Adaptogens are a group of special plants and herbs which help us to deal with stress and react to what our bodies need at the time. That's particularly helpful when it comes to getting a good night's rest. Let's dive into the best adaptogens for sleep.January 27, 2021 5:41 pm June 13, 2020 12:00 pm
How can adaptogens help with sleep?
As Homer says in The Odyssey, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” Hopefully, these words of ours will help you achieve high quality sleep so you can wake up feeling rested and energised. In this article, we’re going to be talking about adaptogens.
At its most basic level, an adaptogen is a compound which can intervene in the stress reaction and alter it.
When we talk about stress, we’re usually referring to the kind of anxiety or feelings of upset created by problems at work or at home. We all know just how detrimental anxiety can be to our ability to sleep soundly. But the term can also mean an environmental factor which causes stress to your body. Pollution and cigarette smoke are good example of this second type of stress.
.Fortunately, adaptogens can help us deal with both emotional and physical stress. This has a positive effect on our ability to sleep well.
Adaptogens affect the stress hormone, cortisol
If you’ve ever felt the bottom of your stomach drop out after hearing bad news, or felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you are already well-acquainted with cortisol.
Cortisol is the hormone our bodies release during times of stress. It can be very helpful – for example, alerting us to threats and dangers around us – but it can also cause problems if it is released inappropriately. For example, while the ‘fight or flight’ response would have been useful when facing a bear back in our caveman days, it is less helpful when we’re trying to deal with an unexpected work project.
Adaptogens help regulate the release of cortisol, and prevent it from doing long-term damage.
However, cortisol is also deeply connected to our circadian rhythm. This is our body clock, which tells us when to sleep and when to feel awake. Usually, we have a main release of cortisol in the morning, which gradually diminishes throughout the day. By nighttime, we should be feeling calm, collected and ready for sleep.
Unfortunately, many things in modern life can throw our circadian rhythms off, including blue light from screens, toxins from our food, other types of artificial light, irregular working schedules, and so on.
All of these things, as well as other types of stress, interfere with how cortisol is released over the course of the day.
This is where adaptogens can help. Not only do they potentially help balance cortisol within our bodies, they can also help us regain an overall equilibrium. That means that we gradually return to our natural rhythms.(1)
Beyond that, specific adaptogens enhance high-quality sleep in their distinct ways. Let’s look at some of the best adaptogens for sleep.
1. American ginseng
Panax quinquefolius, or American ginseng, is probably not the ginseng you pick up at the market to cook with. However, you can cook with this type of ginseng in the same ways.
Most importantly for our purposes here, American ginseng is rich in GABA, or Gamma Amino Butyric Acid. This acid influences circadian rhythms. Moreover, it can also be neuro-protective after sleep deprivation has occurred.
For instance, a study looked at how the brain and body responds to 72 hours without sleep. The participants experienced anxiety-like behaviour, as well as neuro-inflammation and oxidative stress, in addition to other effects.
After American ginseng was taken, both behaviour and negative effects on the brain were reversed.
Another study observes that taking American ginseng may help to maintain sleep cycles as well as acting on fatigue.(2)(3) However, some other people have also reported that American ginseng intensifies existing insomnia.
Many types of ginseng have been used as sleep remedies in indigenous cultures and healing systems for thousands of years. However, we need further studies into American ginseng to confirm its effects.
It’s also important to consider the potential side effects of taking American ginseng, which can include diarrhea, headaches, nervousness, and itching after taking the herb. In some more serious cases, people have experienced severe skin reactions, liver damage and serious allergic reactions. There is also potentially dangerous interaction with the medication warfarin (coumadin).
Expert advice should be obtained before taking American ginseng alongside medication for depression or diabetes. In addition, caution when taking American ginseng is wise for individuals with diabetes or who are suffering from existing hormone-sensitive conditions or schizophrenia, pregnant women, and those planning surgery in the near future.
WIthania somnifera, or ashwagandha, has the clue right in its name: ‘Somnifera’ means sleep-inducing in Latin.
This adaptogenic herb may be effective at a long list of things, but sleep is right up near the top. Ashwagandha may help with sleep in many different, multilayered ways. For instance, a proposed study plans to look at those suffering from non-restorative sleep, or NRS.
While NRS is a subjective experience, it is widespread enough to deserve real thought and attention. NRS refers to people who feel that, while they have slept, their sleep does not leave them feeling restored or recovered. Thus, they remain tired throughout the day.
This type of sleep difficulty is said to cause more functional impairment than difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and is also tougher to treat.
Because ashwagandha is successful at treating many symptoms and markers which feed into NRS, the authors of the study feel that the herb could successfully treat NRS.(4) Although obviously we need the study to actually be carried out, this does give us some insight into the unique potential of ashwagandha for sleep.
‘Ashwagandha may help to fall asleep more quickly, improve the quality of sleep, as well as decrease overall anxiety.’
Further, another study looking more generally at ashwagandha and insomnia saw that it improved sleep in several different ways. These include falling to sleep more quickly and better reported quality of sleep, as well as less overall anxiety.
Further, many pharmaceutical drugs used to treat insomnia or prompt sleep have serious side effects or encourage real dependency. Ashwagandha does have some side effects for some people. However, they are rather mild, especially in comparison.
You can find out more about them, ashwagandha within the Ayurvedic tradition, ways you can take ashwagandha, and more in our full-length article on this King of herbs.
Schisandra chinensi, or just plain schisandra, is another traditional treatment for insomnia. Both TCM (Traditional Chinese medicine) and traditional Russian medicine use schisandra in healing.
In an effort to back up traditional usages with contemporary science, a study looked at schizandrin. This is the compound which gives schisandra fruits many of their purported healing properties as well as the first part of its name.
Before we get into the results of the study, we would like to look at the difference between sedative and hypnotic effects within medicinal substances. You will probably be aware of sedative in this context. Sedatives are substances which calm or relieve anxiety.
However, as you might guess from the everyday use of the word, a hypnotic substance is one that helps you sleep. To clarify, any substance which initiates, sustains or lengthens sleep can be called hypnotic. In other words, sedatives and hypnotics are closely related but they are not the same.
The study found that schizandrin exhibits both sedative and hypnotic bioactivity. Researchers found that it calmed physical activity, which is a sedative effect. It then shortened the amount of time it took to fall asleep and proceeded to keep the subjects asleep for longer, which is hypnotic activity.(5)
As with most other adaptogens, further scientific research into schisandra is needed. In the meantime, it is good to know that some people report skin reactions including rashes after taking schisandra.
Gastrointestinal issues may also arise, including heartburn, indigestion, stomach pains, or decrease in appetite.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should exercise caution when taking schisandra. This also applies for those with high brain pressure, peptic ulcers, epilepsy, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Rhodiola rosea, or rhodiola, was championed by none less than the Vikings themselves to support strength and endurance! As recently as 1969, the Russians were investigating its ability to fight fatigue.
Like all adaptogens, rhodiola can support symptoms which seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, it can help support the systems involved in both strength and fatigue, even though it seems contradictory. We can explain this by looking at adaptogens as ‘modulators’; their purpose is to bring our systems back to a healthy baseline. Put simply, they help us regain balance, no matter what way we are tilted off-balance.
As rhodiola is one of the most-used adaptogenic plants, it’s certainly worthwhile to see what contemporary science might have to say about it.
A study done in looked at rhodiola in the treatment of 100 people with prolonged or chronic fatigue over a period of two months. It found statistically significant improvement at the end of the period, with only mild side effects seemingly unrelated to rhodiola being observed.(6)
Further, another study looking at the overall effect rhodiola had on subjects suffering depression, including insomnia, also had promising results. This study looked at around a hundred male and female subjects between 18-70 years of age over a period of six weeks – a very broad range, in other words. The group receiving rhodiola rather than a placebo improved significantly in all measured parameters including insomnia, except for self-esteem.(7)
Rhodiola might cause dizziness, dry mouth, or excess saliva in some people. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should exercise caution when taking rhodiola. In addition, those with autoimmune diseases, diabetes, or low blood pressure should consult medical professionals before taking rhodiola.
Lots of us associate Valeriana officinalis, or valerian root, with getting better quality sleep. However, you might not have known that valerian root qualifies as an adaptogen, and scientists and herbalists have designated it as such.
A systematic review and analysis of all previous randomised and controlled studies into valerian for sleep turned up 370 trials. The review confirms one of the most attractive aspects of using valerian to treat sleep disorders: a lack of grogginess the next morning in most people. That said, a few people do experience a ‘hangover’ effect.
The review again supports the use of valerian for sleep. However, it also points out limitations in previous studies in terms of methodologies. In other words, more consistent research is needed before we know anything for certain.(8)
Reported side effects of valerian include irregular heartbeats, uneasiness, headaches, and upset stomachs. Taking valerian alongside alcohol is not recommended. As usual, pregnant and breastfeeding women should be careful. People already on prescription medication, especially sedatives, narcotics, anti-seizure medication, and antidepressants should consult medical professionals before taking valerian.
Can you take valerian with ashwagandha?
Both valerian and ashwagandha are ayurvedic. Blending herbs in Ayurveda is a complex, learned art. You will see valerian and ashwagandha as ingredients in some herbal blends available in stores.
However, we know that ashwagandha and valerian can interact in negative ways in some individuals. It is best to get official, personalised advice depending on your situation and constitution before taking valerian alongside ashwagandha.
How does taking adaptogens for sleep compare to taking melatonin?
The main difference between melatonin and adaptogens for sleep is very simple. Melatonin is a hormone, while adaptogens are plants and herbs. As such they act differently in our bodies.
Ideally, melatonin is made in sufficient amounts by our own bodies. When this is not possible, resetting our circadian rhythms by taking melatonin (usually synthetic, which means lab-made) from other sources may help us sleep and reset our rhythms. This may be welcome and needed by individuals who work on a shift pattern or travel extensively and thus must drastically readjust their internal clocks.
On the other hand, adaptogens are plants and herbs. Adaptogens naturally and gently enhance our bodies with plant compounds that we cannot make ourselves. Further, these compounds do not need to be made in a lab.
Donald Yance is a master herbalist, clinical nutritionist, and the founder of the Mederi Center for holistic health and healing, research, education and patient care. Yance regularly lectures at hospitals in the US as well as at medical conferences and publishes research in various journals. In his book “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism”, Yance states, “As with any other hormone, I prefer to raise melatonin levels through herbs and other methods, but for certain people I will recommend a certain amount…”
Later in the same chapter of the book, he also states, “I tell all my patients to do the best they can to reduce the stress around them and create the healthiest lifestyle they can – and then take adaptogenic formulas, which under any circumstance protect the body from the effects of stress, offsetting its effects and allowing a person to adapt, recharge, and repair and detoxify.”(9)
Side effects of melatonin
It is good to know that the risks and side effects of taking melatonin include depression, daytime sleeping, irritability, cramps, and dizziness. Pregnant women should not take melatonin. Further, individuals with issues including depression, bleeding issues, a history of seizure, organ transplants, high blood pressure, and diabetes should consult a doctor before taking melatonin. A long list of medicines and substances, including caffeine, may not interact well with melatonin. Anyone taking sedatives should be especially careful.
A time for sleep
The time for many words has come to an end, and hopefully a time for sleep will arrive gracefully tonight, in accordance with your natural circadian rhythms! But if you need a bit of help, why not try an adaptogen to help ease you into restful sleep?
You’ll be back to having sweet dreams in no time.
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