3 Psychoactive Herbs for Insomnia, Stress & AnxietyDr. Negin Misaghi, ND
February 2, 2018
The Sleep Thief: Hyper-arousal
You’ve likely suffered from occasional sleeplessness after a long stressful or even exciting day. Just as you lay down to sleep, you find your mind continuing to race.
This is called hyper-arousal and it can happen to the healthiest and most mindful people on occasion. It is a reaction whereby our stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated due to usually intense emotions of fear, anxiety or even excitement. This heightened hormonal response to stress causes an imbalance in the functioning of the nervous system leading to insomnia.
Its remedy is never straightforward and depends on the causative factor. However, meditation, a relaxing bedtime routine, keeping out bright stimulating lights (including screens), and staying away from caffeinated beverages are good measures to bring balance to the nervous system ensuring a deep rejuvenating sleep. Yet, if you find these measures insufficient, your nervous system may require further help!
Drugs, a choice for some . . .
Modern medicine’s treatment for mental health concerns including sleeping disorders is through the use of psychoactive drugs. Meaning, drugs that alter brain chemicals (i.e. neurotransmitters) to improve moods, perceptions and behaviours. The idea that brain chemistry influences mood is nothing new. However, the point at which a conglomerate of symptoms qualifies as a disorder, requiring medication, is usually more severe than occasional sleeplessness. This leaves those of us requiring sporadic support at a lower intensity at a slight disadvantage. The nonspecific and inconsistent symptoms of occasional distress or anxiety resulting in a sleepless night here and there or sweaty palms at a stressful business meeting do not meet specific diagnostic criteria for treatment with psychoactive drugs.
So what about those of us with mild, yet undesirable symptoms?
The answer lies in gentle therapies using herbs. Herbal medicines have traditionally been used by every culture on earth as a form of healing. They were the sole curative agent until single-agent drugs came around. Drugs, being so powerful in their actions, have not only overshadowed herbal medicine, they’ve completely obliterated them from our minds as an effective source of healing. Herbs, however, deserve great credit when it comes to their ability to just as effectively, although not as intensely, positively influence moods, perceptions and behaviours.
Herbs, a choice for others . . .
Now where herbs influencing neurotransmitters and thus bringing balance to the nervous system is concerned, here is what historical evidence, as well as medical research for use of such herbs, tell us:
One of the most powerful herbs, Skullcap is traditionally understood to be one of the best nervines and antispasmodics; a nervine is a herb that works on the nervous system while an antispasmodic relieves cramps and relaxes the body (1). Scientifically, studies on skullcap have demonstrated significantly enhanced moods with a reduction in anxiety (2,3). As far as it is currently understood, the mechanism of action of skullcap is not very different from sedative drugs in that skullcap has been shown to target calming neurotransmitter receptors including GABA (3). It is however not a ‘sedative’ in the true sense of the word as it does not result in the same undesirable reduction in energy or cognition as sedatives normally do (4).
The name Valerian comes from Latin word for ‘valour’ as it was believed to markedly increase a person’s strength and courage. In recent times the main use of Valerian has been for sleep but it is also an effective remedy for nervousness, anxiety, cramps and headaches. Numerous studies on Valerian have confirmed its beneficial effects on sleep with decreased wakefulness and increased REM sleep without morning-after adverse effects of grogginess (5,6).
- Lemon Balm
The English herbal physician John Evelyn wrote about Lemon Balm as a sovereign for the brain, strengthening memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy (7). Human studies have demonstrated a significant increase in calmness on stress tests (8).
What is amazing with herbs is that they rarely come with undesirable side-effects when taken at the right dosage. Thereby the commonly seen side-effects of grogginess upon waking with sleep medication or drowsiness through the day with anxiety medication are never observed with herbs. This can partially be attributed to the fact that drugs usually only target one neurotransmitter whereas herbs are crafted with an intelligence that is incomparable to our human faculties; this intelligent combination of psychoactive chemicals is scientifically understood to result in a synergistic effect bringing about total balance in the nervous system.
For generalized and occasional episodes of sleeplessness and anxiety, Botanica’s combination of the above herbs is a safe and effective choice for most.
As mild and gentle as herbs are, they are still very powerful in their actions and thus dosage, timing, and choice of herbs used are important factors in the safe and successful remediation of symptoms. Thereby, please be sure to consult a healthcare practitioner trained in herbal medicine prior to use of dry herbs and tinctures.
 Awad, R., Arnason, JT., Trudeau, V., Bergeron, C., Budzinski, J.W., Foster, B.C., Merali, Z. (2003). Phytochemical and biological analysis of skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora L.): a medicinal plant with anxiolytic properties. Phytomedicine: Nov;10(8):640-9.
 Brock C, Whitehouse J, Tewfik I, Towell T (2014). Scutellaria lateriflora: a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of its effects on mood in healthy volunteers. Phytother Res: 692–8
 Sarris, J., Panossian, A., Scheweitzer, I., Stough, C., Scholey, A. (2011). Herbal medicine for depression, anxiety and insomnia: A review of psychopharmacology and clinical evidence. European Neuropsychopharmacology. Dec; 21(12): 841–860.