Question: I have started drinking chamomile tea with honey in the evening to try and achieve a peaceful sleep. Can you provide any further suggestions? I only wish to use natural products not prescription medicines.
When sleep is a struggle, teas based on dried flower heads of chamomile, a member of the daisy family, are a popular choice.
There are countless others herbal teas promoted as sleep aids however, including valerian, kava, passionflower, hops and lavender.
But do they really help you sleep better?
It’s hard to know, because like many natural products, there’s little solid evidence behind them, says chair of the Australian Sleep Health Foundation Professor David Hillman.
The level of supporting research behind different herbal sleep remedies varies from herb to herb.
The best results so far are for kava, passionflower, valerian and hops. But even for these, there’s little convincing evidence they work as claimed.
In many cases, including chamomile, there’s been virtually no quality research to make a judgement either way.
But interestingly, there is some evidence from clinical trials in humans that chamomile might help reduce anxiety.
Since anxiety is a common barrier to good sleep, it’s feasible it could be shown to be helpful for sleep if tested properly. The same goes for Passionflower.
If sipping a herbal tea before bed is something you find pleasant and relaxing, and if good sleep follows, it’s “a reasonable thing to do”, despite the lack of firm evidence, Professor Hillman believes.
A wind-down ritual
Herbal teas might help sleep in a way that’s quite separate from the herbs themselves too.
Filling the kettle, selecting your favourite cup, inhaling the fragrant steam and taking the time out from other activities to slowly sip your brew could be a useful wind-down ritual for bed.
In fact, watching the tendrils of colour of your favourite tea seep in to the boiling water might be just the sort of mesmerising activity your brain needs to shift gears before sleep.
And most herbal sleep remedies are unlikely to cause harm — so long as you don’t take massive amounts.
There have been some safety concerns about kava though and for this reason it is available in only restricted doses in teabags and supplements in Australia. It has been linked with problems ranging from liver and kidney damage to breathing difficulties and skin ulcers.
Also, good studies about the safety of chamomile in pregnancy for instance are lacking, although it seems to be quite widely used by pregnant women, Professor Hillman says.
A low-risk choice
A cup of herbal tea is likely to pose fewer health risks than sleeping tablets, which can cause side effects such as dependence and shouldn’t be taken for more than four weeks at a time. While there are some over-the-counter sleeping tablets, most require a doctor’s prescription, anyway.
Herbal tea is also a better choice than coffee, which contains the stimulant caffeine.
Food and drinks containing caffeine are best avoided for four hours before bed, Professor Hillman says.
The hot milk remedy
What about that other enduring folk remedy for insomnia — hot milk?
While again, there’s little firm evidence, there are a number of plausible ways in which this old favourite might help sleep.