‘I’m a Sleep Specialist, and No, Herbal Teas Can’t Really Help You Sleep’

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"Can't sleep? Try herbal tea!"

Be honest: It's advice we've all heard more times than we can count.

But when we’ve spent far too many nights in a row counting sheep and feeling restless, there are few things we wouldn’t do to catch some Z’s—including brewing just about every type of herbal tea on the grocery shelves with the hopes of falling into a deep, delicious slumber. However, if your gut reaction was to think that drinking a cup of tea to solve your sleeping woes sounded a little too good to be true, you might be onto something.

We spoke with a sleep specialist who revealed that herbal teas can't actually put you to sleep, but there’s one small caveat, which is that they can help with relaxation. Read on to find out if that extra cup of herbal tea before bed is worth the potential 2 a.m. bathroom trip to settle the debate once and for all.

Experts In This Article
  • Wendy Troxel, PhD, sleep expert and senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation

Can herbal teas really help you sleep, according to a sleep specialist?

According to sleep-medicine specialist Wendy Troxel, PhD, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the public policy research organization RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep, there’s very minimal research confirming whether or not herbal teas can scientifically help you sleep. “The most commonly-used herbal teas used for sleep are chamomile, lavender, ashwagandha, and valerian. However, the evidence concerning their effectiveness as sleep aids is limited and mixed at best,” Dr. Troxel says.

However, if you are going to sip on one of these drinks, of the bunch, chamomile might be the most promising option. “Of these, chamomile has some scientific support demonstrating that it can support sleep quality,” Dr. Troxel says.

So, why aren’t herbal teas sufficient for putting you to sleep?

To help explain why herbal teas aren’t actually effective at inducing shuteye, Dr. Troxel starts by sharing what happens in your body internally when you're asleep. “Sleep is a physiological process that occurs when there is sufficient build-up of sleep ‘drive,’ indicated by the accumulation of the neurochemical adenosine and when it is timed appropriately, governed by the circadian rhythm,” she says.

When you throw herbal teas into the mix, the herbs they they're made from can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that’s often been associated with “calming” effects. “Although the specific mechanism of action remains unclear, many herbal teas are suspected to influence the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter system, which is a chemical messenger in the brain which helps to calm the nervous system,” Dr. Troxel says.

This can potentially lead to relaxation; however, it’s important to note the difference between feeling relaxed and something actually putting you to sleep. “As a result, herbal teas, particularly when combined with a soothing bedtime routine, can promote a relaxation response in the body, which in turn can set the stage for a good night of sleep,” Dr. Troxel says, which might be why people have associated drinking herbal tea with hitting the hay.

But again, though it’s true herbal teas might help you feel calmer and set you up for a successful night's rest, they won’t actually make you fall asleep. “While these teas are unlikely to ‘put you to sleep,’ they can put you in the right mindset to optimize the likelihood of a good night of sleep,” Dr. Troxel says.

The best herbal teas for relaxation

When choosing an herbal tea that can promote relaxation, it’s important to consider a few things, like flavor, aroma, and caffeine content.

For starters, you’ll want to choose a tea you actually enjoy the taste of—plus, it shouldn’t contain caffeine if you want to (successfully) wind down in the evening. “In general, selecting the appropriate tea to include as part of a bedtime ritual is more about personal preference and taste, and certainly avoiding any tea that contains caffeine, as caffeine is a known sleep-disrupter,” Dr. Troxel says. Some of her suggestions include: chamomile, lavender, or even warm milk or golden milk tea, which she says “can provide a sense of calm and comfort particularly as the aroma may evoke pleasant memories, such as of childhood or connection to one's culture.”

Why is a bedtime routine so important?

Along with a cup of herbal tea, Dr. Troxel emphasizes the importance of establishing a solid bedtime routine to induce a sense of calm and tee yourself up to have a solid night of sleep. “Here is where the evidence is clear: Having a wind-down routine or ritual before bedtime is a science-backed strategy for supporting healthy sleep,” she says. This includes having a “predictable and relatively consistent routine in the evening, prior to bedtime, to allow the brain and the body to settle and unwind, and to be in a pleasant state.”

So, what are some bedtime routine best practices? “Cuddling with a partner, reading a book, taking a bath, stretching, deep breathing, doing gentle yoga stretches, and having a 15-minute gratitude practice are all smart strategies to try as part of a nightly wind-down, with or without a cup of tea,” Dr. Troxel says. “The key is to give your brain and body some time to slowly power down instead of racing off to bed and hoping that as soon as the lights go out, your brain will magically shut off and go to sleep. That is simply not how our brains were wired for sleep. A wind-down routine sends the signal to the brain that the world is safe and secure, and it is okay to start shutting down.”

On the flip side, if you're looking for something to wake you up, these herbal teas for energy will help do the trick.

Want a bedtime nightcap? Look no further:

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