Sleep is sacred. Rest is our opportunity to process the adventures of the day—its twists and turns, ups and downs. It’s our time to rejuvenate, restore and reharmonize. Without proper sleep, the line between yesterday and today becomes blurry and we miss our opportunity to begin again with fresh, vibrant new energy.
When our sleep is plagued with a mind that won’t stop chattering, muscles that jolt us to full consciousness just as we’re about to drift off, emotions and anxieties that run wild with catastrophic fantasizing or that feeling of being “tired and wired,” we have incredible allies with the herbs.
While plant medicine can be helpful in all ways, I have found that the green world really shines in helping harmonize our most essential needs: sleep, digestion, peace, nourishment and protection. I’d like to share a few of my favorite sleepy, dreamy herbs with you here and invite you to bring them into your own bedtime rituals for deep, replenishing sleep tonight and every night.
Sleeping with monkeys
One complaint we hear most often here at the apothecary is “my mind won’t shut off at night.” The minute the lights go out, the atmosphere quiets down, and the head hits the pillow, “monkey mind” fires up and plagues us with a litany of thoughts, concerns and global problems that need solving… right now! We call it monkey mind because the mind jumps around from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from limb to limb in a tree; and it’s an easy way to lose sleep since the thoughts can work us into an anxious frenzy even in the coziest of beds.
My favorite herbal ally for monkey mind is skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). This mint family member gets its name from lovely little flowers that look like bonnets—but the name also helps us remember what this herb can do for us. Skullcap cools, quiets and relaxes the mind. This herbal ally helps us shut off our problem-solving mode so that we can rest up and wake up feeling ready to find some real solutions tomorrow.
Getting on track
Many bodies aren’t sure when bedtime is. The human being thrives on pattern, so when bedtime is either sporadic throughout the week or offset from stimulation like caffeine, sugar or screen time too close to curfew, our systems are often at a loss as to when we should actually be taking rest.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) to the rescue! This “all purpose” herbal ally speaks to many types of people and is fantastic for many aspects of sleeplessness. The gentle sedative nature of passionflower helps ease us through the veil into sleep without the heavy, foggy effects of many pharmaceutical alternatives. Passionflower plays well in a nightcap herbal tea blend with peppermint, holy basil, lemon balm or chamomile. Taking sleep herbs in tea form is a great way to receive their benefits as they’ll fully metabolize long before morning, leaving you refreshed and ready to adventure the day.
For those folks who simply cannot sleep no matter what they try, I like to look at some of our stronger herbal allies. Hops (Humulus lupulus), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) all have that perfectly dreamy effect that can soothe the nervous system, quiet the mind, relax the body and give us just enough sedative energy that we can finally get the sleep we need. These herbs are best in a blend with other sleepy allies. They really shine when given by a studied herbalist who can help fine-tune the right choices to match your personal constitution, challenges and goals.
Essential to effective sleep is dreaming. Dreams allow us to process complicated patterns, detox the conscious mind from the day’s barrage of information, and organize thoughts, feelings and energies. Dreams are incredibly therapeutic and can give us insights into our inner workings and the aspects of our beings that are often hidden below the surface.
For those who don’t dream, don’t dream deeply or have poor dream recall, I love working with mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Mugwort is spiritually celebrated as an herb of the unknown, the hidden, the underworld. This plant ally gives us access to the hidden realms which is why it’s just as popular as an herb for intuition and divination as it is an herb for dreaming more vividly. Burning a smudge bundle of mugwort before bed or applying an infused oil of mugwort to the pulse points inspires visionary dreams and cathartic dreamtime adventures.
Sage (Salvia officinalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) are all herbal allies I call on when people have a hard time bringing the messages or meanings of their dreams back to waking consciousness with them.
For the little ones, many of the herbs mentioned above can be fantastic allies when given in doses and in formats suggested by your herbalist. One of my favorite herbs to help children embrace bedtime is chamomile (Matricaria recutita). It can be made into a warm or cool tea to sip as the evening winds down. A little apple juice added to chamomile tea brings out the naturally apple-like flavor of these sweet flowers and makes them more palatable for kids who may not otherwise enjoy the taste.
A fun and surprisingly effective way to work with many of the herbs listed above is to create a small sachet or pillow stuffed with the dried herbal material. These herbal bundles can be tucked into pillowcases, hung above the headboard or set on a nightstand. Try stuffing a small linen sachet or sewing up quilting fat quarters (approximately 18-by-22-inches of fabric) with hops, lavender and sage.
Good night, and sweet dreams!
Josh Williams is a traditionally trained clinical herbalist and owner of Greenthread Herbs, a full-service herbal apothecary in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City.