Can herbal tea really help you sleep? And which ones should you drink?

Is herbal tea a legitimate cure for insomnia, and what ingredients should you look for?

herbal tea
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Is herbal tea a real solution to poor sleep? Or is it just another fad that might make you feel a bit better, but ultimately makes no difference? Assuming that you've tried everything else – swapping your mattress, investing in great pillows, switching off your phone – a traditional remedy can sound appealing, if only as a last resort. 

In the case of herbal teas, are their benefits supported by real research, and which ones should you buy? Or could the answer lie in mixing your own herbs? 

There's very strong research to suggest that time-honoured favourites such as valerian root and chamomile can have a substantial effect on your ability to go to sleep. One study even found that valerian was as effective as prescription medication for insomnia, minus the side effects. 

Other popular ingredients that claim to have soporific qualities include Melissa (a.k.a. lemon balm), passion flower, and lavender. Out of the three, only lemon and passion flower have any conclusive evidence proving their efficacy, but in both cases, that efficacy is based on self-reporting – that is, people assessing their own ability to fall asleep. The evidence for passion flower is stronger, too. Where it comes to lavender, there is no evidence that it helps people to fall asleep, although inhaling lavender has been linked to better mood and reduced tiredness overall. 

So, drinking a herbal blend of valerian, chamomile, and passion flower (for example) before bedtime definitely won't do your chances of sleeping better any harm. There is some doubt, however, surrounding the efficacy of the bedtime tea blends given the low concentration of the medicinal herbs in them. As an experiment, try brewing a mixture of dried valerian root, chamomile flowers, and passion flower yourself, in a tea strainer: the taste will be much stronger – and more bitter – than any shop-bought blend. 

Moreover, we'll say that if you are concerned about disturbed sleep, herbal supplements with valerian are likely to be more effective. Do bear in mind, though, that valerian is potent, and you shouldn't take any night-time formulation of it during the day.