Insomnia-driven sleep anxiety & herbal medicines“I have 5 years of anxiety about not being able to sleep to overcome,” began a query I received a month ago. “Once triggered, it is difficult to stop this downward spiral and sleep.”

Without a doubt, anxiety about sleep is one of the hardest aspects of insomnia to beat. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help to reduce sleep-related anxiety, as can other adjunctive therapies. But here’s an alternative treatment that might lead to calmer nights: plant-based medicines found to be effective for anxiety.

Anxiety About Sleep: How It Develops

Anxiety about sleep is learned, and the learning is largely unconscious. The anxiety may develop during a stressful situation when you’re having trouble with sleep. You might be in a tight spot at work or in the midst of a contentious divorce. You might be worried about a new breast lump or how to make ends meet for the next 6 months.

Whatever the stress, it keeps you up at night and soon it extends to worry about sleep itself. What happens if you can’t get enough sleep? What if you’re too sleep deprived to meet the next work deadline? What negative effects will insomnia have on your long-term health?

Once anxiety becomes focused on sleep, it’s hard to root out. The triggers may remain unknown: a darkening sky, evening birdsong, the bed itself. A simple glance at the clock can set off alarms in your head. (“It’s already midnight and I’m still too wired to sleep!”) And feelings of anxiety — muscle tension, a rapid heartbeat, bodily warmth and perspiration — can sabotage sleep. If night after night this pattern is reinforced, no wonder it’s hard to break.

Herbal Remedies for Anxiety

Anxiety about sleep is situational, and therapies shown in clinical trials to lower sleep-related anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), yoga, and mindful stress reduction — are probably the most reliable paths to relief. Exercise has stress-reducing effects as well. But GABA is the neurotransmitter most prominently associated with calming the brain, and plant-based medicines that act on the GABA system may be helpful, too.

A team of Australian researchers recently conducted a systematic review of plant-based medicines for anxiety including both clinical (human) and preclinical (in vitro and animal) studies. Following are herbal medicines the evidence shows are mostly likely to have anxiety-reducing effects.

Kava (Piper methysticum)

Kava, native to the South Pacific, is the hands-down winner when it comes to the amount of evidence amassed in support of its effectiveness as an herbal remedy for anxiety. “The number of positive findings from human studies of P. methysticum within randomised, well-controlled trials . . . supports its use as a treatment for various anxiety disorders and associated symptoms, demonstrating broad clinical utility,” the authors write.

The main active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones. Kava supplements contain specific concentrations of these kava extracts and are available in tablet form or as a tincture. See my earlier blog post for an in-depth treatment of kava’s effects on anxiety and sleep and possible adverse effects.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian, native mainly to Europe, looks like the next most-promising herbal with anxiety-reducing properties. The root extract has been used as a sedative and anti-anxiety medicine for millennia. Tests on human subjects have found that valerian is particularly effective at reducing subjective feelings of anxiety that arise in stressful situations.

Two human studies suggest that valerian doesn’t negatively impact psychomotor and cognitive performance the way the benzodiazepines (medications often prescribed to reduce anxiety) tend to do. So regarding safety, valerian has a relatively clean bill of health.

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata)

Passion flower, native to the Americas, has been used for millennia as an herbal remedy for anxiety and trouble sleeping. Investigators in 4 clinical trials studied its anxiety-reducing effects in patients who were about to undergo surgery. Results showed that passion flower significantly reduced anxiety in comparison with placebo. In fact, its effects were similar to those of anti-anxiety benzodiazepine medications, including, in one of the studies, reductions in blood pressure and heart rate.

Two more studies involving use of passion flower in people with anxiety disorders showed the herb’s anti-anxiety effects were similar to those produced by benzodiazepines.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha, traditionally used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, is a plant in the nightshade family. (It’s sometimes called Indian ginseng.) Ashwagandha powder, prepared from the root, leaves, or whole plant and taken orally, has been prescribed to reduce anxiety and improve sleep for centuries. Today it’s available as a dietary supplement in powder, capsule, and tablet forms.

In 5 clinical trials, ashwagandha was found to have at least one significant anti-anxiety, anti-stress benefit compared with control conditions. Another very recent clinical trial involving participants with chronic stress compared the use of 600 mg of ashwagandha extract daily to placebo capsules taken over 8 weeks. Significantly greater stress reduction occurred with the extract, as did decreases in salivary cortisol (a biomarker of stress and anxiety). See my earlier blog post for more information on ashwagandha’s effects on stress, anxiety, and sleep.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile, a flowering plant in the daisy family, is plentiful throughout Europe and Asia. It’s been used for millennia, mainly as a tea, for its calming and sedative effects. In an 8-week clinical trial in patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), participants taking 220 mg of chamomile 1 to 4 times daily showed significantly greater reductions in anxiety than controls. In another 8-week study involving patients with GAD taking a 500-mg capsule of chamomile 3 times a day, 58% of the participants showed significant reductions in anxiety.

In a strange twist, a study of the effects of chamomile in 34 patients with insomnia found that chamomile was effective at improving sleep and daytime stamina but did not reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Final Caveat

If you plan to try herbal medicine as an alternative treatment for anxiety about sleep, consult a naturopath or other health professional about the correct dose. At least do some research yourself.

And don’t expect momentary relief. Herbal medicines, said Jerome Sarris, an author of the Australian review paper whom I also interviewed for The Savvy Insomniac, “generally take longer to work, whereas some people just want that quick fix. I think they may have more of a role in long-term assistance.” So use herbal medicines as indicated and wait at least a few weeks to start looking for results.

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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