The Sleep Thief: Hyper-arousal
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably suffered from occasional sleeplessness. Being physically fatigued at the end of a long -stressful or exciting- day, you lay down to sleep but find your mind continuing to race. You decide to stay in bed and try counting sheep. A hundred sheep later, you get up, make tea, pace around, lay on the couch, read, and with every glance at the clock you’re further irritated by the lack of sleep onset. 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 straight forward 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 qualify 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 neutransmitters and thus bringing balance to the nervous system is concerned, here is what historical evidence as well as medical research for usage 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 an 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).
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).
No Undesirable Side-effects
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 is 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.
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. If you’re interested in giving herbal remedies a try, consider coming in for a consult. Upon a complete assessment, we’ll decipher what combination of above herbs (and perhaps others) may be best suited to your needs to address any nervous system imbalance and to break your cycle of sleepless nights.
Yours In Health,
- Whelan, R. (2011). Scutellaria lateriflora. Retrieved November 12, 2017, from http://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/skullcap.html.
- 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
- Wolfson, P. and D. L. Hoffmann. (2002).Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 9(2): 74-78
- Gerhard U, Linnenbrink N, Georghiadou C et al. [Vigilance-decreasing effects of 2 plant-derived sedatives] Prax 1996;85(15):473-481
- Bent, S., Padula, A., Moore, D., Patterson, M., Mehling, W. (2006). Valerian for Sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Medicine: Dec; 119(12): 1005-12.
- Whelan, R. (2011). Melissa officinalis. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from http://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/lemonbalm.html
- 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.