"Each year, roughly 60 million Americans are affected by a sleep disorder," Dr. Lynn Anderson, fitness instructor and naturopathologist, explains. "Scientists haven't come to an agreement on the best ways to treat this epidemic: Prescription medications, melatonin, warm milk, a warm bath, a cool room, background noise or whatever you may have tried — insomnia is a tough nut to crack."
When you are particularly stressed, your first thought to get some decent shut-eye may point you towards the shake of a pill bottle, followed by a guzzling of water. But let's back up for a minute.
If you are already on several medications, find yourself running around town nonstop and have your mind racing from thought to thought like a strobe light, taking a more natural approach to sleep aids might help you more than you think. You can't really be going a mile a minute, pop a sleeping pill and wake up like post-kiss Sleeping Beauty. Ya need to slow down, Speedy.
"To understand how herbs work, it's important to remember herbs are plants and just like the plants we eat, such as watercress, herbs contain vitamins, minerals and compounds that support our health," Anderson says. "Also, it is important to understand that our sleep-wake cycle happens in the hypothalamus, which is located in the limbic system of the brain. The most direct way to stimulate the limbic system is through the olfactory, or our sense of smell."
With that in mind, aromatherapy is a direct link to our sleeping systems. "Aromatherapy is a great way to fight insomnia because with aromatherapy, we take the scent and the chemicals of the essential oil from the plant and inhale through the olfactory or the nasal passage which is the most direct way to reach the sleep center," she explains.
So the next time you're racing around doing errands, keep your eye out for the following five herbs in the form of teas, essential oils, room sprays, candles or lotions. That way, the next time you're lying wide-eyed at 3 a.m., you can head over to your cabinet and relax to the aromas of natural sleep-inducing plants.
"My favorite herbs for sleeping are to make either a lemon balm, valerian or chamomile tea," Anderson shares. "The sedative action in these herbs is due to the terpenes, or chemical composition, that produces the scent of the herb. Terpenes are biosynthetic building blocks that are found in nearly all living organisms. This simply means that herbs and essential oils most closely match our own building blocks as opposed to synthetic medicines."
Another one of Anderson's favorites is valerian, a medicinal herb used since Ancient Greece. The benefit of this herb is that it is non-habit forming and doesn't cause a hungover feeling, but still provides a soothing, relaxing night's sleep, Anderson explains.
"Chamomiles contain apigenin, a natural phytochemical found in foods and herbs. It is a natural sedative," says Anderson. Chamomile is most commonly used as a tea and helps reduce inflammation, ulcers and muscle spasms. "It also contains calcium, which has been shown to be effective when it comes to insomnia. Hence the glass of warm milk!"
While traveling across the country, teaching the science of essential oils, Anderson often battled jet lag. "My favorite essential oil for sleeping was marjoram," she shares. "Essential oils are defused into the air and inhaled to bring on sleep. Never ingest the oils. If you don't have a diffuser, put a couple of drops on your pillow or on a tissue. Take deep long breaths, breathing in the essential oil."
Lavender oils also work beautifully as a sedative. Lavender itself offers antiseptic and anti-inflammatory benefits and can be found infused in a range of products, including teas, honeys, foods, balms and perfumes. Try sipping on a lavender and chamomile tea just after taking a warm bath with a few drops of lavender oil added. Make sure your room stays moderately cool and then allow yourself to drift off into la-la land.
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