Published on May 15, 2019

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Photography by Charles Deluvio

Getting a good night’s sleep can feel like a serious challenge at times. With the stresses of everyday life and a seemingly never-ending exposure to technological stimuli, it’s no wonder we spend the majority of the night tossing and turning. Naturally, those stresses rear their head often in the most inopportune hours: right before bedtime.

We may swear by various fixes for such situations—CBD or candy (yes, really)—but don’t be quick to overlook a more natural approach to de-stressing: tea. While the market may be saturated with calming and sleep-inducing teas, it’s not uncommon for the boxed varieties to be loaded with sugar, spices, and various other extraneous ingredients. More often than not, they tend to run on the pricier side as well. For as committed we are to getting a solid snooze, spending upwards of $36 on a box isn’t our cup of tea.

The solution? DIY’ing a calming brew, which is not only cost-effective, but it also allows you to pinpoint specific types of stress. Ahead, the herbalist-approved blends and ingredients you should familiarize yourself with to create the ultimate sleepy-time teas at home.

What are calming teas made of?

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Photography by Alison Marras

The majority of the sleep teas on the market typically contain the same active ingredients—some more well-known than others. Chamomile, lavender, and passion flower can be grouped under the popular subset of calming herbs, while catnip, skullcap, and holy basil run a bit less traditional.

“If you are having trouble falling asleep and don’t have a specific calming/sleep tea on hand, you can combine chamomile with a soothing mint blend by using two teabags for one calming cup,” advises acupuncturist Stefanie DiLibero, who specializes in Chinese medicine at Gotham Wellness.

The herbs to know

To fall asleep

If you find yourself experiencing trouble falling asleep at a basic level—think high energy and general restlessness—chamomile and valerian are your go-tos. The herbs function as a natural sedative, which will not only help you fall asleep faster, but they also reduce anxiety and restlessness. According to DiLibero, chamomile is proven to be a significantly beneficial aid for those suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in clinical trials funded by the NCCAM.

Acupuncturist Jen Becker suggests steeping a teaspoon of dried Valerian root in hot water for 10 minutes. “It’s a flowering plant, but only extracts from the root are used for medicinal, sleep-inducing purposes,” the Chinese medicine specialist adds. “It helps increase levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical in your brain that promotes and protects sleep by basically sedating the neurons in your central nervous system.”

To calm down

Catnip and passion flower are typically earmarked as the “calming” herbs. “Catnip contains nepetalactone, which converts to nepatalic acid and helps calm the nervous system,” says DiLibero. The latter of the two has been shown to inhibit anxiety.

Herbalist Karen Rose of Sacred Vibes Apothecary suggests pairing passion flower with skullcap, an herb widely known for its ability to reduce anxiety and help those struggling with insomnia. “Passion flower helps reduce the practice of making lists in our head, whereas skullcap centers you by helping release tension,” she adds.

Becker adds that a few promising studies have shown that passion flower may also help with headaches and insomnia. “When making passion flower tea loose-leaf, you’ll have to let the tea steep longer than you’re used to—probably about 15 minutes,” Becker notes. The bonus here? You’ll also benefit from passion flower’s high levels of magnesium, vitamins A and C, calcium, and powerful antioxidants.

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Courtesy of The First Mess

To promote relaxation

Lavender not only inhibits anxiety, but it also has the power to enhance sleep quality. While common in the form of essential oils, it can be a bit bitter to ingest it on its own. Rose suggests combining it with lemon balm and chamomile for an ultra-relaxing blend. In short, it’s the one to take if you feel like you need to “turn your brain off.”

Try The First Mess’s take on the herb, which features a calming blend of chamomile, dried lavender buds, and milk.

On a similar front, Rama Tulsi, aka holy basil, is an herb commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine. According to DiLibero, it has been shown to treat anxiety and depression, helping lower cortisol levels, which can help you stay asleep longer.

The adaptogenic herb Ashwagandha is yet another that modulates your body’s response to stress. “Recent studies have shown it to be as effective as prescription sedatives and antidepressants at promoting relaxation and calm, reducing anxiety, and lifting your mood,” notes Becker.

As it can be quite bitter, a little goes a long way. Becker suggests ½ teaspoon of the herb, in powder form, when making tea, but you can add it to smoothies or lattes as well.

To quiet the nervous system

Ever experience that sinking sensation in your stomach, which can be likened to a gut punch? That’s stress manifested by way of your digestive system. “Lemon balm is a great fix for those who hold stress in their stomachs,” notes Rose. Used as a sedative, the herb, much like peppermint, can be a great aid for those who struggle with that feeling of uneasiness in the gut.

Not all stresses are created equal

“We all have our individual ways of processing stress,” says Rose, “it’s important to identify where you hold stress before you work toward alleviating it.” If you’re the type who spends hours in bed running through an imaginary to-do list, make a lavender-based tea to encourage slumber.

“These herbs aren’t going to hit you hard and knock you out,” adds Rose. Instead, they’ll induce a soothing sense of relaxation to help you wind down.   

DIY a personalized blend

The beauty of the aforementioned calming herbs is that you can mix and match them to produce a mix best suited for your source of stress. The fact that the majority of these flavors can be seamlessly paired with one another is an added bonus.

Invest in a loose-leaf tea brewing kit or opt for reusable muslin cloth tea bags to contain the dried herbs and flowers for your tea. Keep a small stockpile of herbs in your pantry and experiment with various combinations to find the perfect one for you.

Becker’s favorite DIY sleep tea is comprised of a combination of rose, chamomile, and ginger. “After steeping, I’ll filter out the tea leaves and add a little nut milk and a squeeze of honey. It’s simple and delicious and always sends me off into a deep, serene sleep.” That’s a de-stressing ritual we can definitely get on board with.

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