I don’t always have trouble sleeping, but when I do, I turn to herbal remedies. There are a lot of prescription medications that help induce sleep, but they come with a long list of adverse side effects. Hence my tendency to opt for herbal remedies. Food and herbs have known bioactive compounds that regulate the body. Plant species including valerian, chamomile, kava, lavender, hops, lemon balm and passion flower contain phytochemicals that have demonstrated sedative effects. Let’s take a closer look at the top herbs for sleep.

1. Valerian

Valerian has been utilized as an herbal remedy in Europe since the 17th century. Today it’s the most studied among the herbs for sleep. Extracts from valerian have shown to be effective for those who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep [1]. There are several randomized, placebo-controlled trials testing valerian’s sleep-inducing properties. They report that valerian can improve sleep quality without unwanted side effects [7].

  • Scientific name: Valeriana officinalis
  • Active compound: Valepotriates and Valerenic acid
  • Typical uses: Restlessness, sleeplessness
  • Usual dose: 2-3 g in tea, once to several times daily. Tincture, 1-3 ml; extract, equivalent to 2-3 g.
  • Plant part used: root
  • Toxicity study: There are rare cases of valerian toxicity. In one case, ingestion of 20 g of valerian (10x normal dose) resulted in cramping and fatigue. This toxicity was remedied with activated charcoal. Pregnant and lactating mothers should avoid valerian because it contains valepotriates, a mutagenic compound. It is also best to avoid alcohol and barbiturates when taking this herb.

2. Kava

Kava is an herb with ritual and social significance among traditional South Pacific cultures. In the U.S. and Europe, it has been sold as a supplement for anxiety and sleep disorders. In studies, kava demonstrates an ability to reduce sleep latency. It also shortens Stage 1 sleep and as a result, induce deep sleep much quicker. Since this herb also has anxiolytic effects, it can be a good natural remedy for those who have anxiety-related insomnia [1].

  • Scientific name: Piper methysticum
  • Active compound: Kavalactones (Kavapyrones) including kavain, methysticin, yangonin and dihydrokawain
  • Typical uses: Anxiolytic, muscle relaxant
  • Usual dose: 60-120 mg of kavalactones daily
  • Plant part used: Rhizome
  • Toxicity study: Less than 600 mg of kava extract does not adversely affect cognitive performance. The dosage of 3 x 100 mg/day does not affect driving ability or work safety. It can have an adverse interaction with a benzodiazepine-based product. Kava extracts standardized to 70% kavalactones in dosages of 3 x 100 mg/day for up to 8 weeks demonstrate no adverse effect. Though isolated to Pacific island and Australian aborigine cultures, there are reports of reversible yellowish skin discoloration in prolonged use of kava dosages 10-100 times compared to clinical use.
  • Note: Dosage of 600 mg or less can have anti-anxiety side effects without sedative-hypnotic effects typically associated with benzodiazepines.

3. German chamomile

German chamomile tea is known for its sedative effect. It contains compounds such as apigenin that is an anti-anxiety, pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiseptic [1]. If you are looking for herbs for sleep, chamomile is a good candidate. By binding to benzodiazepine and GABA receptors, apigenin from chamomile is able to relieve anxiety, act as a muscle relaxant, and induce sleep [6].

  • Scientific name: Matricaria recutita
  • Active compound: Apigenin
  • Typical uses: mild sedative, GI complaints, inflammation
  • Usual dose: 1-3 g in tea, three times daily
  • Plant part used: flowers
  • Toxicity study: Those allergic to pollen from the daisy plant family should avoid chamomile.

4. Lavender

Studies indicate that oil extracts from lavender have sedative, anticonvulsive, anxiolytic, motor inhibitory and spasmolytic effects. Hence, lavender aromatherapy is typically used to induce sleep and reduce anxiety [1].

  • Scientific name: Lacanduda angustifolia
  • Active compound: Linaloyl acetate, linalool
  • Typical uses: Restlessness, sleeplessness, upper abdominal complaints
  • Usual dose: It can be consumed as tea, but clinical studies concentrate on aromatherapy
  • Plant part used: Essential oils, flowers
  • Toxicity study: No toxicity but can increase sleepiness associated with alcohol, chloral hydrate, and Evipan.

5. Hops

Hops demonstrate the ability to decrease neural activities and induce relaxation. For this reason, it is often mixed with other herbal remedies (e.g. valerian) to relieve anxiety and sleep disorders [1, 2].

  • Scientific name: Humulus lupulus
  • Active compound: 2-methyl-3-buten-2-ol
  • Typical use: mild sedative
  • Usual dose: 0.5-1g in tea or inhalation
  • Plant part used: cones, flowers
  • Toxicity study: Reports of toxicity are rare, but should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.

6. Lemon balm

Lemon balm is traditionally used to remedy gastrointestinal issues, but it is also known for its calming and mood stabilizing effects. In the scientific literature, its discussed as having potential in decreasing neuroinflammation [1, 2, 3, 4]. When made into tea, it has a mild sedative effect that can help with sleep.

  • Scientific name: Melissa officinalis
  • Active compound: most likely, rosmarinic acid
  • Typical use: mild sedative
  • Usual dose: 1-4.5 g in tea
  • Plant part used: leaf
  • Toxicity study: Reports of toxicity are rare, but should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.

7. Passionflower

Although unspecified, passionfruit contain bioactive ingredients that have calming and anti-anxiety effects  [1, 5]. By calming the mind, it can induce sleep.

  • Scientific name: Passiflora incarnata
  • Active compound: most likely, harman alkaloids and chrysin
  • Typical uses: Restlessness, mild sleeping difficulties
  • Usual dose: 2 g in tea, 2-4 cups per day
  • Plant part used: above ground parts
  • Toxicity study: Reports of toxicity are rare, but animal studies have demonstrated barbiturate enhancing effects. Passionflower should not be taken during pregnancy or lactation.

Among this list of top herbs for sleep, valerian and kava are the most potent. Chamomile and lavender have shown some potential in inducing sleep, but additional experimental studies are needed. Hops, lemon balm, and passionflower are the least effective herbal sleep remedy in this review, but they are gaining some attention for their sedative ability [1].