The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Time Herbal Sleep Remedies

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Whether it was for babies or adults, there has been an age old occasional problem of getting to sleep. It might be a colicky or teething baby or any adult malady from worrying to arthritis, but our pioneer ancestors had several solutions.

Some pioneers sewed small pillows of fragrant herbs to help get a restful night's sleep. Today we have something called aroma therapy, which is supposed to be medicinal treatment by using different odors such as rose oil to soothe and relax you. In Revolutionary War times, it is said that King George of England slept on a pillow filled with hops. A sleep pillow filled with hops is also supposed to be good for asthma sufferers. Mountaineers made sweet smelling small pillows, just large enough to place under your cheek, filled with balsam pine.

There has been some scientific proof that a spoonful of honey helps induce sleep, as does tryplophan, an amino acid, released when you warm milk. Add the two together and you have a mild sleeping tonic. This is for adults only, though, because it has been found that honey is harmful for babies.

Teas brewed from herbs have also been an old time favorite. Steep herbs for 10 to 15 minutes to produce a strong enough tea (you can always re-warm it). Flavor with honey or sugar to taste. Some good herbs to induce sleep are catnip, lemon balm, hops, chamomile, passionflower, skullcap, groundseal, valerian, and - of all things - celery seeds! To try a tea from celery seeds, use 1 to 2 teaspoons of freshly crushed seeds per cup of boiling water. Steep 10 to 20 minutes. Celery seeds may also bring down high blood pressure. Celery eats up potassium from your body, so be sure if you use celery seed tea, to eat a banana a day to replace it.

Colicky babies in grandma's time were fed spoonfuls of weak groundseal tea. Groundseal still grows around the back door steps of most old homesteads, where it was once planted for close convenience. It has been found by modern science to contain a mild tranquilizer.

For adults, the most potent sleep herb is valerian. While it works well for inducing sleep, let me warn you, it smells like dirty socks! You can buy most herbs today in capsule form to get around this smell.

Passionflower may also aid in digestion and relieve mild pain, both prime causes of an inability to get to sleep. Its medicinal qualities have been known since the Incas, and is a common pesky vine in many southern gardens. It is also called mollypop or maypop because of the hollow green fruit.

Then there is the modern miracle - melatonin. I am including it because it is herbal, and you have probably heard of it because there has been a lot about it on television and in magazines lately. It is sold in just about all herb shops as well as drug stores (in the vitamin section). It is classed as a food supplement and requires no prescription. As with any herbal sleep remedy, it does not leave you with a tired, drug out feeling in the morning as many prescription drugs do. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland in your head. People who do not produce enough of it suffer from insomnia. Most Melatonin is derived from synthetic sources.

None of these herbal sleep remedies force you to sleep. They just gently make you drowsy so you can go to sleep naturally. There isn't any danger of addiction, unless you just get hooked on the good taste of some of them. Herbal teas are a pleasant alternative to tea and coffee.