How to Choose Herbs for Sleep by Herbal Academy
2 Apr 2024

How to Choose Herbs for Sleep

In her new book, Herbal Remedies for Sleep: How to Use Healing Herbs And Natural Therapies to Ease Stress, Promote Relaxation, and Encourage Healthy Sleep Habits, Maria Noel Groves, RH(AHG), weaves her surefooted experience with lifestyle choices, herbal supports, practical tips for herbal usage, and a treasure trove of enticing recipes to help readers feel well-supported for a good night’s rest!

In a mini excerpt from Chapter 3 below, Maria shares the importance of supporting the relaxation response throughout the day as well as night to prime the body for sound sleep, why relaxation matters so much on a physiological level, and how to support it with nervine herbs. 

Maria Noel Groves with her book, Herbal Remedies for Sleep

The following is excerpted from Herbal Remedies for Sleep © by Maria Noël Groves. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.


When people turn to sleep aids, the first thing they typically reach for—whether herbal or pharmaceutical—is a sedative. It makes sense. We associate sedation with sleep, and when you’re not sleeping well, you’re desperate for something to “knock you out.” However, that’s not always the best approach. Certainly, sedative herbs are often helpful for sleep, but it can be even more effective and more broadly beneficial to step back and support relaxation.

Why Relaxation Matters

Many of our everyday health complaints stem from spending too much time in the fight-or-flight mode and not enough in the rest-and-repair mode. Adaptogens (from Chapter 2) are nice, but when you give your body the opportunity to relax, it finally has the chance to tend to its maintenance duties, with the following results.

  • Better mood and sleep
  • Steadier metabolism and blood sugar and insulin curves
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved digestion, absorption of nutrients, and elimination
  • Improved immune function
  • Increased detoxification via the liver, kidneys, and so forth
  • Calmer and stronger cardiovascular system, and decreased blood pressure

Eliciting the relaxation response and bringing the central nervous system down a notch aids a range of common mood and stress issues, including anxiety, panic attacks, focus difficulties, hyperactivity, depression . . . and insomnia.

Supporting our relaxation response throughout the day and night helps downregulate the stress hormones and mood imbalances that often trigger insomnia. Relaxing herbs and lifestyle techniques before bedtime give us additional support and may be all we need to shift sleep cycles in our favor. Supporting overall relaxation and a balanced stress response helps us get to the root of our sleep disturbances and overall well-­being, rather than simply trying to conk out just before bed. When you ignore the underlying stressors, triggers, and daytime nervous-adrenal patterns, even if sedatives initially seem to help, often the body eventually adapts and sleeplessness returns.


flower tops in a basket

Photo by Stacy Cramp

Adaptogens and sedatives get all the attention in product marketing, but nervines are often our greatest allies for stress, sleep, and anxiety.

What’s a nervine? Some herbalists use the term to refer to any herb that affects the nervous system in any way, including strong stimulants and sedatives. But I use the term the way most of my colleagues do: specifically for restorative herbs that nourish and rebuild vitality and resiliency in the nervous system to promote nervous-­adrenal system well-being.

Restorative nervines have a calming effect but are not usually strongly sedating. They support the parasympathetic nervous system’s “relaxation response,” which is the mode we’re supposed to be in most of the day. They’re generally helpful throughout the day to calm frayed nerves without making you sleepy or sluggish—an important benefit for those of us who have things to get done during the day! Yet the relaxing effects also help you unwind at night, enhancing sleep when taken before bedtime. Many nervines also uplift mood.

Nervines are appropriate for almost anyone and are unlikely to aggravate gloomy depression, sleep apnea, or sleep disorders, or interact with medications; stronger sedatives might aggravate or interact with these. Nervines blend well with adaptogens or sedatives in formula if you’d like to pep up or bring things down a notch. Let’s explore some of my favorites.

Milky Oat Seed

milky oats growing outside

Photo by Stacy Cramp

Avena sativa

Grain/Grass Family (Poaceae)

Well balanced, with effects that are generally helpful day or night. 

Unlikely to over­sedate by day or overstimulate at night.

All parts of the oat plant, a member of the grain family, are nutritious and gently calm the nervous system. However, the fresh milky oat seed most specifically offers unique benefits from special compounds that soothe, calm, rebuild, and nourish your nervous-adrenal system while quelling agitation. Think of it like food for your nerves.

When You’re Wired and Tired

Consider milky oat seed extract during times of depletion and overstimulation: when you feel stress, anxiety, overwork, and adrenal fatigue, or are experiencing attention ­deficit, hyperactivity, post-trauma, all-nighters, coffee-­slugging cubicle work, and harried road trips. It’s specifically indicated for when you feel burnt out, wired, and tired, and it combines well in blends. It quells that obnoxious buzzing feeling. Enjoy milky oat solo or blend with adaptogens, nervines, or calmatives such as lemon balm, motherwort, holy basil, ashwagandha, or bacopa. Its flavor is mellow, haylike, and slightly sweet.

Slowly Nourishes and Restores

Milky oat seed slowly builds in its effect—take it in regular, moderately high doses for months or longer to get the best results. Both oat straw and dry milky oat tops lack the overt nervine chemistry of fresh milky oat seed, but they’re still a nice nutritive, rich in many supportive minerals. Both the dried tops and straw play a supportive role in nerve-soothing tea infusions and decoctions. As a flower essence, oat helps restless souls convert tentative ideas into direction and find a meaningful path in life.

screenshot of Herbs for Sleep video


Interested in learning more? Members of The Herbarium can access the full book excerpt (the full milky oat monograph and a recipe) and join Maria in a video to learn about herbal support for sleep as well as more from this chapter in the book! You’ll find the Herbal Remedies for Sleep excerpt and video in The Herbarium.

Interested but not yet a member of The Herbarium? Get access today with a 3 day trial for only $3!

The Herbarium is our acclaimed ever-expanding, illuminating virtual collection of over 200 (and counting!) searchable monographs, unique intensive short courses on focused topics, and numerous articles, videos, ebooks, podcasts, and helpful downloadable resources. The Herbarium is crafted to help you learn and grow in your herbal journey!

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Get a copy of Maria’s book, Herbal Remedies for Sleep: How to Use Healing Herbs And Natural Therapies to Ease Stress, Promote Relaxation, and Encourage Healthy Sleep Habit, via her website here or on Amazon. 

How to Choose Herbs for Sleep | Herbal Academy | This book excerpt weaves herbal supports, practical tips for herbal usage, and enticing recipes to help readers with a good night’s rest!