by Steven Horne, RH(AHG)
Most of us have experienced being kept awake by too much noise, but what happens when it’s your own mind chatter that keeps you awake? Sometimes, especially when you’re under a lot of stress, you just can’t make your brain “shut up” so you can sleep. You lie awake, thinking about your problems, or worse yet, drop to sleep exhausted, only to wake up a few hours later with your brain churning with worries and fears.
So, what do you do when you just can’t get your mind to quiet down so you can sleep? You can take your herbs, of course!
Fortunately our friends in the plant kingdom are there to help. There are herbs that help to calm down mental chatter so we can sleep. These herbs include valerian, passion flower, skullcap and corydalis. There is also a nutritional supplement called GABA that can promote a calm mind. Here’s some helpful information about three of these mind calming remedies.
I think of valerian as herbal valium. I used to think that valium was somehow derived from valerian, but that isn’t the case. What is true is that both have similar actions.
Valium, also known as diazepam, is a benzodiazepine derivative drug. This class of drugs work on GABA-A receptor sites in the brain and central nervous system. GABA is a brain-calming neurotransmitter, which means it helps quiet the activity of the mind. This means that increasing GABA is useful for anxiety and insomnia.
Valerian has a broader action that valium and its related drugs. It contains several constituents that appear to act on the GABA in multiple ways. It may cause GABA release, inhibit reuptake of GABA and inhibit the enzyme that breaks GABA down. Research and experience suggests that valerian can have similar benefits for insomnia sufferers as benzodiazepines like valium, but can also help a person wake up more refreshed.
A basic dose of valerian for insomnia is one to two capsules at bedtime. It won’t be quiet as strong or fast acting as drugs, but taken regularly it should have a cumulative effect. Some people may require higher doses, so if one or two doesn’t work, try increasing the dose to three or even four capsules. A tincture would be faster acting than capsules.
The effect of valerian lasts about four hours. So if you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your problems, then you may need a second dose.
However, be cautioned that valerian doesn’t always act as a sedative. It’s a stimulant for cats and for certain people, too. It’s unclear exactly which people will be stimulated by valerian, but people with parasympathetic dominance, low thyroid or ADD may find it keeps them awake. Large doses can also act as a stimulant. So, start with a small dose (one capsule) to see how you’re going to react to it, and then work up to the dose that helps you sleep.
[As a side note, valerian stinks. It’s odor has been compared to stinky socks and moldy cheese. Dioscorides, a Roman physician in the first century AD, called valerian “phu.” The Latin puteo means to “stink or smell bad.” This may be the origin of the word “piu,” usually pronounced “pee-yew.”
If you’ve ever been in the Southern states and seen passion flower growing wild, you’ll know what a beautiful plant it is. Passion Flower is also a wonderful nervine and anti-anxiety remedy, but it’s much more specific for calming “mental chatter” than valerian is. Matthew Wood says that passion flower is “one of the most important remedies for overstimulation of the mind, excessive thinking, and chatter in the brain.”
The great thing about passion flower is that it won’t make you drowsy during the day. It can actually increase mental alertness by making the brain more focused. Then, when it comes to bedtime, it can help calm that “mind chatter” that keeps you awake. The mechanism by which passion flower accomplishes this is not as well understood or researched as valerian, but it may also be affecting GABA receptors.
The great thing about passion flower is that it is generally better for long term use than valerian and isn’t as prone to “back fire,” and keep you awake. Passion flower can be taken during the day to calm the nerves (one capsule two to three times daily) or one to two capsules at bedtime.
As we’ve already pointed out, GABA is a neurotransmitter that calms down brain activity and inhibits the over-firing of neurons. It is derivied from the amino acid l-glutamine, and can be useful for anxiety, ADD, epilepsy and insomnia. GABA can be taken as a supplement, either alone or in combination with other nervines to promote sleep.
Nature’s Sunshine includes GABA in the formula GABA Plus, which also contains passion flower, l-gluatimine, l-taurine and spirulina. If you’re one of those people who can’t quiet your brain chatter, GABA Plus may be helpful. The suggested dose is one to two capsules daily, so if you’re taking it as a sleep aid, take one capsule about 30 minutes before bedtime. You could also combine this with one capsule of passion flower.
One caution from personal experience. I’ve used some of the brain calming remedies like GABA to help me sleep, but I find if I take them for too long without a break that my mind starts becoming duller during the day. In other words, I’m not thinking as clearly when I’m awake. I’ve found it’s a good idea to take a break from them once in a while so this doesn’t happen. It also helps to rotate the sleep remedies you use, too.