Since ancient times, human beings have sought nature to try to treat and cure diseases. Your grandparents probably knew of various teas and natural remedies for all sorts of problems. And even today many people use natural and herbal alternatives for various purposes. The most commonly used are teas, wildly, both made at home and bought in ready-to-eat or pre-made preparations. But there are several other options like extracts, capsules, tinctures and supplements.
Regarding sleep and insomnia, there are several popularly used products. You've certainly heard of several of them. The list is long and includes a number of plants (such as chamomile, lavender, hypericum, valerian, passion fruit, lettuce, lemon balm). Melatonin can also be considered a natural product, but we have already discussed it in another blog (read here). But do they really work? What would be the main teas to improve sleep?
In this blog we will discuss how natural products can influence sleep. But first, we need to talk about some important issues.
UNDERSTANDING NATURAL PRODUCTS
Over the centuries, when medicines had not yet been developed in the way we have today, teas and other natural products were all that was available for the treatment of various ailments. And the truth is, many of them actually worked! In some cases, the effect was so evident that the natural product ended up serving as the basis for several remedies.
The positive effects and the fact that they are found in nature may have led to the belief that “something natural cannot harm you”. However, this belief is very harmful! While many plants have positive effects on our health, many others have negative effects. Remember that many drugs of abuse and poisons have already been made from plants.
So remember: plants and other natural products have an effect on our bodies, but that effect can be both good and bad. This mainly depends on what plant is being used, but also how it is used (ie what route of administration) and how much is used (what dose). It is not because something is natural that it is free from side effects.
PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL PRODUCTS
One of the main problems with using natural health products is that it is very difficult to control their active ingredients and standardize them. Understand that for a plant to have any effect on our health, it must have some specific chemical in its composition.
The big problem is that the amount of this active ingredient varies a lot. Let's think about the most used plant to “regulate” sleep in the world: coffee. The amount of caffeine in a serving of coffee will vary greatly depending on the species of coffee tree, the crop, the production method, the season, the amount of rain, etc.
The same goes for the teas used to promote sleep. Think of chamomile: whatever sleep-promoting substance in this tea will depend on the same factors and will be subject to the same variability. That is, the tea you drink today is probably different from what you drank yesterday. Let's compare it to medicines: Think of the danger it would be if the dose of your high blood pressure medicine varied from one capsule to another.
Does this mean that teas and natural products don't work? NOT! They can work and sometimes have very potent effects. However, the difficulty of standardizing doses is really a problem and that is why they cannot be recommended as the main treatments for serious illnesses (although they can be used as a complementary treatment).
Knowing the restrictions that exist in the use of these products, let's now address which are the main products that harm and benefit sleep.
NATURAL PRODUCTS THAT INHIBIT SLEEP
Plants that inhibit sleep are not necessarily bad. But for someone with sleep difficulties, these products can be a big problem, especially if taken close to bedtime.
Certainly many of us have some tea or infusion wanting to wake up. The list of products that inhibit sleep is long, but it starts with a very common option: coffee! The most obvious effect of coffee is pretty clear: it wakes us up and delays sleep (or, more technically, increases sleep latency). However, depending on the time it is taken, the effects can be quite harmful, especially for someone with insomnia, and can lead to more shallow, fragmented and shorter sleep. These powerful effects have an explanation: caffeine acts in our brain in order to inhibit the effect of melatonin (our “sleep hormone”). For more information on the effects of coffee on sleep.
Several other drinks also contain caffeine or other similar substances, which end up inhibiting our sleep. Some examples are chimarrão (and other yerba mate drinks), black and green tea and guarana.
NATURAL PRODUCTS BENEFICIAL TO SLEEP
The list of plants that would induce or promote sleep is much longer than the list of those that promote awakening. We can mention chamomile, lavender, the hiperico (St. John's wort), valerian, passion fruit, lettuce, lemon balm, among others. However, its effects are not that strong... There is no doubt that most people will be more alert with a cup of coffee, but the same cannot be said about chamomile, for example. This doesn't mean that chamomile tea doesn't work, but it does mean that its effects are much more variable than those of coffee.
There are a few reasons for this: In our brain, sleep promotion is a very complex event that involves several areas and several neurotransmitters. Also, each stage of sleep has a different function. So, when trying to induce slow-wave sleep, for example, a tea may end up reducing the amount of REM sleep (this is also true of most sleep-inducing medications). In contrast, inducing arousal seems a little simpler.
The clinical indication of these teas is even more restricted: The main sleep medicine societies around the world are resistant to the use of teas in the treatment of insomnia. The main plant that has been tested for insomnia is valerian and its use is discouraged, especially when taken as the main treatment (although some studies show some improvement). A Korean study identified 23 plants used for sleep induction. However, the conclusion is a little disheartening: none of them has a proven effect on improving insomnia, whether due to lack of effect or lack of studies.
However, let's not take everything literally: These recommendations do not mean that teas are harmful, or that they should not be taken. On the contrary, in some cases they can be very helpful in treating insomnia and promoting good sleep habits. Below is a short list of tips:
•What tea to drink? Anyone, as long as it's not stimulating. This choice is very personal and you have all the freedom to choose the tea that most relaxes you and brings you well-being. You can choose both the most common options, and choose others that you like the most. Chamomile, passion flower (passion fruit), valerian and lavender are good options.
•What effect to expect? Tea is not magic. So we can't pretend that tea will put us to sleep right away. Imagine you are on a super stressful day and have been working hard until 10pm. It's not because you've had hot tea that you'll be asleep at 10:15 pm. Understand that relaxing hot tea should be part of a relaxation and sleep-promoting routine. Therefore, establish what time you would like to sleep and begin a slowdown ritual 1-2 hours before that time. Turn off your TV and computer and try not to use your cell phone; go on turning off the lights in the house; have a light meal and have some tea. In this context, the ritual created can help you establish a routine and create good sleep habits.
•How to make tea? Warm or hot tea is more relaxing. Pay attention to the quantity and do not drink more than one cup. If you drink a lot of fluids, you may have to wake up at night to go to the bathroom.
•What precautions to take? Although teas are beneficial to sleep, they are not indicated as the main treatment for sleep disorders. If you don't have any sleep disorders or other diagnosed illnesses, feel free to drink your tea. However, if you are on any treatment for insomnia, remember never to switch from medication to tea. Also, always tell your doctor or therapist which tea you usually drink, as some may interact with the medication.
•Insomnia teas: The same teas mentioned above can be helpful. But they have their effect restricted to mild insomnia. In cases of moderate or chronic insomnia, the effect of tea should be added to that of conventional treatments, whether behavioral (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) or with medication. In these cases, talk to your doctor or psychologist about it.
In short: teas can be very good for promoting quality sleep and even helping to treat insomnia. However, they should be part of a good sleep habits routine. Choose your tea and have sweet dreams!