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Addressing a Modern Day Sleep Epidemic with Evidence-based Herbal Medicine

Date: 23-11-2021

Written by Chantelle van der Weyden BPsych (Hons), AdvDip(Nat), AdvDip(NutMed)

Humans spend approximately one third of their lives sleeping, with sleeping being a fundamental physiological process required to maintain physical and emotional well-being. Chronic insomnia is reported to effect up to 50% of the Australian population at any given time, and sleeping pills are among the most frequently prescribed medications worldwide (Bruni). Given the well-known risk of side effects associated with commonly prescribed sleeping medications, interest in complementary and alternative medicines for sleep concerns has increased in recent years.

Insomnia and its effects on health and wellbeing
Lack of sleep impacts every facet of life. Long term sleep deprivation can drive serious health consequences including depression, anxiety, hypertension, obesity, and impaired immune function. Healthy sleep is also crucial for optimal cognitive performance, emotional reactivity, learning and memory.

Insomnia and mental health
The relationship between insomnia and anxiety and/or depression is bidirectional. Poor sleep impacts mood, cognition, energy and quality of life thus significantly impacting mental health. Alternatively, insomnia is a common symptom or comorbidity of anxiety and depression. Insomnia has been shown to increase the risk of depression and has been found to be a significant contributing factor to the development of anxiety disorders.

Herbal medicine for insomnia
Herbal medicines have a long history of use for disorders of the nervous system. In contrast to many medications for sleeping, herbal medicines offer a good safety profile alongside their anxiolytic, sedative and hypnotic properties.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Hops (Humulus lupulus) and Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) have long been utilised for the treatment of nervous tension and sleep disorders. GABA is a major neurotransmitter that plays an important role in the regulation of sleep and arousal. The most commonly used sleep medications exert their effects via the GABA systems. These three specific herbal medicines have been shown to have the same effects – they modulate GABA thus initiating positive sleep outcomes. They have been shown individually to reduce sleep latency (length of time it takes to fall asleep) and wake time, without morning sedation.

In combination, passionflower, hops and valerian have been compared to a benzodiazepine sedative drug for the treatment of insomnia. Significant improvements in sleep latency, total sleep time, number of nightly awakenings and insomnia severity scores were seen in both groups. However, the herbal combination was found to be a safe and effective alternative to the sedative drug.

In addition to addressing sleep disorders, passionflower, hops and valerian also target nervousness, anxiety and promote a sense of calm. As such, they are beneficial in anxiety and depression, which very often play a role in insomnia.

If you’re having difficulties with sleep and would like to discuss herbal support, reach out to your natural health practitioner.  If you don't currently have a practitioner, you can locate one near you here.