If you’ve ever struggled with sleep, you’ve likely tried one of the many teas designed to make you sleepy, and if you’ve ever tried one of these teas, you’ve likely tried chamomile, an age-old plant associated with mythological gods and grown all over the world.
Up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, according to the American Sleep Association. One of the most common sleep disorders: insomnia. So, whether you’re wide awake thinking about work, your love life, or how long someone can go without sleep before they turn homicidal — you’re not alone.
In the treatment of insomnia, you have numerous options, and most people start with the least invasive — a hot bath before bed, keeping the room cooler, shutting down technology early, and the like. Graduating to herbal medicine or supplements seems like the next logical step.
Chamomile is a member of the daisy family, and this sweet looking unassuming plant has been used for thousands of years. It’s associated with the Norse god Baldur and the Egyptian god Ra, and is grown all over the world.
There are two main varieties of the plant: German and Roman chamomiles. Both typically have long stems and small white flowers with yellow middles.
Throughout history, parts of the chamomile plant have been used for an array of medicinal purposes, including: anti inflammatory, antispasmodic, digestive problems, stomach pains, eye washing, wound healing, skin infections, boils, hemorrhoids, bruises, burns, canker sores, arthritic pain, and nausea. It’s also been used in the treatment of anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia.
The plant has been used over time in teas, oils, salves, in tablets or pills, and in food preparation. Today, one of the most popular uses of chamomile is in teas and supplements designed to aid with sleep.
Although chamomile has been used as a relaxant and sleep aid for potentially hundreds or even thousands of years, the science supporting this use has yet to catch up. This isn’t unusual, especially in the world of herbal medicines, as studies on their effectiveness typically aren’t as well-funded as those for prescription type drugs. Still, some research exists, even though it may not yet provide definitive proof.
It’s believed chamomile gets it’s relaxant properties from the flavonoid apigenin. This compound may bond to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. You may recognize that word, benzodiazepine, as a class of drugs used to treat anxiety disorders. This is no coincidence.
The majority of research on chamomile in the treatment of sleep problems and anxiety, conditions often related, are pre-clinical. This means the research happens after the use, such as when study participants submit self-reported sleep diaries or when the effects are noticed after a study that was initially designed to look at something else. Few, if any, actually involve a large study group randomly selected for participation in double-blind, placebo-controlled analysis of chamomile as a relaxant specifically. That being said, the current research isn’t completely useless.
One study, published in 2011, involved selecting 34 patients with insomnia and following them as they took either chamomile or a placebo for a 28-day period. Their sleep behaviors were tracked with the use of sleep diaries. The findings weren’t spectacular: the researchers concluded the use of chamomile could provide “modest benefits” in daytime functioning (like less fatigue), and “mixed benefits” on sleep diary benefits (such as time it took to fall asleep).
A 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine followed 60 elderly people living in a nursing home for a period of 28 days. Like the previous study, this one was placebo-controlled. Compared to those taking a placebo, the study participants taking chamomile experienced “significantly” better sleep quality. A 2016 study including 80 new mothers had similar results: the chamomile group “demonstrated significantly lower scores of...sleep inefficiency.”
Additional research has potentially linked chamomile to reduction of anxiety, which could play a role in sleeplessness.
As for adverse effects: Some people could have allergic responses to chamomile. Aside from that, however, the plant is considered generally safe.
There isn’t a large volume of high-quality research on the effectiveness of chamomile in the treatment of insomnia or other sleep disorders. However, some of the research that does exist is promising. Because the plant has been used over the centuries, and because of its safety, it can be one potentially useful and inexpensive option when looking for sleep aids that don’t require a prescription.