Adaptogens for sleep: Achieve the miracle of a good night’s sleep

Adaptogens for sleep: Achieve the miracle of a good night’s sleep

Team ErbologyErbology

Adaptogens can help us right our natural circadian rhythms when they are off whack and we need help. Learn more about adaptogens for sleep.

July 17, 2020 8:03 pm

As Homer says in The Odyssey, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” Well, right now, we want to give you both! Adaptogens for sleep will definitely give us a time for many words in this piece. Hopefully, adaptogens will also help you with a time for sleep. Even within wellbeing, sleep retains its mystery. Eat foods containing specific nutrients, and these nutrients more or less enter your body. But there is never an equivalent guarantee of quality sleep. This is especially true for those suffering from insomnia among other sleep-related issues. And there are more and more of us these days. However, there are tangible things we all can do to ensure that we have better chances of that sleep. Adaptogens for sleep are among these.

First, what are adaptogens? An adaptogen is a compound which can intervene in the stress reaction and alter it. We all know that stress and anxiety are huge stumbling blocks that stand in the way of quality sleep. However, the potential of adaptogens for sleep go beyond that.

Adaptogens for sleep… and for cortisol

Cortisol is the stress hormone. Adaptogens can help regulate the release of cortisol. They can help prevent this normal and necessary hormone from doing long-term damage. However, circadian rhythms and cortisol are also closely interwoven. To clarify, circadian rhythms are basically your internal clock. If the clock is running smoothly, your body knows when it’s time to sleep. If not, well… All living beings have their own circadian rhythms.

For us humans, many things in our present world can throw circadian rhythms drastically 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 the optimum main release of cortisol in the morning to then diminish within our bodies throughout the day. Not only do adaptogens 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) That is to say, adaptogens for sleep work on many different levels, as all adaptogens do.

Beyond that, specific adaptogens enhance high-quality sleep in their distinct ways. And here are many more words about some of these adaptogens and some of these specific ways!

1. Adaptogens for sleep: 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. Anxiety-like behaviour was prompted, 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.

In addition, American ginseng can have some quite serious side effects. Some people report diarrhea, headaches, nervousness, and itching after taking the herb; more seriously, others 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.

2. Adaptogens for sleep: ashwagandha

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 would 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.


Related reading

‘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.

3. Adaptogens for sleep: schisandra

Schisandra chinensi, or just plain schisandra, is another traditional treatment for insomnia. Both TCM, or 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.

To sum up, the study found that schizandrin exhibits both sedative and hypnotic bioactivity. To clarify, it calmed physical activity, which is sedative. It then shortened the amount of time it took to fall asleep and proceeded to keep 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).

4. Adaptogens for sleep: rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea, or rhodiola, was championed by none less than the Vikings themselves to support strength and endurance. That’s some pretty powerful testimony! Rhodiola was also used by Russians as recently as 1969 to fight fatigue. Like all adaptogens, rhodiola can support symptoms which seem at pole ends to each other, strength and fatigue for instance. In other words, adaptogens 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.

Related reading

5. Adaptogens for sleep: valerian

There has been a lot of attention to the use of Valeriana officinalis, or valerian root, in relation to quality sleep. However, you may not see valerian as an adaptogen. Valerian meets the criteria of adaptogenic plants. Further, it has been called an adaptogen by scientists and herbalists.

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. This is the lack of grogginess the next morning in most people. However, 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.


adaptogen sleep

Related reading

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. 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. However, anyone on sedatives should be especially careful.

A time for sleep

To sum up, a time for many words has come to an end (for now)… and hopefully a time for sleep will arrive gracefully tonight, in accordance with your natural circadian rhythms! Even if you might need a little help…

Sweetest dreams indeed.


rose water shots

Related reading

Sign up to Erbology updates and get a surprise.

By subscribing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

  • (1) Liao et al, “A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide”, Chinese Medicine, 2018. 

    (2) Chanana, Priyanka and Kumar, Anil, “GABA-BZD Receptor Modulating Mechanism of Panax Quinquefolius Against 72-h Sleep Deprivation Induced Anxiety Like Behavior: Possible Roles of Oxidative Stress, Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Neuroinflammation”, Frontiers in Neuroscience. 

    (3) Attele et al, “Treatment of Insomnia: An Alternative Approach”, Alternative Medicine Review, 2000. 

    (4) Deshpande et al, “Study protocol and rationale for a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to evaluate the effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract on nonrestorative sleep”, Medicine (Baltimore), 2018. 

    (5) Zhang et al, “Pharmacological evaluation of sedative and hypnotic effects of schizandrin through the modification of pentobarbital-induced sleep behaviors in mice”, European Journal of Pharmacology, 2014. 

    (6) Lekomtseva et al, “Rhodiola rosea in Subjects with Prolonged or Chronic Fatigue Symptoms: Results of an Open-Label Clinical Trial”, Complementary Medicine Research, 2017.

    (7) Darbinyan et al, “Clinical Trial of Rhodiola Rosea L. Extract SHR-5 in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Depression”, Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 2007. 

    (8) Bent et al, “Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”, The American Journal of Medicine, 2015. 

    (9) Yance, Donald, “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism”, Simon & Schuster 2013. 

    Photo credits: Nine KöpferJayMantrixbqs42  

Invite & Earn

Signup to start sharing your link