Well, yawn no more, here are the top ten plants that may be able to help you eek out every little bit of goodness from those blissful hours you do manage to spend in the warm squashy folds of your duvet.
Valerian is tall flowering grassland herb that has sweet-smelling pink or white flowers. Extracts from the roots of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) are widely used for inducing sleep and improving sleep quality(1). Valerian has been known to be used for its medicinal properties as far back as the first century AD. More recent research has been honing in on why and how valerian helps to improve our sleep. For example, a recent experiment found that valerian significantly improved sleep quality, and anxiety and depression symptoms in haemodialysis patients(2).
There are around 47 species of lavender that have been used for healing and relaxing treatments worldwide. Lavender comes in many forms from soaps and perfumes to teas and lotions. While we often associate this heady aromatic herb with the smell of our grandmas, lavender essential oil is widely recognized as a natural sleep aid. Researchers believe that it is the anxiety and stress-busting properties of lavender essential oil that relax a person, enabling them to obtain better quality and less disturbed sleep. In one study(3), volunteers were found to have a greater proportion of slow/deep-wave sleep and increased “vigour” in the morning after being exposed to lavender oil before bed.
A rather unusual contender in this list of sleepy plants is the snake plant, which is also known as mother-in-law’s tongue or scientifically, Dracaena trifasciata. It has been suggested that popping a potted snake plant in your bedroom can help purify the air, creating a healthier environment for sleep at night. This is because the snake plant is capable of a unique type of photosynthetic metabolism called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM photosynthesis. In normal photosynthesis, plants use sunlight and CO2 during the day to create sugars, energy and oxygen. Meanwhile, in CAM photosynthesis, the plant captures sunlight during the day but does its gas exchange at night. This means that CAM plants can avoid losing water during the day while opening their stomata (leaf pores) to let CO2 in and oxygen out. The snake plant has this type of metabolism as, in the wild, it normally grows in very arid conditions, and the CAM photosynthesis acts as a water-saving strategy. It is this night-time gas exchange that enables snake plants to cleanse our bedrooms of CO2 and provide a rich oxygen environment to sleep in(4).
Like lavender, chamomile can be used in the form of tea or as an essential oil to help induce sleepiness, and is considered to be a mild sedative. The dried flowers of chamomile contain many terpenoids and flavonoids that contribute to its medicinal properties. One key active ingredient of chamomile extracts is a flavonoid and antioxidant called apigenin. Apigenin binds to benzodiazepine receptors, which are part of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor complex in the central nervous system, helping to decrease anxiety and initiate sleep(5).
The purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is not only known for its unbelievably complex and intricate beauty and colour, but also for its calming effects. The passionflower has been used for its medicinal properties since the 16th century. In a recent study, Passiflora incarnata extracts were shown to increase sleep duration, reduce wakefulness, increase the amount of slow or deep-wave sleep and reduce the proportion of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep(6). The passionflower extract is thought to work by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain, which acts on GABA receptors to reduce anxiety and induce sleep.
Common St John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an herb found in pastures and prairies with bright yellow-petalled flowers. St. Johns wort has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and is found nowadays in the form of tea, tinctures and pills. Research has shown that St. John’s wort has great effects on relieving depression- and anxiety-related symptoms and improving sleep quality. It is thought that, similarly to chamomile, active ingredients in the St. John’s wort, such as hyperforin and adhyperforin(7), might act on GABA receptors in the brain to induce sleep. Further, St. Johns wort is thought to act as an anti-depressant by affecting the reuptake of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are important signalling molecules in the brain that help to determine mood.
Kava-kava is the root of a crop (Piper methysticum) grown on the South Pacific Islands that has been used in herbal medicine for centuries to treat symptoms of anxiety, restlessness, sleeplessness, and stress. Kava-kava can also be used to treat muscle spasms and possibly, pain. While kava-kava is traditionally prepared as a tea, it is also commonly available as a dietary supplement as powders or tinctures. Research has suggested that kava-kava extracts can be taken to reduce sleep latency, which is the amount of time between being fully awake and fully asleep. In other words, kava-kava may help you to fall asleep faster(8).
English Ivy (Hedera helix) was one of the key winners in NASA’s evaluation of indoor plants for air purification(9). NASA’s study found that English Ivy was a particularly good bedroom companion for certain allergy sufferers as it reduces the presence of mould spores in the air. Not only can English Ivy be toxic to mould spores, but also to us, and especially to children and pets, if ingested or if in contact with the skin. Therefore, it’s best that you hang any ivy in a basket, out of reach, if you’re keen to explore its air-purifying benefits(10).
Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) is a yellow, star-shaped flower found on a subtropical tree that is native to countries from India to Australia. The essential oil is obtained from the flowers by steam distillation. Ylang ylang essential can be inhaled or used on the skin when diluted with a carrier oil. Studies have suggested that ylang ylang can be used to help sleep, not by a direct sedative effect, but by reducing anxiety and stress. This calming effect of ylang ylang(11), in turn, leads to a less disturbed sleep(12).
The beautiful, sweet and strong fragrance of jasmine means that not only the essential oil, but also the presence of the jasmine plant itself in the bedroom, can lead to a peaceful night’s sleep. Research has shown that sleeping in a room fragranced with jasmine improves sleep efficiency and reduces movement during sleep, indicating that jasmine can provide a better sleep quality(13). While essential oil is usually obtained from common jasmine (Jasminum officinale), sleep experiments have also been performed with cape jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides), which is also known as gardenia. Two cape jasmine fragrances, one natural and one synthetic mimic, were found to strongly enhance the effect on GABA receptors, deeming the fragrances as effective as strong sedative drugs, such as benzodiazepines, found in sleeping pills.
As we can see from this list, the plant world is aplenty with practical solutions for your imperfect nights sleep. Whether you brighten up your bedroom with powerful purifying houseplants, inhale exotic essential oils, sip on syrupy teas, or ruminate on root extracts, using these natural plant effects can provide a far preferential alternative to conventional sleeping pills for gaining that all-important quality shut-eye.
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- Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – ScienceDirect
- The Effects of Valerian on Sleep Quality, Depression, and State Anxiety in Hemodialysis Patients: A Randomized, Double-blind, Crossover Clinical Trial (nih.gov)
- An Olfactory Stimulus Modifies Nighttime Sleep in Young Men and Women: Chronobiology International: Vol 22, No 5 (tandfonline.com)
- 6 Plants That Induce Sleep | Planteria (planteriagroup.com)
- Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future (nih.gov)
- Effect of a medicinal plant (Passiflora incarnata L) on sleep (nih.gov)
- Natural Products from Single Plants as Sleep Aids: A Systematic Review – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Effects of kava-kava extract on the sleep-wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats – PubMed (nih.gov)
- 19930073077.pdf (nasa.gov)
- 5 Fast Facts About English Ivy (healthline.com)
- Medicinal plants for insomnia: a review of their pharmacology, efficacy and tolerability – David Wheatley, 2005 (sagepub.com)
- Trial of Essential Oils to Improve Sleep for Patients in Cardiac Rehabilitation – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Effects of Odorant Administration on Objective and Subjective Measures of Sleep Quality, Post-Sleep Mood and Alertness, and Cognitive Performance. (accurateclinic.com)