier.
So, I think it’s better to start with one herb, and the one I recommend because I think it’s the best of the lot, is:
6 Lemon Balm This is a Mediterranean herb that is a member of the mint family, and it has been in use for many centuries as a mint flavoring in foods, such as meats, and also in desserts calling for mint. Cows have been known to graze on lemon balm, and any time a large beast can eat wholesale quantities of a plant, it assures me that it is safe. Lemon balm has never been associated with any liver problems. It contains rosmarinic acids which are believed to calm the nicotinic and muscarinic areas of the cerebral cortex in a way that is physiological. Lemon balm definitely has a calming, relaxing effect without having a drug-like effect. You can take it during the day and it won’t make you drowsy at all, which I think is good. But again, if you are lying in the dark with your eyes closed at night, it may very well help you fall sleep. And we’re talking good, solid, restorative, un-drugged, natural sleep. I have taken lemon balm myself, and I am convinced that the qualitative effect of it is very good. The sleep you get on lemon balm is sound. It is not drugged sleep. I think lemon balm is the best of the calming herbs.
There is a product from the Life Extension Foundation called Natural Stress Relief which contains just two ingredients: Sun Theanine, which I have already raved about, and Lemon Balm. I have taken Natural Stress Relief myself, with benefit, and I have often recommended it to others, who have also liked it. Natural Stress Relief is available from the Life Extension Foundation at www.lef.org.
To sum up, we have discussed 6 products to aid with sleep but only 5 am I recommending: Melatonin, Magnesium, L-Taurine, SunTheanine, and Lemon Balm. They are all safe, and they all support natural, wholesome, restorative sleep. To give you an idea how safe I think they are, you could take all 5 every night indefinitely, and I would not be at all concerned about the safety of what you were doing. And note that I consider myself adamant about safety. The adage to “First, do no harm” is something I take very seriously.
I know there are other natural products that are sometimes recommended for sleep, and I don’t say that these five run the gamut. But, these five I have experience with, both personally and professionally, and I feel very good and confident about recommending them.
But ultimately, we have to earn our sleep, and we do that by how we live our days. Obviously, I can’t tell you how to cope with all the problems in your life. But, I do know that if you get overly stressed out that it may be too much to come down from at night. The night may not be long enough for you to unwind sufficiently to sleep. So you have to contain the stress before it gets out of hand. And I mean, of course, the stress within you. We can’t always control the external. Who am I kidding? There is very little of that that we can control. But, I believe that we can consciously choose to reject despair as a reaction to the external. Staying in control and remaining in charge of our emotions is a choice we should make out of self-preservation. Be selfish and protective of your right to sleep. You are entitled to it.