Top Adaptogenic and Calming Herbs for Sleep
- Healthy sleep is crucial for healthy memory, energy, mood, healthy blood sugar, blood pressue and much more.
- Supporting healthy sleep is directly related to our ability to handle stress
- The body’s innate stress response system, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, must be supported and balanced
- The body’s innate calming system, the GABAergic system, must also be supported
- Unique botanicals can support both our stress response and our ability to calm down
by Dr. John Neustadt
Getting the health benefits of sleep requires that you pass through all four stages of sleep, including the deepest and most replenishing stages.1 Healthy sleep can seem easy when we’re young, but it can become more challenging as we age. After 60 years old, nighttime sleep tends to be shorter, lighter and interrupted by multiple awakenings. Getting into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep becomes more difficult.2
The National Sleep Foundation reports that nearly half of Americans feel poor or inadequate sleep impacts their daily activities at least once a week. Those with poor quality sleep also report poorer health.3 Regularly getting a full, restful night’s sleep is important for supporting a healthy mood, blood pressure health, blood sugar balance and for maintaining a healthy weight.4
Sleep studies have shown that the optimal amount of sleep for most adults is eight hours. But on average Americans are getting less than seven hours a night.5 That lost hour adds up over time.
There are many factors that play into a good night’s sleep—from a regular exercise routine to healthy eating habits, maintaining a regular bedtime and even a meditation practice. But often overlooked are two mutually supportive biological systems that together can lead to healthy sleep. The first is your hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, your body’s stress response system. The second is your GABAergic system—which relies on the inhibitory, calming neurotransmitter GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) to help you relax and rest.6 Only by addressing and balancing both is truly optimal sleep supported.
A healthy response to stress is necessary for good sleep. When faced with a threat of any kind—whether it’s a real threat or something you’re imagining—your body responds by releasing epinephrine and cortisol. These hormones keep you awake and increase blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
This response is controlled by the three glands of the HPA axis–the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. Here’s how it works: the hypothalamus, sometimes called the “master gland” in your brain, responds to stress with a hormone that stimulates another part of the brain called the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then responds by releasing another hormone that stimulates your adrenal glands on top of both of your kidneys. Adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, and many other critical functions. Your adrenals release that all-important stress hormone, cortisol, as well as epinephrine to help ramp up your energy. Within a few minutes, a second and more intricate adaptation response occurs, during which the adrenal glands release even more cortisol.7
Balancing the HPA axis is crucial for healthy sleep. Adaptgoenic plants help us do that by supporting a healthy HPA axis and a healthy stress response. For an herb to be called an adtopgen, it must demonstrate three basic properties:
- It is nonspecific—it can help us respond to many stressors, whether physical, emotional, chemical or biological
- It is balancing—it helps stabilize and normalize our physiology
- It is safe and does not influence normal body processes more than necessary to bring them into balance
There are numerous adaptogens with a long history of use in traditional medicine. One of the most potent and revered adaptogens is Withania somnifera, also known as Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng.8 It’s the most popular adaptogen in Ayurveda, and has been nicknamed “the strength of the stallion.” The plant is rich in withanolides, a group of molecules responsible for many of the herb’s well-known abilities. Ashwagandha has been shown to offer powerful anti-stress benefits, counteracting the rise in blood sugar and cortisol associated with the stress response.9 It specifically counters raised cortisol10 and lowers pulse rate and blood pressure as well.11 In some animal studies, it has been shown to promote healthy sleep. It improves both sleep quality and the speed with which one falls asleep.12
Another popular adaptogen is Jujube fruit, also known as Ziziphus jujube. In traditional Chinese medicine, jujube is said to calm the mind and improve the quality of sleep.13 In one randomized study of 120 individuals who were having trouble sleeping, a blend of jujube, hops and valerian botanicals were able to fall asleep faster, wake less often during the night, and sleep more hours overall.14
The GABAergic system
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is your body’s main relaxation neurotransmitter. It plays a central role in supporting heathy stress and sleep by calming down the nervous system.15 GABA acts like a “brake” during times of stress. Our brains naturally produce GABA, and its calming activity balances glutamate, the body’s main excitatory neurotransmitter.16 Enhancing and supporting GABA can promote relaxation and create a sense of calm, which is critical for a good night’s sleep.17
There are many calming botanicals that support and enhnaace the activity of GABA. The leaves and blue flowers of Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) have been used for hundreds of years to relieve tension and support relaxation. Skullcap can help balance both GABA and glutamate.18,19
Hops (Humulus lupulus) boosts sleep quality. In one small study of 30 individuals, a blend of hops and another calming herb, valerian, taken at bedtime helped individuals fall asleep faster.20
An extract from tea, called L-theanine, reduces levels of cortisol in saliva, and supports healthy blood pressure.21 It also helps increase brain levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.22,23 Healthy levels of serotonin and dopamine boost mood. L-theanine improves sleep quality.24
Finally, there’s Magnolia officinalis. This flowering herb has been used for centuries in Japan and China. This botanical promotes sleep by acting on GABA receptors.25
Targeting the Two Systems
Nourishing the HPA axis to reduce the impacts of stress on the body and the GABAergic system to naturally calm and relax your body and mind is the best approach for helping people sleep better. That’s why NBI’s Sleep Relief contains nutrients that naturally help balance the HPA axis and promote healthy GABA, as well as other helpful nutrients.
Sleep Relief’s biphasic tablets release nutrients in two phases. Phase I is a quick-release stage, delivering its nutrients within about 30-45 minutes. This phase’s nutrients naturally promote relaxation and help you gently fall asleep. Phase II is the sustained-release phase, delivering the rest of Sleep Relief’s nutrients over the next 4 hours. Nutrients in phase II naturally help you stay asleep.
Sleep Relief targets the reasons why people can’t sleep and promotes healthy, restful sleep all night long.
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1National Institutes of Health. Brain basics: understanding sleep.
2US National Library of Medicine. Aging changes in sleep.
3National Sleep Foundation. Lack of sleep is affecting Americans, finds the National Sleep Foundation. December 2014.
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