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Sleepless nights banished by calming herbs

Dear Humorous Herbalist,

I enjoyed reading last week’s article on valerian. I’m one of that percentage group that you mentioned who have the opposite reaction to this herb. I found it interesting when you gave a personality profile of the kind of people who benefit from valerian (i.e., more passive, easy going folks.) Are there similar personality profiles for other sedative herbs? I’m mostly interested in kava kava and passionflower?

Jim, Glenwood Springs



Dear Jim,

There are similar profiles for other calming plant remedies. Daniel Gagnon, an herbalist, provided me with an excellent scale to rate seven popular sedative herbs. His scale starts at one (a mild sedative) to 10 (a real calmer).



1. Chamomile – This is a 1 on the scale. Chamomile brings you down one notch. This is an excellent herb for children and toddlers who are fussy, especially about going to bed. Chamomile is renowned for its quieting effect on babies when they are teething. A tea is the best way to take chamomile.

2. Passionflower – Rates about 2 on the scale. Passionflower has a multitude of wonderful uses to calm the mind. It does not interfere with daytime concentration and can be safely used on a daily basis.

This is the herb for people who suffer from “The Busy Brain” syndrome, especially at night. If you lie in bed awake at night making lists of what you need to do tomorrow and can’t turn off your head, passionflower could be your ticket to dreamland.

Gagnon says that it is good for lawyers, accountants, teachers – anyone who works with their head. It’s also great for those who suffer from high blood pressure that can lead to stress. In addition, people with asthma brought on by nervous agitation may also benefit.

To aid in sleep, take at bedtime. Within 45 minutes to one hour, one should be happily asleep. The liquid extract made from the fresh plant is your best bet. The adult dose is 30 to 60 drops in warm water. Do not give passionflower to children under the age of 1 since it may cause vomiting.

3. Valerian – A 3 on the sedative scale. Valerian has been clinically shown to reduce the time it takes to get to sleep if your problem is falling asleep (not waking up during the night). It is also very good for soothing indigestion in the very young and the very old.

However, the personality profile for valerian states that if you are a high strung, “Type A” personality, the herb may have the opposite effect (i.e., keep you awake and anxious.) The extract made from the fresh root is preferred, although the tea is also viable. Valerian can make some people wake up with a “cotton in the head” feeling. If this happens to you, reduce your dose or discontinue the herb.

4. California Poppy – A 4 on the scale. California poppy is known as the herb to take for those who wake up in the middle of the night (usually between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.) or at the same time every night and cannot get back to sleep. According to Gagnon, this herb is a “sleep modulator.” It can also be effective for people who sleep so deeply that they cannot wake up (bed wetters would fall into this category.)

California poppy is also good for children who cannot settle down during the day. It tends to work best after two or three consecutive nights of taking it. Do not drive a car or operate heavy machinery if you take California poppy during the day. Do not take if you are pregnant, due to the alkaloids in the flower. Once again, the extract made from the fresh flower and root is preferred.

5. Skullcap (also spelled “scullcap”) – This is about a 5 on the scale. Great for those who are hyper and experience constant muscular twitching during the day and in bed. Gagnon recommends skullcap for people who are “overly sensitive to their surroundings.” If you are someone who reacts with irritation at loud noises, repetitive sounds, strong aromas or even bright colors, skullcap could be your herb. This is an herb that needs to be taken in extract form, specifically one made from the fresh whole plant.

6. Wild oats – A 6 or 7 on the scale. Oats are a tonic and therefore must be taken consistently over at least one month. They are great for people who are weaning off cigarettes, amphetamines and drugs. Wild oats have been used successfully for those recuperating from a nervous breakdown. Take only the liquid extract that is made from the fresh oat seed in its milky stage. The dose is 30 to 60 drops, two times a day for at least one month.

7. Kava kava – An 8 or 9 on the scale. Kava is for people who wake up in the morning already tired. Their jaw tightens up immediately. As they go about their day, a knot begins to form in their belly. Kava works very well for those who try to control their environment and may even be obsessive/compulsive about it. If you push them and make demands, they become tighter and tighter. By bedtime, their head aches and they cannot relax. Kava is a muscle and brain relaxant. While it soothes the nerves, it improves concentration and task management. For sleep, take one hour before bedtime. The extract or capsules work well.

The information in this column is not meant to take the place of your physician, nor is it intended to treat, diagnose or prescribe. Pregnant or nursing women should consult their doctor before using herbal therapy.


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