Podcast 069: How To Choose The Right Herbs For Sleep
Just going to the internet and searching for “herbs for sleep” isn’t very effective – how do you know the right one for you? First, you need to suss out why you can’t sleep – not all insomnia is created equal! In this podcast, we break sleep problems down into a few basic categories and teach you the best herbs to choose for each one.
We discuss both herbs to take during the day, as well as for bedtime itself. We also provide specific instructions for taking bedtime herbs to make them the most effective they can be. So whether you’re struck with anxious rumination as you lay in bed, or unable to sleep because of pain and tension in the body, or if your circadian rhythm has drifted away from the sun’s path – or some mix of all three! – this podcast is for you.
Mentioned in this podcast:
- Herbs for Birthworkers – a great course for pregnant moms & those who work with them!
- Herbal Medicine for Beginners, our book!
- The Holistic Herbalism Podcast, episode 042: Sleep – Of Cravings, Comedians, & Caffeine
- The Holistic Herbalism Podcast, episode 017: Three Sleep Strategies + What I Should Have Done
Katja: 00:00:13 Hi, I’m Katja.
Ryn: 00:00:15 And I’m Ryn.
Katja: 00:00:15 We’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ryn: 00:00:19 And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. We are not doctors; we are herbalists and holistic health educators.
Katja: 00:00:29 The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States, so these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everybody’s body is different, so the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some information to think about and research more.
Ryn: 00:00:47 We wish to remind you, just like every week, that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision when considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours. Those are our boilerplates. We were going to get into some more detail on that particular subject and talk about licensing, education, scope of practice, operating within the law, your integrity, your ethics, and all of that good stuff. We’re definitely going to do that.
Katja: 00:01:23 I’m so excited to do that. The problem is that we taught all day to our local advanced students about sleep, and I’m so jazzed about sleep right now that it is all I can think about.
Ryn: 00:01:37 Today was a good day in the classroom. We were both really on and excited, and we came up with a bunch of new thoughts, or put them into words for the first time.
Katja: 00:01:47 We came up with new ways to explain things. Also, our puns were on.
Ryn: 00:01:54 So, this week instead of why health is your responsibility and so on and so forth, we’re going to talk about sleep and about some sleep herbs.
Katja: 00:02:10 I really want to get into the weeds about which sleep herb for which situation and I’m so excited to talk about that. We’ll do the other thing next week. But before we start that, let’s get some shout outs here. To Emily, who is excited to take the Herbs for Birth Workers online course with us because she wants to serve pregnant people and new moms. Also, to Nikki who sent us well wishes for the flu, and we are so glad to be done with that.
Ryn: 00:02:47 That was not fun and I’m glad to not be there anymore. Thanks Nikki–that definitely helped. Another shout out to Lisa, who listens to the pod on her commute and just got a copy of our book, Herbal Medicine for Beginners.
Katja: 00:03:04 Also, to Chanel, who emailed to say that they’re one of our ‘pod people’ and that is my new favorite thing ever now. Pod People, you’re the best. Also, I will reply to your email tomorrow. I’m sorry I didn’t do it today, but we were in the classroom all day. And a shout out to Donna from Seattle, who listens to the podcast and is enrolled in our online program. You guys, she just visited Boston and came to say hi, which was the best thing! I had so much fun meeting you in person, Donna. I am so excited about you. [laughter]
Ryn: 00:03:45 We have a shout out to Tamara, who is listening to the podcast from the beautiful Laguna Negra in Uruguay. I think you may be our very first listener in Uruguay. That’s pretty awesome.
Katja: 00:04:01 Not only that, but her sister lives in New Zealand and she likes the pod, too. I just think that’s the coolest thing ever.
Ryn: 00:04:08 We’re getting international on this one, you guys.
Katja: 00:04:10 Of course, a re-up of our shout out to all of our Aussie friends, because they’re awesome, too. I don’t know how we have this big Australia contingent, but we do and we love each and every one of you.
Ryn: 00:04:22 Remember my Australian friends, I am still looking for plants and native to Australia which contain caffeine. So remember, you’re on the hunt. One more to Eileen, who was thinking about herbal first aid and disaster response during the big power outages and windstorms this week. Is she local to us, because that sounds local to us.
Katja: 00:04:45 I think northern New York; I might be wrong, but that’s what I think.
Ryn: 00:04:49 We have had some windy trees.
Katja: 00:04:51 Our friend had an entire big honkin’ tree fall right over and missed their house by enough feet that we’re just happy that it missed the house.
Ryn: 00:05:02 None of my climbing trees have fallen down yet. When I go up into them during the wind storms, they tell me that they’re doing okay, so far.
Katja: 00:05:10 That reminds me, hurricane and wildfire season is coming. Not to fearmonger (because I’m not into that), this is totally the opposite. When you’re prepared, you’re confident and you don’t have to be afraid of what may or may not be coming if you know for sure that you know what to do to respond. So, learn that, get confident about exactly what to do to take care of yourself and your community after disaster when conventional medical help might not be available. In order to do that, you should check out the Emergency Responder program at Commonwealthherbs.com/learn; just scroll on down to the whole catalog and it will be right there for you. The key here is that the course is born of our experiences doing post-disaster work and street medic work after Hurricane Sandy, and a bunch of other experiences. We put it all together to give you a complete picture of how you’re going to rebuild your community, how you’re going to care for the injuries, and how you’re going to care in a longterm way for those injuries, because sometimes help doesn’t come for a long time. In the Far Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy, there was no one except volunteers for the first five weeks. Red Cross and FEMA did not show up for five weeks, and we were on our own just as the people who volunteered to help in that situation. So, having those skills makes you confident and it might be a matter of survival for you and your community after a climate event.
Ryn: 00:07:12 If worries about climate and your concerns about impending doom from here, there and everywhere have gotten you anxious, agitated, and maybe having a little bit of trouble sleeping at night…
Katja: 00:07:23 [laughter] That’s a nice segue.
Ryn: 00:07:26 Don’t worry, because there are herbs to help with that. However, just like everything in herbalism, we find that people aren’t very well served by going to their nearest internet and saying, “Hey internet, what herbs are good for sleep?”
Choosing the Best Herbs
Katja: 00:07:41 You’ll get a huge list. How will you know which one is the right one from that list? There’ll be a huge broad pile of plants that might not even seem related at all and you might wonder how on earth to decide which one to pick. Maybe you just pick one and assume it should work and then maybe it doesn’t work.
Ryn: 00:08:07 The worst possible thing would be for you to think that this herbalism thing is nonsense and give up on plants, which, tragically, I’m sure has happened a bunch of times.
Katja: 00:08:19 That totally happens. The thing is that it’s a little tricky to get the right plant for the right situation. You have to learn how to do that. You might think, for example, “I heard that hops or wild lettuce are really strong and that will totally knock me out.” Sometimes it will, but I’ll tell you, I’ve had nights where I was really stewing about something stressful, and that stress and rumination were way stronger than literally an entire ounce of wild lettuce tincture, because it just wasn’t the right herb for the situation.
Ryn: 00:08:54 Also, because you’re pretty sturdy when it comes to tinctures. [laughter] I’m pretty sure that it in any context, if I took an ounce of wild lettuce, I would be knocked out.
Katja: 00:09:07 That’s actually one of the beautiful things about what I’m so excited to talk about tonight is that I have had that situation more than once where I think, “Just give me a whole tincture bottle; I will drink the whole bottle of wild lettuce if I could just go to sleep.” When that happens, I’m sitting there just wanting something strong, and that’s not always the answer. In those situations, you want to know what the answer always is?
Ryn: 00:09:37 Is it ginger chamomile?
Types of Sleep Problems
Katja: 00:09:37 It’s always chamomile! I’m so excited right now, I’m so enthusiastic, and when I get to talking fast and I’m enthusiastic, I kind of want to cuss sometimes. I know that some of you guys are families with kids and so I want you to know that I’m working very hard not to do that right now, because I love your children and I don’t want to cuss in front of them. People are thinking, “Okay, chamomile—that’s just a wimpy little whatever.” But the thing is that when I’m really wound, chamomile is about the strongest thing I can possibly take for the situation that I’m in. That’s the key right there—figuring out exactly what situation you are in. Why can’t you sleep? What is going on for you? We can look at this constitutionally, we can look at this in a lot of different ways, but I think one kind of basic starting point would be to break down sleep problems into a few basic categories that will make a lot of sense to everyone. Here are my proposals of category: the first would be emotional or psychological reasons, like anxiety, stress, or ruminating. In this kind of a situation, it’s not that you’re not tired or not in bed, you’re in the bed but you’re lying there wide awake thinking about whatever it is that you’re really upset about. The reason that you can’t sleep is because you can’t stop your brain.
Ryn: 00:11:30 This affects so many people. When we were talking about this in class today, one of the things that I was thinking and talking a lot about is the way that particular problem may feel most acute for the individual at bedtime. When they’re lying there, their mind is racing, their thoughts are anxious and circular, things keep coming back around and they can’t see a way out of the problem, and that’s when they identify it. Maybe that’s when they come in, talk to you about it, and tell you they have insomnia, can’t sleep, and their mind is unsettled. But that’s not the only time in their day that the person is stressed out.
Katja: 00:12:16 Right. It’s just that’s the time when it’s finally quiet enough that they kind of have to face it. There’s nothing distracting from it.
Ryn: 00:12:24 Right. There’s no distraction, no deadline. Well, there may be deadlines, that may be part of what you’re worrying about, but they’re not happening right now at a 10 o’clock at night.
Katja: 00:12:34 Or midnight, one, or whenever it is that you’re lying there still not asleep yet. Maybe you’re having that stress throughout the whole day, but there’re so many other things that you need to focus on throughout the day that it’s not that you think you’re not stressed out all day long, but there’re other things to deal with, so it’s not the first focus. But when you get into bed, it’s like a big honkin’ monster that comes out and there’s nothing to save you now, and then your brain is like a runaway train.
Ryn: 00:13:11 What I want to make clear about that, though, is it means that bedtime is not the only time to be working with herbs. In a lot of cases, these may be the very same herbs that you work with in the day and you also work with around bed. What we like to do a lot of times is give a daytime formula and a bedtime formula. I like to put a pivot point in there, or several herbs that are consistent in both of those blends.
Katja: 00:13:37 So, if it’s chamomile (for example), then chamomile is in both blends; the daytime blend has been built around that and the nighttime blend is built around that, but there’s a consistency as you go through each blend. That’s really cool. Well, why don’t we talk about some herbs for this category right now. This is exactly the situation I was talking about before, this is not the time for things like hops or wild lettuce. That’s not what’s going on in this situation. Those really strong knock-you-out herbs we refer to as hypnotic herbs, which is sort of an old word and doesn’t really mean anything about hypnosis.
Ryn: 00:14:32 Hypnotic means sleep inducing. So, there we’re thinking wild lettuce, hops, California poppy, valerian works that way for a lot of people.
Katja: 00:14:47 That’s not the category that we’re looking at here. In fact, the category of plants that we’d work with here may not actually make you sleepy. The thing is you’re probably already sleepy, it’s just that there’s so much energy going on in your head that you can’t make that translate into actual sleep. The herbs that I’m really thinking about here are going to be our relaxing nervines, like chamomile. Yes, you can get it anywhere, you can get it at the grocery store, you can get at any restaurant or whatever, but this is really one of the places where chamomile seriously shines. Chamomile seriously shines in many places and, despite that it’s a tiny little pretty flower, it is so strong and so potent. In this particular case, I’m talking about the nervous system action. One of the reasons that I think it is so effective here is that it has both a nervous system relaxing action as well as an antispasmodic action. Even if you’re not reporting tension as part of the issue, that level of stress carries with it some physiological tension as well, and chamomile has that nice crossover action, which is really cool.
Ryn: 00:16:13 Chamomile is interesting. I find it to be very helpful when people have what we call “long sleep latency.” Even aside from what it is that’s causing the insomnia, the way that it expresses can be different for people, and one of the common ways that insomnia expresses is called “long sleep latency.” It means that you get yourself ready, you lay down in the bed, and then you don’t fall asleep, you keep not falling asleep, and you start to get frustrated and troubled. This is very common when it is this issue of stress and anxiety throughout the day that you haven’t been coping with, and now it’s presenting itself to you when you lay in bed because there’s nothing else to block it out. Chamomile really matches with this particular problem. So, if you have that experience of lying in bed unable to fall asleep and getting really amped up about it, start with chamomile and start that long before you reach that moment.
Katja: 00:17:17 You can, in fact, take chamomile all day long; it won’t make you sleepy. If you’re already tired, it may relax you enough to feel that tiredness, but you can totally drink chamomile in the middle of the day. It’s not like you’ll fall over at your desk and fall asleep.
Ryn: 00:17:35 Unless you’re very, very sleep deprived in which case you needed that nap.
Katja: 00:17:39 We think your boss will agree. [laughter] When we’re talking about sleep problems, it’s a good time to formulate. When we’re thinking about these sleep issues that are emotionally and psychologically rooted, there’s more than just relaxing the nervous system, and I think that wood betony is another plant that’s coming to mind here as really, really strong. I know that we talk about chamomile and betony kind of regularly, but they form such a core of our practice. They are so appropriate in these times, and betony is particularly appropriate for people who do cerebral work all day. Maybe you work at a computer, so you’ve been in your head all day long, and now it’s nighttime and you’re still stuck in your head. You never really got out of your head and you’re kind of trapped in there. Betony is so good at helping you come back down out of your head and into the body and get really grounded. It pulls a lot of that energy out of the head and down into the body. I guess what we’re really saying when we say phrases like that is that it allows you to drop into the parasympathetic nervous system; instead of being up in the sympathetic sort of fight-or-flight stress place, it allows you to drop down into that rest-and-digest place.
Ryn: 00:19:23 Betony is very effective for that, a very good ally when you need that kind of movement. Like you say, you can get trapped there, not even with worries and anxieties, but just with being in that headspace all day long. It can be hard to get back out of it. We see this with people who work on computers a lot; maybe it’s crunch time at their software company and they’re putting together code for 14 hours, and then they come home, lie down, and they’ve still got lines of code dancing in their head, which is not quite as friendly as sugar plum fairies. [laughter] That kind of thing pulls you out of your body and into a realm of abstractions, and it’s easy to get stuck there. Betony is really, really helpful for bringing us back into the physical body and into the present moment as well. The other places I find betony to be really handy is when people are getting thrown out of the moment into worries about the future and regrets about the past. Betony is a good presencing medicine in that regard.
Katja: 00:20:37 You can lie there all night and worry about your schedule tomorrow, but honestly, days never turn out the way that you think they will. You’ve got your to do list written down, you don’t need to think about it when you’re going to sleep. Sometimes you can’t not do it, but betony can really help you with that.
Ryn: 00:21:00 Let’s talk for a minute about a slightly stronger herb in the same realm. I’m thinking here about blue vervain. Blue vervain is extremely bitter, and that is actually relevant to some of these effects. Normally when we talk about herbs being bitter, we launch into a big discussion about bitter herbs stimulating digestive secretions and helping you to break down and absorb your food, because you’re not what you eat, you’re what you assimilate; it’s very easy to go into that. But the other thing that bitterness does is forces you to the moment, because you can’t really ignore that taste in your mouth. You can’t just continue on with what you were doing after you take a squirt of vervain, for instance. You will be there with that experience. [laughter] I think that definitely is a big aspect of its powers. A lot of times when we talk about it, we (I’m gesturing at all of the herbalists that I’ve ever spoken to) have a tendency to say that blue vervain is good for type A people who need to control all the details of every project, get really amped up about it, and need to learn to let go, release, and share the work a little bit. So, for folks who have a hard time delegating but are also getting really amped up about it, vervain can be a really great ally. If you don’t match that entire picture, don’t write vervain off. If all you’ve got is some nervous tension, some anxiety, some restless thoughts, some kind of mental heat going on, then vervain is a really potent herb to consider for that problem. It specifically does enhance that movement from the sympathetic to parasympathetic (or from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest), which that tracks. If it centers you, brings you to the present, and stimulates digestive secretions, these are all signals to your body that it’s time to do digestion now, and I guess we better calm down so that it works well.
Katja: 00:23:23 Also, we digest more than just our food. Part of the work that we do when we’re asleep is that we’re digesting the things that happened to us in a day, and that’s really important. I feel like that the period of time when we’re sleeping and we’re making sense of our day on the subconscious level, that is digestion, just psychological digestion. Now, don’t let the bitterness put you off. There’re a couple of ways that you can work with blue vervain. One is to have it in a tincture, and that way you just take a little bit of it, but you actually can manage it as tea if you blend it in with other plants. If you put it in with your chamomile and with your wood betony, there will be some bitterness but it’ll be fairly tolerable. Chamomile has a lovely flavor, wood betony has a lovely flavor, and so it’ll just be a little in that direction of bitter from the blue vervain. I would say one part chamomile, one part wood betony, and then half a part or even a quarter of a part blue vervain, and that should be a fairly drinkable tea. You can put some honey if you need to. But you could blend those things into a tincture as well and that would be fine.
Ryn: 00:25:13 And a little touch of honey in there and make it an elixir. So, there’re a few options for those of you who are dealing with stress, anxiety, and particularly that rumination as you’re there in the bed.
Katja: 00:25:30 One thing I wanted to just say again—you said this already, but I really want to circle back around to it—is that this is work to do all day long. Drink your tea or have your tincture with you all day when you’re feeling stressed. Don’t wait until bedtime to deal with that stress, just have some of your tincture. Whenever you’re feeling like, “Ah, this day!”, go ahead and have a squirt. Then when you’re going to bed, maybe an hour before, you take one or two squirts/droppersfull of the tincture, then half an hour before bed, you take one or two, and then at bedtime you take one or two, and that’s really going to help. That’s called pulse dosing, when you take a little bit, then a little bit more, and then a little bit more.
Ryn: 00:26:26 It’s so important for sleep formulas, it makes them so much more effective. If you took one dropperful at each of those pulses, then you’ve taken three droppersful over the course of the hour before bed. It works so much better than waiting until that last minute right before you’re going to lie down, taking all three at once. The pulse dosing strategy is so much more effective. I know that we’ve spoken about this before, we’ve had a couple of episodes in our podcast previously about sleep (episode 42 about cravings, comedians, and caffeine, and episode 17 about strategies for convincing yourself to get into the bed).
Katja: 00:27:08 One about how caffeine is affecting not being able to sleep and the other about a little self-discipline there.
Ryn: 00:27:15 Self-discipline, self-care in the direction of caring for your inner five-year-old.
Katja: 00:27:21 We probably talked about pulse dosing in one of those. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t, but that’s the way you do it. You take one or two droppersful (depending on how much of a tank your body is), and take that an hour before, again half an hour before, and again right when you go to bed and you’re sort of ramping up the effect and basically creating a time release effect. That throughout the day as needed, in the preparation for bedtime, and then leave it next to your bed, on a nightstand, on the floor next to you, put it under your pillow, it doesn’t matter. The point here is have it available, because if you wake up in the middle of the night, you might be inclined to go right back to thinking about those things that are making it hard for you to sleep. If you know that you have a tool right there with you that’s going to help you stand up to those thoughts and that stress and really be able to put it aside, then it’s going to help you stay more relaxed when you’re awake and feeling like you’re never going fall asleep again. That that causes tension and that tension itself can cause you to not be able to sleep because you’re so worried that you’re not going to be able to sleep. So, knowing right off the bat that, “I woke up, I don’t have to worry about it, I’m just going to take some of this, it’s going to help me, and then I’m going to be able to get back to sleep,” take whatever you need to do that.
Ryn: 00:29:05 The more consistently you work with these herbs (or really any of the ones that we discuss), the more effective they become, because beyond the chemical effects of the plant, there are reflexes that your body learns to things that you taste, smell, touch, look at, and basically interact with in any way. Your body is always trying to anticipate what’s going come next and it usually will do that based on whatever information it has available. When you make a particular herbal tea, elixir, or tincture blend part of your consistent bedtime routine, then your body starts to understand that when it tastes this, these are the things that are about to happen: we’re going to wind down, it’s going to be darker, it’s going to make some more melatonin for you, and here we go to sleep. Don’t write off the taste-based reflex situation that happens.
Katja: 00:30:08 I know that you really want to move on to tension and pain, but I just need to say one more thing here—skullcap and passionflower. Lets just put those two in there, too.
Ryn: 00:30:21 They really are a classic pair for this particular kind of problem. When you say “circular thoughts” in a room full of herbalists, somebody’s going to yell skullcap and somebody else is going to think of passionflower, it just happens.
Katja: 00:30:37 We don’t even tincture them separately anymore. We always tincture them together. You can tincture them separately and they still work great, it’s just that we always work with them together. They’re like a famous duo, Sonny and Cher? No, didn’t they break up?
Ryn: 00:30:57 Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges (except there were really four of them and everybody forgets about Shemp, because he wasn’t as good as curly, but whatever).
Katja: 00:31:06 I never watched the Three Stooges.
Ryn: 00:31:08 We watched the Three Stooges on New Year’s day when it was the marathon all day long, in between skateboarding in the basement. This isn’t what you did on New Year’s? You guys have to tell her about this? [laughter] Anyway, skullcap and passionflower—they’re a fantastic, they work so well together, and they really do help take those circular spinning thoughts whatever direction they’re spinning, get you off of the hamster wheel or merry-go-round so that you can stand somewhere solid, settle down, and rest.
Katja: 00:31:53 And skullcap does have a nice transition into those tension patterns because, like chamomile, skullcap also has a physiological ability to reduce tension in the body, in particular at the base of the neck and in between the shoulder blades. It has a real affinity for that particular area. That’s very common, that’s where we hold our stress tension, for many people.
Ryn: 00:32:20 If you are going to bed and you’ve got a stiff neck that prevents you from sleeping, skullcap is absolutely worth a try. You were saying this is going to lead us into the next category of insomnia or sleep disturbance, which could be from physical tension or physical pain.
Katja: 00:32:40 This is a place where wild lettuce really is super appropriate. Wild lettuce is actually one of my super favorite plants for when you can’t sleep because you’ve got low back pain, your knee hurts, or whatever. That’s when I really call on wild lettuce and I think it’s the place where it really shines.
Ryn: 00:33:11 This is a hypnotic herb, and we tend to regard it as being fairly strong in that regard. There are certain stronger herbs out there in the world, like opium poppy, just to take a common example. [laughter]
Katja: 00:33:28 You know, I saw an old name for wild lettuce and it was opium lettuce.
Ryn: 00:33:31 There was an extract of it in the Eclectic Herbals that was ”lactusan” or something like that, but it was basically the 7Song method of tincturing wild lettuce.
Katja: 00:33:50 Yes, where you only tincture the latex; you bleed it a little bit each day, which is very similar to how you would make laudanum. You bleed the opium poppy a little bit each day.
Ryn: 00:34:03 I will say we’ve made a lot of wild lettuce tinctures, we haven’t done it with that method, and they’ve turned out just fine.
Katja: 00:34:10 One of the best wild lettuce tinctures that we’ve ever had was made by a fellow in Coal River Valley in West Virginia, and it was his very first tincture. This was our second year going down there and we were looking forward to seeing him and everybody. We got there and he said, “Look, I made my first tincture. It’s a wild lettuce tincture!” He gave us a whole quart of it and it was beautiful. It was a fresh plant tincture that he had harvested and this was his first herb that he really worked strongly with. This man was a line worker for the electric company in this very mountainous region of the country, and so his work was physically demanding through his whole life, and now he was retired and his body had taken a beating. He had a lot of pain that made it hard for him to sleep, and he just fell in love with wild lettuce and that was such a good tincture.
Ryn: 00:35:26 It was a good one. Maybe next time we should make our wild lettuce tincture in whiskey, maybe that’s the secret, maybe that’s what did it. [laughter] We work with this herb quite a lot. It is one of our hypnotics, so we turn to this one when we need a bit of a stronger push towards sleep. It’s not one that I tend to advise people to take during the daytime, especially if you’re going to drive anything.
Katja: 00:35:50 Definitely not then, but if you’re sick and it hurts, then that would be a great time.
Ryn: 00:35:56 So, maybe “not daytime” isn’t the determinant, but “when it is okay for you to go to sleep.” That’s the thing is that it does relieve the pain, it does make you sleep, and if it doesn’t make you sleep all the way, then it will be relieving some pain, and if it doesn’t quite relieve all the pain, then you’ll be asleep soon.
Katja: 00:36:19 Exactly. The pain relief is enough for your exhaustion to take over or the hypnotic sedative effect is enough for the pain relief to take over.
Ryn: 00:36:33 This herb we do tend to work with primarily in tincture, although it is effective in tea blends. We do occasionally include it that way for folks that want to take their sleep herbs in a few cups of tea drunk over the last couple of hours before bedtime. You can work with it that way.
Katja: 00:36:51 It is pretty bitter, but, again, you would blend it in with other things. I don’t think it would be very pleasant to just have wild lettuce tea, and it would definitively not be pleasant to have wild lettuce and blue vervain mixed with centaury. That would not be a delicious formula, do not do that.
Ryn: 00:37:10 I’ll take that as a challenge. [laughter].
Katja: 00:37:12 But if you blended in with other herbs that are nervine in nature, maybe toss a little mint or a little ginger in there (because the ginger has that anti-inflammatory action), then it will totally be drinkable. But you kind of want a little bit of a higher dose of it. Maybe you don’t need a whole ounce, I’ve tried that a few times, but I have a very high tolerance to alcohol and my body is a tank. If you’re that kind of person, maybe that’s an appropriate dose for you, but you three or four droppersful is a good dose. If you’re really feeling sore and needing to get to sleep, then just take a dropperful, but if you’re really hurting, don’t be shy about it.
Ryn: 00:38:18 So, there’s wild lettuce. There are other herbs that are quite similar to wild lettuce in these ways, for instance, California poppy is another herb that’s hypnotic, sedative, that can relieve pain, particularly muscle pain, when that’s a component of the insomnia. I tend not to find it to be quite as strong. A lot of this may have to do very much with how the remedies are prepared. I have not had access to fresh plant California poppy tincture made only from the roots.
Katja: 00:39:01 Which it would be ideal.
Ryn: 00:39:02 Right, and you’re hearing the multiple levels of specificity. Fresh plant rather than dried, made from the roots instead of the whole plant, and tinctured in a timely manner, so that may be one of the limiting factors there. I have included California poppy in a number of tea blends and that’s gone over okay.
Katja: 00:39:23 I do find it nice in a tea blend, it just doesn’t have the strength that wild lettuce has.
Ryn: 00:39:29 I was about to say that’s gone over okay except for my very first client ever, for whom I mixed up a beautiful tea formula for improving sleep, sent this person away, and I felt like I did a great job with my first client. Then they wrote back to me very late that night and said they were having an inverse reaction to the mix I gave them, and this is actually the moment when I discovered that California poppy can have an inverse reaction in some folks. Over the years, what we’ve come to understand is that this is basically a thing that affects folks who are taking exogenous hormones. We ourselves have (like in the case of this client, in other clients, or students of ours) seen that happen again in people taking exogenous hormones for gender transition. I’ve also received reports from other herbalists in the country who say they’ve observed the same phenomenon in women taking hormone replacement therapy as they go through menopause.
Katja: 00:40:32 We’ve had other people confirm that they, too, have seen this with gender transition hormones. I have not seen it just for the birth control pill, so that’s still a possibility, but that’s not a place I’ve seen it. Only for transition and for hormone replacement therapy, which actually is also a form of transition.
Ryn: 00:40:57 A lot of this is very interesting if you step back from it a minute. California poppy can work as a sedative or a hypnotic, except in this particular case, and then a lot of people have heard before about valerian (or maybe this is your first time hearing it). There’s a known fact amongst herbalists about valerian that maybe one out of 10 or two out of 10 people who take Valerian will not get sedated, but instead will get stimulated, awoken, and perhaps even agitated. In that case, we tend to see that one as a little clearer on an energetic pattern, where if valerian is a warming herb, it does stimulate blood movement up into the head. For some people that’s a relief and that helps them to rest and sleep, but for people who already run really hot and have a lot of fire in their constitution, this is just more fire on top of that, so instead of helping them sleep, it agitates. Between that, the California poppy thing, and the general theme of our podcast today, there are a lot of reasons to understand that you don’t just say, “Give me the herb for sleep.” We need to know what else is going on in your particular kind of sleep trouble, but also your base constitution, your set of tissue states in your body right now, all of those are factors. I don’t say that for it to be intimidating, because we’ve mentioned a few herbs that are pretty simple and you can always try chamomile and see what happens. We try to keep all the herbs we talk about in that safe range, but just recognize that there can be a lot of refinement to be done when you’re choosing sleep herbs or putting together sleep formulas for people.
Katja: 00:42:43 I want to mention a couple of tension and pain herbs.
Ryn: 00:42:48 Is one of them kava? Tell us all the things you love about kava.
Katja: 00:43:05 When Eileen was writing about the windstorm and we were talking about disaster response and the emergent responder program, one of the other things we were talking about was that she had just made a new kava tincture. You’re not going to believe this, but it actually seemed so appealing to me that I thought next weekend with our first year local students we should percolate this just so I can try it. If you have been listening to the podcast for any amount of time, you might know that I am not a fan of kava. But here was the blend that she made: kava, cacao, and vanilla. The time that you made kava with vanilla, that was much less terrible. [laughter]”
Ryn: 00:44:06 It’s true. It smooths over some of the roughness.
Katja: 00:44:10 It does. Then the idea of cacao in there too, and I suddenly thought that is something that I legitimately would try. I would choose to try it, I would actually want to try it. But a real reason for kava is that kava has a very strong relaxing quality on your physiology—on your muscles, on tension that you’re carrying around with you, in particular when it’s low back, especially if it may have some kidney crossover, but really anywhere in the body. It just helps everything kind of let go. You know how it feels when you’ve got your fists clenched, but your whole body is that, that’s when I’m thinking about kava. Well, what I’m really thinking when I’m feeling that is ginger, but that is really a kava time. I think that’s when I reach for ginger because I really don’t like kava, but kava may be a little stronger in that regard. It doesn’t have the same anti inflammatory action, but it has so much of that release action.
Ryn: 00:45:35 A sufficiently high dose of kava will relieve pain, probably largely through warming the body, improving a little circulation, mostly through that relaxant effect.
Katja: 00:45:47 It has some central nervous system action.
Ryn: 00:45:50 That’s true, and the places where kava does get into direct contact with the body, it will relieve pain there. When you take it internally, a lot of that is directed through the GI tract and then the urinary system, so that can be nice. But kava can relieve pain throughout the body.
Katja: 00:46:08 When you’re stressed out, so much of that is held in the GI tract.
Ryn: 00:46:13 Honestly, so much of any kind of pain is from mental tension around it.
Katja: 00:46:25 I was also going to toss ginger onto the list, which I know I talk about all the time, but it is one of my favorite antispasmodics. It’s anti inflammatory, it is probably my favorite systemic anti inflammatory. If you are a person who is having a lot of pain, you might during the day not be feeling it because you’re up and moving and that might be okay, and it might be when you finally lay down at night that you start to feel it. I really think that working with ginger throughout the day and then one of these stronger plants at night when it’s bedtime is a very, very good idea. I was also going to mention cramp bark. It’s so simple, just release the tension, just do it. Especially when there’s a heart component to that tension, especially when there is like a grief, sadness, or even a physiological cardiovascular aspect to the tension, cramp bark can really be a good friend there. That is one that you can work with all day long as well. It doesn’t have any sedative action in terms of like moving you towards sleep, like wild lettuce or California poppy. It only has that tension releasing action. So, you can take that and ginger all day long, and you can take them at bedtime, too.
Ryn: 00:48:02 Alright, we covered some herbs for tension and pain impairing sleep. What was your last category then?
Katja: 00:48:10 My last category is a little bit complex but I still want to mention it, and that is that sometimes you can’t sleep because of metabolic reasons. What I mean by that is maybe you ate right before bed and now your insulin levels are high, and it’s very hard to go to sleep when insulin is out there doing its thing, plus your body is all heated up trying to digest the food that you ate. What’s really going on there is that because of eating late, it messes up what your endocrine system is expecting to have happen. There are actually a lot of other factors that your endocrine system can get out of whack that will directly impact your ability to sleep (or your lack of ability to sleep).
Ryn: 00:49:04 When you say a lot of factors, many of these are cultural habits that we in the monoculture have taken on consciously or subconsciously. Things to do with the amount of work that we expect to get done, the winter and the summer being the same instead of very different, the amount of time we spend under electric lights, the amount of time we don’t spend out under the bright sunny sky, and just a whole variety of different things that are out of alignment with our ancestral rhythms, you could say.
Katja: 00:49:42 When we say ancestral rhythms, to use physiological terminology for that is to say the endocrine cascade or hormonal cascade. When you’re talking about rhythm in your body, like the natural cycle, the natural rhythm, the circadian rhythm, you are talking about your hormones. Hormones far more than just estrogen and testosterone. Hormones govern the timing and the mechanisms of everything that’s going on in your body. It’s like the timing belt in your car. [laughter] There’re so many hormones and they’re in such complex relationships with each other. It’s easy to get them out of whack and then it’s hard to get everything to happen when it’s supposed to happen, because that is the job of the hormones. They are the messengers who say, “Okay, it’s time for this to happen now,” and if they’re not saying those things at the right time, you get that knocking under the hood of your car. A lot of the factors here are not actually herbal, a lot of them are going to be lifestyle. Some of them are really simple, like don’t eat right before bed. Give yourself a couple of hours between bedtime and your last meal.
Ryn: 00:51:06 Don’t worry, you can still have dessert. You should just have it right after dinner.
Katja: 00:51:08 Have it while you’re still at the table before you get up to do the dishes. That said, we’ve been teaching all day, did the podcast, and I’m really hungry, so we are going to eat a little later than we normally would today. [laughter] But if this is a consistent problem, then you know that it’s something to look at. Or dim the lights for an hour or two before bed and put on some strings of twinkle or Christmas lights so that it’s a little bit dimmer. These kinds of things will really improve the way that your hormones work. There’s a lot more here and it starts even with what time you eat your breakfast and what you eat for breakfast. There’s so many factors involved in these hormonal cascades (and that’s another whole podcast right there), but there is a category of herbs that can really help with this and that is herbs that stimulate liver function. Two in particular really jump out at me. One is milk thistle, one of my super favorites. It’s one of the easiest herbs to get started with. I like to call it a gateway herb because it’s super helpful for really basic stuff and it’s fine to take it in a capsule. Most of the time, we’re not into that. Most of the time we want people to have tea or at least a tincture, we’re just not into capsules, but milk thistle is one that it’s completely fine to take in a capsule. If you just have two capsules in the morning and two capsules at night, if you want to get really fancy, you can take some at lunch. It really helps your liver to function so much better. The reason that I care about the liver at all here is because there are two parts to keeping your endocrine system in balance. The first part is making the hormones that you need at the right time and in the right quantity and the second part is breaking them down in an efficient and timely manner when their work is finished, and that happens in the liver. That’s why I’m all up about let’s get the liver going here. Milk thistle, it’s safe for pretty much everyone, doesn’t really have any interactions, and it’s such a good starter because it’s fine to take it in a capsule. The other herb that I really love here is St John’s wort. I like St John’s wort as a tea. It can be effective as a tincture, but I think it is wildly more effective as tea and only marginally as effective in the other manners. It is a little bit bitter, but it’s bitter in the way that black tea is bitter. It’s bitter in a very familiar way. It is a very excellent liver stimulant, it really helps clear things out of the body, and that is going to be a problem if you’re taking pharmaceuticals because it will clear those pharmaceuticals out of your system faster than your doctor intended. So, you do not want to work with St John’s wort if you are taking pharmaceuticals. If you are not, then St John’s wort is really one of my favorite plants for this, especially when part of the endocrine problem—part of the metabolic problem—is due to too much sugar and too many refined carbs. Let’s face it, when you’re stressed out, sometimes cake happens. There is no judgment here. Hopefully it’s at least a gluten free and dairy free cake and that’s good, but sugar is real and it’s particularly real when you’re stressed, but St John’s work can really help keep that in check. Those are my two herbs for that.
Ryn: 00:55:41 I would say with St John’s wort, that kind of swings us back around to that idea that stress and anxiety lead to rumination and lead to insomnia, because for a lot of people, they have all of these problems going on at the same time. With St John’s wort, you’re getting at these metabolic issues, supporting the liver, I hate to say rebalance hormones, but you’re going to help your body get into that space. At the same time, St John’s wort is a decent anxiolytic agent. It is a decent herb for people who are stressed out, anxious, and frazzled. St John’s wort is not so much a rescue medicine for those cases the same way as maybe betony or a good strong chamomile could be. St John’s wort is more about restoring the health and the vitality of the physical nerves and also the emotional and mental states that depend upon them over time. So, consistent work with St John’s wort is going to both support your liver health and your endocrine balance, but it’s also going to bring more vitality and more smoothness to nerve function, and that can help you cope with stress a little more efficiently.
Katja: 00:57:03 I would say a really good way to know that this is a right approach for you is if your tension, anxiety, stress, or your ruminating has some stagnancy to it. If you are down in the cold mud mucking through this anxiety, and your anxiety is not on fire, it’s like ever present but freezing you, and literally almost freezing you. Like you almost can’t take action because you think everything you would do would be wrong, and where the stress and the rumination cause a slowdown in your system. That’s really how you know that it‘s St John’s wort time.
Ryn: 00:57:58 We covered a decent amount of ground there and we could go on and on—just ask our students who were in class for eight hours today. [laughter] Ee’ve also slowed down our speech here for the podcast a little bit, today was definitely one of those firehose days.
Katja: 00:58:17 It was. We had a really fun time, they had a really fun time, and they had a lot of ideas going.
Ryn: 00:58:22 It was good. If you were a super hyped about our discussion of scope of practice, being an ethical herbalist, and all of that good stuff, we’ll get there.
Katja: 00:58:33 Don’t worry, that is coming. You know what else? One thing that happened today with our students was that at some point somebody was talking about nettle and we were talking about nettle’s ability to reduce histamine reaction. One of the students said, ”Wait, why?”, and we sent them home because these are the advanced guys, so they have to do a little more work for it. We sent them home tonight and told them to come back and tell us about the mechanism of action in the anti histamine function of nettle. If you would like to play along at home, then you can actually find the answer in the Materia Medica course chapter on nettle, which is chapter 11. You can check there, or you can check the nettle Herb of the Week on our blog, or you can just go out in the world and do some research and see if you can figure it out. What we’re looking for is the mechanism of action, what it is about nettle that assists with overactive histamine response. If you can figure it out, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ryn: 01:00:14 That’s the one. If you have any other questions, thoughts, comments, or things that you want to let us know, then we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email us and we’ll just be delighted. We’ll be back next week.
Katja: 01:00:38 And if you find yourself in Boston, definitely come and see us. Alright, it’s dinner time. Bye!
Join our newsletter for more herby goodness!
Get our newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.