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D.I.Y. Herbal Medicine: How To Brew Your Own Sleeping Potion

Put down the NyQuil, and sleep soundly using the power of nature and herbal medicine.

Valerian (or, ahem, “nature’s Valium”) is a fascinating herb known to sedate the body and balance mood fluctuations. Formally classified as a nervine, valerian offers a holistic alternative to benzodiazepines (such as  Triazolam), and is often recommended to those who are weaning off tranquilizers, antidepressants, and/or sleeping pills. Valerian has a variety of therapeutic applications, most notably aiding insomnia, anxiety, depression, muscle spasms (such as uterine cramps), emotional stress, rheumatic pain, and nervousness caused by withdrawal from addictions.

Valerian isn’t a new thing, either. Between the early 18th and 20th centuries, when nervous problems were famously known as ‘’hysteria,’’ valerian was among the list of top-celebrated sedatives. Its first appearance in literature dates as far back at the 10th century. And even before this, Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) is suspected to have used a type of valerian in his work, along with Theophrastus of Eresos (student of Aristotle) who described ‘‘V. Dioscorides’’ as having ‘‘a smell like a spikenard.’’

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Ahhh, yes: Valerian’s funky odor. While the plant’s flowers are not unpleasant, the root—a medicinal goldmine—is pretty darn smelly! Dried out and ground up for usage, its valeric acid gives off a distinctive, stinky-socks smell. To mask the odor, it is wise to keep the dried root inside a tightly sealed jar, and, when it’s time to brew a medicine, limit the amount of exposed air time. For example, only open the jar when necessary to pour the ingredient into your teapot, then keep the tea covered while it steeps. Another trick, as you will see in the recipe below, is to overpower the smell with other fragrant herbs like lavender, peppermint, chamomile, or licorice/anise.  

Where to find the plant, you ask? You can buy valerian root at many health food stores, tea shops, and herbal facilities. It comes in pre-made tea bags, capsules, and loose grounds. But, depending on the valerian’s concentration, quality, and shelf-life, you may find the teas weak or ineffective. The capsules, while bypassing the problem of a funky smell, have a delayed response in the body and you need to take quite a large dosage to feel anything. 300-500mg capsules are standard, and it’s hit and miss depending on the brand.

The best way to buy valerian—for low price, strong effects, and hands-on knowledge—is in its dried root form. The small, nubby pieces look like inedible bark, but your witch’s brew will extract their magic! The best methods of extraction for this herb are an infusion (such as a tea), syrup, or tincture. It is extremely important that you do not use boiling water with valerian. The root’s oils are sensitive to high heat and a regular preparation of tea will disarm the herb’s properties. 85°F or 30°C is more ideal. (A medicinal tea dosage should follow the ratio: 1 oz /30mL / 2 tbs of herbs : 1 pint / 500mL / 2 cups of water.)

Now, for the recipe. This is the easiest way to brew a strong dose of calm! Tinctures involve alcohol and a lot of waiting, and medicinal syrups need vegetable glycerine and concentrated extracts. So, a straightforward (albeit powerful) tea is the simplest option. Taken an hour before bed, it helps one relax and fall asleep. Passionflower is another known super-ingredient which calms the body and releases nervous tension. The final addition is a non-caffeinated, highly-fragrant herb to mask the smell of Valerian. Play around with flavor combinations to make your signature blend.

(If you are interested in creating a tincture—with benefits that work faster on the body, thanks to an alcohol solvent—then here is how to do it.)

SLEEPING POTION TEA RECIPE

Ingredients

(Makes 2 cups)

  • 500mL water (2 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon dried valerian root
  • ½ tablespoon dried passionflower
  • ½ tablespoon one of the following: lavender, peppermint, chamomile, or licorice/anise.  
  • Honey to taste

Directions:

1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Let cool to around 85°F or 30°C.  

2. Place all of the herbs in a teapot or large mason jar.

3. Pour over the hot water and let steep, covered, for 15-20 minutes.

4. Strain and drink 1 cup lukewarm before bed.  

You can store the remainder in the fridge, but drink within 48 hours as the chemical properties deteriorate rapidly.

A word of precaution: According to the Mayo Clinic, valerian “increases the sedative effect of depressants, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines and narcotics. Valerian can interfere with some prescription medications. And it may interact with other dietary supplements, such as St. John’s Wort. If you’re thinking of taking valerian, check with your doctor to make sure it won’t interact with other medications or supplements you’re taking.’’ (Mayo Clinic)

 

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