Recently, in my article about sleep and food myths, I received an interesting question about chamomile tea. Does it really work as a sleep aid? As I found out, the results are not so simple.
More Promises than Facts
It’s been a long-time home remedy for relaxation and sleep. Online, everywhere from Yahoo Answers to Dr. Oz seems to claim that chamomile is a surefire sleep aid. Among all non-prescription sleep aids, chamomile is one of the most popular. But research is not able to back up these claims 100%.
Some studies, just preliminary, do show that chamomile could have anti-anxiety effects, but these are not yet conclusive. Some theories about chamomile propose that it’s apidenin, a flavonoid compound, which contributes to its relaxing effects.
All that being said, there is a shortage of clinical, controlled studies on the effects of chamomile on sleep for average, healthy humans. What has been done does not show that chamomile has a significant effect on sleep.
One of the few reliable studies so far was done by Arnedt et al. But even this is a preliminary, limited, pilot study.
The study included 34 patients, half-received chamomile in pills, half receiving a placebo. Through sleep diaries and self-reporting, effects were monitored for about one month.
This reporting looked at the following sleep factors:
- total sleep time
- time to fall asleep
- time to wake up
- times waking during the night
- overall sleep quality
The trial found that there were no significant differences between the placebo group and the chamomile group.
It was observed that there was some advantage to the chamomile group with regards to daytime functioning, but these differences “did not reach statistical significance.”
The report is frustrating, as although it’s tempting to see this as proof that chamomile has no effect, the limited number of participants makes it hard to draw any conclusions.
What we can say from this is that chamomile is likely not a magic bullet solution to insomnia. It may yet contain chemicals that have some effects on anxiety, relaxation, and in turn, sleep. But this has not yet been demonstrated.
But then why does chamomile have such a devoted following?
The Tea Ritual
There’s a reason that people around the world love all kinds of brewed, steeped, boiled, and heated drinks. Aside from caffeinated drinks, they are relaxing. Not because of their chemical properties but because:
- A: It feels good to drink warm liquids
- B: We think it relaxes us, so it does
The second is the most interesting to me. For many people, the tea itself may not be what relaxes them, but the process of making the tea. They have created a tea ritual.
This ritual might begin with turning on the kettle, then finding their favorite cup, smelling the aromatic tea, and watching the delicate tendrils of color as it steeps into the hot water. They finally snuggle into a comfy chair to enjoy. The process is like guided meditation.
The same kind of effect is why warm milk makes you feel sleepy: a combination of placebo, memory, and routine.
So don’t skip out on your evening chamomile. But be sure to take your time: the process of making the tea, and how you feel about it, could be a lot more important than what’s in the tea itself.
Chamomile tea is a herbal tea and contains no caffeine, so it won’t keep you up.
Chamomile is prepared from two varieties, German chamomile (Matricaria retutica), and Roman (also known as English) chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Of the two, German chamomile is the more popular.
The blossoms of the chamomile plant are what give the tea its unique sweet floral aroma.
When making tea, keep this in mind:
- Brew chamomile to taste. To keep the flavor smooth and not too bitter, I try to keep it 3 minutes or less.
Once you’ve got your tea ready, remember not too add too much sugar or honey. Although the tea has no caffeine to keep you up, a big pile of sugar will do just as much damage. [Correction: sugar will not keep you up! See this article on sugar and sleep for more.]
- Don’t drink too much. A full bladder will wake you up for a bathroom break and disturb sleep.
- Heads up! If you’re the hands-on, experimental type, note that the wild chamomile that grows in your backyard is probably Matricaria discoidea, which is not the same as chamomile used for tea.