Herb-induced Insomnia and Anxiety
Answered by: Susan Eagles
Question from: Terri
Posted on: July 8, 2000

I am a 43 year old, healthy white female. I am a registered nurse. I have always believed in the benefits of vitamin and herbal supplements, but lately, it seems that I may not be a candidate to take herbs. Some people would describe me as a "night owl". All my life, I have had trouble sleeping. I rarely go to bed before 2 or 3 a.m., only because I cannot sleep. Years ago, when it was still available on the market, I took tryptophan for sleep. It worked well, unfortunately it is no longer available. I have tried many of the herbal sleep remedies, including valerian, camomile, kava-kava, St. John’s Wort, etc., and various mixtures of the herbal sleep aids. Every herb or product I have tried so far not only caused me to have even greater insomnia, but they also induce anxiety and panic attacks. (I have noticed this same reaction to other herbs as well, not just those prescribed for sleep.)

This past week I experienced the worst reaction I have ever head from herbs. I had been taking an herbal supplement that I have taken on and off since 1997 with no problems. But this time, something changed. For a period of about 5 nights, I did not sleep at all. I would lay down at night and I would be wide awake. My mind would be racing. It was almost as if a "switch" was stuck and I could not shut off the flow of energy. I would lay in bed completely wide awake and alert. I also experienced tachycardia and palpitations. I had worrisome thoughts and felt very anxious. I had panic attacks. I also would get very cold, only later to become very hot and throw off the extra covers. It was awful I was prepared to go to the doctors if I didn’t sleep one more night. I wondered if it might be the herbs I was taking, so I stopped. The symptoms subsided within two days, and I returned to my regular sleep habits.

Have you ever heard of such an effect from herbs? Why does this happen? Does it mean that I can’t take any herbs?

What do you recommend? Can you recommend any natural sleep aids? I would be forever grateful for a natural remedy that could help me get more sleep!

Herbs can cause opposite reactions. Many of these adverse reactions result when the herb taken is not suited to the particular person. A notable example is Valerian. In the experience of Michael Moore, in "Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West" (Red Crane Books, Santa Fe) Valerian does not work well for some people, because it is a stimulant to digestion, the lungs and cardiovascular output. If "you are an adrenocortical-stress person, with a strong and demanding intestinal tract, good moist lungs, and the cardiovascular excess that accompanies moderate essential hypertension from increased blood volume and sodium retention and physical stimulation, then Valerian will stimulate the functions that are already excessive, and leave you with both sedation and physical stimulation – not your herb."

Opposite reactions also occur when an excess of a herb is taken. The "excess" is determined not only by the person’s weight and age, but also by the particular body type and symptoms.

You might have better results with nourishing food and herbs. The nervous system is nourished by foods high in B vitamins (whole grains, leafy green vegetable, broccoli, wheat germ), calcium (yogurt, tofu, broccoli) and magnesium (apples, avocados, black grapes, nuts, brown rice). Oats is particularly nerve nourishing. Oats can be taken in the form of porridge, oat straw tea or a liquid pressed plant juice made by Shoenenberger, available at some health food stores. Skullcap is another nerve-nourishing herb.

The adrenal glands, which produce the "fight or flight" hormones, can be nourished with borage. You can use the fresh plant in salad, or the dried leaves in a tea: one teaspoon per cup of boiling water, steeped for 15 minutes. Nettle tea also provides adrenal gland nourishment.

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps with sleep problems and anxiety symptoms, is naturally available in sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and Evening Primrose seeds.

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