November's Health Genie: Sleep

Note: This article is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

Dear Health Genie,

What tips can you give me for healthy sleep? Sometimes I experience a night when I feel restless or do not sleep very deeply most of the night even though I am tired. It frustrates me throughout the night and my lack of sleep drags me down the next day.  

Sleepless in Shelburne

Dear Sleepless,

If this is a problem you experience only occasionally some natural approaches may help.  For the greatest success, you should try to eliminate obstacles that hinder you from falling and staying asleep.

Lifestyle can be the greatest obstacle to consistently getting adequate sleep. Stress is often blamed for sleeplessness. However, not using up your energy or full potential, physical and mental, during the day could also cause restless nights. Boredom and habits associated with boredom are correlated to poor sleeping (Mass, J. 1998). A certain level of stress is an important motivator that pushes us to work hard for what we need to survive and feel fulfilled, problem solve, be reflective, better ourselves and relate to others. It also tires us out, which is healthy. A healthy body and mind depend in part on a rhythm of exertion and rest, with deep sleep being the time for repair. 

Caffeine is one of the most pervasive obstacles to sleep. If you have trouble getting to sleep, try increasing the time between your last serving of caffeine and your desired bedtime. The National Sleep Foundation reports that once in your body, caffeine will “persist for several hours.”  Research shows that caffeine, even when it does not prevent sleep at night, reduces low-frequency delta activity in the brain which is associated with deep dreamless sleep. Also, our ability to eliminate caffeine or overcome the effects of caffeine lessens as we age, starting as early as thirty.

Exercise is not a requirement for healthy sleep, but it can help you get there. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and insomnia. Exercise elevates mood by raising endorphin levels even when we have a high level of situational stress or just feel down.  Fitness appropriate exercise can reduce pain, relax muscles and promote positive mood (Mass, J. 1998).  Midday or afternoon exercise has the best effect on night sleep, while for many strenuous exercise within three hours from bedtime may be too stimulating and have the opposite effect. However, stretching and most forms of yoga can be done while right up to bedtime to promote relaxation. (See below for a few examples of poses.)

Melatonin is a natural hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle or circadian cycles. It is better known for helping us fall asleep, but extended release formulas may be useful for getting to sleep more quickly. Either form may also improve the quality of sleep. Because it is a hormone that our bodies naturally produce the understanding has been to err on the side of caution and use the lowest dose needed to achieve results, as taking this over time may lead your body to produce less of the hormone endogenously. Children, people taking blood thinners or people who have seizure conditions should avoid melatonin.

Magnesium can be especially helpful for those who feel tension in their body when they lay down for the night, especially if they experience spasms. Magnesium supports healthy relaxation of skeletal and some smooth muscles. Magnesium is safe for healthy individuals but can have a surprising effect of bowel loosening, almost always noticed the next morning, not at night. Some magnesium supplements are formulated to mitigate this effect (this will be indicated on the label). Powdered forms are useful so that you can gradually increase the amount you use to find your optimal dose.

Valerian has been used for over 2,000 years and there are quite a few studies supporting its use for falling asleep. For a minority of people, which includes some children, it may actually heighten alertness. It is suggested that you use a preparation made from fresh root as these may be less likely than dried to cause an undesired effect. You may also want to try it during waking hours before you depend on it for help with sleep at night.  (

Hops are another popular herb for sleep that is often coupled with valerian. At least one study found the combination to be as effective as a sleeping medication with which it was compared. Some herbalists would say it is especially indicated for people who have digestive discomfort at night and for women who experience sleep disturbances related to midlife hormonal changes.

Passionflower use has less research data, but among herbalists it is generally considered to be one of the safer sleep herbs. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry published a study that reported its effectiveness at reducing cortisol levels associated with stress and fear.

Selected Bedtime Yoga Poses

For effectiveness and safety, find a qualified yoga instructor and do yoga poses in a prescribed sequence on a hard flat surface. However, I’ll share a few poses that have been recommended for occasional sleeplessness. See the links for visual examples.

Folded Butterfly

  1. Sit with your knees bent and the soles of your feet touching.
  2. Place your hands on your feet and fold forward.
  3. Close your eyes and listen as you take five deep breaths.

Happy Baby Pose

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bend your knees into your chest.
  3. Open your knees bringing them towards your armpits.
  4. Stack each ankle directly over your knees, so your shins are perpendicular to the floor.
  5. Flex your feet.
  6. Hold the outer edges of the feet at you draw the knees towards the floor.


  1. Lie on your belly and walk your hands in so your torso lifts off the ground.
  2. Keep your hips and legs resting on the floor and your shoulders relaxed away from your ears.
  3. If it feels comfortable, lower your head back between your shoulder blades to stretch the front of your neck.
  4. Stay like this for five breaths.

Hopefully you will find that these strategies help you sleep. If not, do not despair. There are still many relaxation techniques and potentially helpful supplements and herbs that are not mentioned here. If you experience chronic insomnia or sleeplessness associated with other symptoms, visit a qualified health practitioner who can evaluate your needs and suggest additional support.

Good Luck,
The Health Genie



Hoffman, David.  1993.  An Elders Herbal.  Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT.

Landolt, Hands Peter, Derk-Jan Dijk,Stephanie E. Gaus,Alexander A. Borbély. 1995.

Caffeine reduces low-frequency delta activity in the human sleep EEG. Neuropsychopharmacology.  Elsevier.  May 1995.

Lerche Davis, Jean & David Kiefer, MD (reviewed by). Sleep Supplements: Melatonin, Valerian, and More.  WebMD Feature.

Maas, James B. 1998. Power Sleep.  Harper Collins Publishing, New York, NY.

Morin CM, Koetter U, Bastien C, Ware JC, Wooten V. 2005. Valerian-hops combination and diphenhydramine for treating insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sleep. 2005 Nov;28(11):1465-71.

National Sleep Foundation. 2011. Caffeine and Sleep. Arlington, VA.

Ngan A, Conduit R. 2011. A double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) herbal tea on subjective sleep quality. Phytother Res. 2011 Aug;25(8):1153-9. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3400. Epub 2011 Feb 3.

Sugar, Jenny. Sweet Dreams: Drift Off to Sleep With This Yoga Sequence.  Posted on August 18, 2011


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