Top Adaptogenic and Calming Herbs for Sleep

Article at-a-glance:

  • Americans are sleep deprived, and insomnia is a common problem, especially as we get older
  • To address insomnia, we must first address 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
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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 Having a hard time falling asleep, waking up frequently during the night, pain, anxiety and medications can all reduce the amount of sleep you get and prevent you from spending enough time in deep sleep. Healthy sleep can seem easy when we’re young, but it’s frequently a prolem 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 Patients with insomnia report difficulty in falling asleep, difficulty staying sleep or waking too early in the morning. And when they do wake up in the night, they often find it harder to  fall back to sleep.

According to the CDC, about one-third of Americans are sleep deprived.3 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.4 Poor sleep impacts your mood, increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and can cause  weight gain or make it hearder to lose weight.5 Sleep can also kill your libido.

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.6 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.7 Only by addressing and balancing both is truly optimal sleep supported.

Adaptogenic Herbs

When you lie down at night to go to sleep, you aren’t thinking about increasing your resistance to stress or finding ways to increase your vigor and vitality. But a healthy response to stress is necessary for good sleep. When faced with a threat of any kind—whether a hungry lion or a nameless worry—your body responds with increased blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response—and it’s orchestrated by a flood of stress-response hormones that help you either face the lion and fight or flee. 

Here’s how it works: the hypothalamus, sometimes called the “master gland” of the brain, responds to stress with a hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland in your brain. The pituitary gland then responds with another hormone that stimulates your adrenal glands—those two tiny glands located on top of both 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 adrenaline 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.8

This intricate system is called the HPA axis, and it is highly responsive when functioning properly. A healthy stress response is brief, and stress hormones return to background levels once the stressor is gone. Chronic stress, however, can override this exquisite feedback loop, and lead to a permanently elevated cortisol level.9 Elevated cortisol has been linked to insomnia and poor sleep.10,11

It’s important to nourish and rebalance your entire HPA axis. One powerful way to do that is through adaptogenic herbs. These are a class of unique botanicals that can increase resistance to both mental and physical stress, yet at the same time bring the body and brain into balance. An adaptogen has three basic properties:

  • It is nonspecific—it can help us respond to many stressors, whether physical, chemical or biological
  • It is balancing, stabilizing and normalizes our physiology
  • It is harmless 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.12  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.13 It specifically counters raised cortisol14 and lowers pulse rate and blood pressure as well.15 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.16

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.17 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.18

Calming Herbs

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is your body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter and it plays a central role in anxiety, stress, and insomnia.19 GABA is calming and acts like a “brake” during times of stress. Many medications for anxiety and insomnia, such as benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, Halcion) activate the GABA pathway to induce relaxation.

Our brains naturally produce GABA, and its calming activity balances glutamate, the body’s main excitatory neurotransmitter.20 Enhancing and supporting GABA can promote relaxation and relieve anxiety, which is critical for a good night’s sleep.21 

There are many calming botanicals that work specifically to support GABA and to enhance the activity of GABA receptors. The leaves and blue flowers of the skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) have been used for hundreds of years to relieve tension and support relaxation. Skullcap can help balance both GABA and glutamate and reduce anxiety,22,23 Hops (Humulus lupulus) functions as a mild sedative and improves 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.24 

L-theanine, found naturally in tea, reduces levels of cortisol in saliva, and lowers blood pressure.25 It also helps increase brain levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.26,27 Low levels of serotonin and dopamine are associated with depression. L-theanine improves sleep quality in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).28 Magnolia officinalis, another botanical, appears to promote sleep by acting on GABA receptors.29

Combining the Two

The best formulas for promoting healthy, restful sleep will address both of these systems. It will nourish 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. 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 in a biphasic, time-release delivery system that more closely mimics your body’s needs throughout the night. Sleep Relief targets the reasons why people can’t sleep and promotes healthy, restful sleep all night long. 

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