Insomnia is characterised by poor sleep quality, and/or difficulty initiating sleep, and/or difficulty maintaining sleep. Insomnia is associated with chronic disease in the long term, and also causes significant distress in the short-term. Stress then leads to more insomnia.
Neurotransmitters play an important role in regulating sleep-wake cycles, and gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA) is particularly important.
GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that promotes relaxation and reduces the activity of excitatory hormones. Without enough GABA, we have difficulty in initiating and maintaining sleep.
GABA’s opposing neurotransmitter is glutamate, which plays an excitatory role in the brain and promotes wakefulness. Research has found reduced levels of GABA in particular areas of the brain in primary insomnia sufferers, and there is evidence that insomnia is caused by an imbalance between levels of the neuro-inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate.
Naturopaths use a number of herbs that have proven effective in improving sleep, especially herbs that have been found to have significant GABAergic activity, such as Ziziphus jujuba, California Poppy, and Passionflower.
Herbal medicines for sleep
Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) has a long history of traditional use for insomnia and anxiety, due to its sedative and anxiolytic effects. Research has shown passionflower supplementation to significantly improved measures of sleep quality, and the naturally-occurring GABA within, may account for some of its activity.
Lavandula angustifolia (lavender) has been used for centuries for its calming effects. Multiple human clinical trials
have confirmed that both orally ingested and inhaled lavender oil has significant beneficial effects in anxiety, and in improving sleep quality
and duration. There is also evidence that lavender oil may inhibit the release of glutamate from hyperactive nerve cells.
Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin and GABA work together to initiate and maintain sleep, and to regulate circadian rhythm. Research suggests that much of melatonin’s hypnotic and neuroprotective activity may be due to enhancement of the GABAergic system. Melatonin increases GABA concentrations and potentiates GABA signalling in the brain. Additionally, it helps to maintain a healthy GABA glutamate balance. Using plant-derived melatonin is important, as plants have positive synergistic qualities when they’re combined.
If you suffer from bouts of insomnia and its significantly effecting your quality of life, you can try these combinations of herbs by drinking lavender and passionflower tea, or if you think you need a stronger dose, then schedule a time with your naturopath who can provide a strong herbal tincture.
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of digestive complaints, skin issues, mood disorders, hormonal concerns, fatigue, and also has a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Camberwell, and Australia-wide via Zoom. Book HERE