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The calming herb that helps with anxiety and insomnia
Passion flower is often combined with other sedative-hypnotic herbs such as valerian, hops and kava. It is traditionally used to treat anxiety and insomnia and recent studies have confirmed the efficacy of this herb for these indications. How does passion flower promote calm and sleep? What are the phytochemicals responsible for the sedative and calming effects of this herb? How does passion flower compare to other sedative herbs and prescription sedative drugs? Read on to find out.
Passion flower or Passiflora incarnata is used in traditional medicine to treat insomnia, anxiety, hysteria and seizures.
Compared to the other herbs with sedative effects, passion flower is milder than kava and valerian.
The parts of the plant used in preparing the herb include all of its aerial parts including the leaves, flowers and stems. Passion flower extract is available as dried leaves for teas and infusions as well as tinctures.
Besides its sedative and anxiolytic effects, passion flower also has an analgesic (pain-relieving) property.
The bioactive phytochemicals in passion flower include a group of alkaloids such as harman, harmaline and harmine. These alkaloids are responsible for the antidepressant effects of passion flower. They act by inhibition a central nervous system enzyme known as monoamine oxidase.
Other notable phytochemicals in passion flower include coumarins, sterols, flavonoids, phenols, the amino acid, alanine, and enzymes such as catalase.
Studies show that passion flower herb is not only safer but also has a comparable activity as conventional anxiety drugs such as oxazepam.
Official European Pharmacopeia identifies passion flower as Passiflorae herba. This herb is standardized by its vitexin (a flavonoid) content and is expected to contain at least 1.5% total flavonoids.
Passion flower is commonly included in sedative tea mixtures along with herbs like valerian, hops, chamomile, kava, skullcap and lemon balm.
When used alone, the recommended adult dose of passion flower tea is 3 – 4 cups per day. Each cup should be prepared by steeping 1 teaspoonful of the dried herb in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes and then straining the tea to removing the leaves.
Passion flower is not recommended for pregnant women because its alkaloid can trigger uterine contraction and cause premature labor.
Passion flower exerts its calming effect by increasing the release of a particular neurotransmitter in the brain. Basically, some of the active phytochemicals in passion flower promote the release of GABA.
GABA or gamma aminobutyric acid is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.
This neurotransmitter lowers neuronal activity in certain brain cells. This action has a quieting effect in the central nervous system and it reduces anxiety and relieves insomnia.
Outside the central nervous system, GABA is also responsible for regulating muscle tone. Therefore, increased secretion of GABA can also help relax the muscles. This calming effect on the muscles is the reason why passion flower is used in the treatment of seizures and epilepsy.
How does passion flower increase GABA levels? Although researchers once believed that the alkaloids and flavonoids in passion flower were responsible for its sedative and anxiolytic effect, new studies indicate that the amino acids in the herb may be responsible. This is because these amino acids can raise GABA levels in the body.
Specifically, the amino acid, alanine, is linked to GABA. Beta alanine is an intermediate in the synthesis of GABA in the brain. Therefore, alanine from passion flower can be used to produce more GABA.
Further support for this theory was provided by a study in which the calming effect of a passion flower extract was lost after removing its amino acid content.
In that study, the researchers observed increased GABA activity in the brain samples of a group of mice after exposing the hippocampus to a passion flower extract. However, after removing amino acids from this extract, the brain samples had no GABA activity.
Besides directly increasing the levels of GABA in the central nervous system, passion flower can also enhance its activity.
In a 1992 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers demonstrated that chrysin, one of the flavonoids in passion flower, acts like a benzodiazepine in the brain. Since benzodiazepines enhance GABA activity at GABA-A receptors, chrysin may also increase the activity of GABA at these receptors.
Therefore, this passion flower flavonoid can enhance the sedative, anxiolytic, muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant effects of GABA.
The combination of the actions of amino acids like alanine and flavonoids such as chrysin makes passion flower a potent herbal remedy for relieving anxiety and muscle spasms and also for improving the quality of sleep.
In a 2008 study conducted by researchers from the University of Johannesburg, the sedative effect of passion flower was investigated in 30 adult participants.
The researchers measured the effect of passion flower on the duration of sleep, satisfaction with sleep and how refreshed the participants reported they were after they awoke.
After dividing the study participants into 2 groups, the researchers gave one group an extract of Passiflora incarnata and the other group received a placebo. The treatment was administered 20 minutes before bed time over a period of 4 weeks.
The results of the study showed that passion flower improved the length and quality of sleep.
In addition, the researchers found that within the group that received passion flower, the men got the most benefits from the herb.
A 2011 study published in the journal, Phytotherapy Research, also found that passion flower improved the quality of sleep.
In this double blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study, each of the 41 participants received passion flower tea and placebo tea. Each tea was given for 1 week and then a washout period was allowed before the other tea was given.
During the treatment days, the participants recorded their experiences in sleep diaries and on the last day of each treatment, they took a test to measure their anxiety levels.
The results of the study showed that the participants felt they had better sleep sessions while taking passion flower tea even though they did not know which tea they were taking at any point in time.
The researchers, therefore, recommended low-dose passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) tea for improving sleep quality.
A 2001 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology tried to find the phytochemical responsible for the anti-anxiety effects of passion flower by isolating different fractions of the herb.
The researchers determined that the methanol extract of the plant had the most significant anxiolytic effect in a group of mice.
By exposing this extract to special fluorescent light, they determined that the active molecule was most likely a benzoflavone.
A 2002 study compared the efficacies of 5 commercially available tinctures of passion flower to this active methanol extract of the herb.
In a paper published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, the researchers found that all 5 products showed varying levels (200 mg/kg to 500 mg/kg) of efficacies compared to the standard preparation (125 mg/kg). One product was found to have no anti-anxiety activity.
This study highlights the need for standardization in the passion flower products. However, the researchers identified that there are other bioactive phytochemicals in the herb besides the benzoflavone compound and these need to be identified before a uniform standard can be established for passion flower supplements.
Lastly, a 2001 study published in the journal, Fitoterapia, compared the anxiolytic effects of different extracts of passion flower to the standardized benzoflavone extract mentioned above.
For the study, the researchers prepared different extracts with petroleum ether, chloroform, methanol and water from each of the different plant parts as well as the whole plant.
The results of the study showed that the methanol extracts had the best anxiolytic effects.
The methanol extract prepared from the leaves (100 mg/kg) and stem (125 mg/kg) exhibited the most significant anti-anxiety effects. The flower (200 mg/kg) and whole plant (300 mg/kg) extracts were not as effective. And the root extracts had no anxiolytic effect.
This study proves the dried leaves and stems of Passiflora incarnata are the most effective parts of the plant. Therefore, the right passion flower herb to use (in the form of tea) for relieving anxiety should be prepared from the leaves and stems.
In contrast, the flower and root of the plants are simply adulterants and should be removed from the herb during preparation.
In a double-blind study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics in 2001, researchers compared the anxiolytic effects of passion flower to the anxiolytic drug, oxazepam.
For the study, they recruited 32 people who suffered from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).
These participants were divided into 2 groups. Over a period of 4 weeks, one group received 30 mg/day of oxazepam while the second group was given 45 drops of Passiflora incarnata extract per day.
The results of the study showed that both passion flower and oxazepam significantly reduced anxiety in the participants.
In addition, oxazepam reduced anxiety faster than passion flower. However, oxazepam affected motor and mental performances more than passion flower.
This study shows that passion flower is an effective alternative to prescription anxiolytics. Even though it does not have a rapid onset of action, it does not impair the activities of the users too. This is especially important for those who want to reduce their anxiety and yet go about their work.
A 2008 study published in the journal, Anesthesia and Analgesia, investigated the benefits of oral passion flower extract for reducing anxiety in surgery patients.
For the study, the researchers recruited 60 outpatients who were to undergo different surgeries. Thirty of these patients received 500 mg of oral Passiflora incarnata supplement while the other 30 patients were given placebo.
The patients received these treatments 90 minutes before their surgeries. By monitoring anxiety levels and sedations at different intervals (10, 30, 60 and 90 minutes) after giving them these medications, the researchers found that passion flower was able to reduce anxiety without inducing sedation.
Therefore, they recommended oral passion flower extract for reducing anxiety in outpatients who are agitated about their surgical procedures.
This study showed that at some doses, passion flower can be safely used to reduce anxiety without inducing sedation.
The implication of this finding is that certain doses of passion flower can help calm down the user without putting him to sleep. This is important for people who need to be mentally and physically relaxed and yet be alert to perform certain tasks.
Because Passiflora edulis is regularly confused with Passiflora incarnata, it is important to differentiate between the two species of passion flower and compare their anxiolytic effects.
In a 2001 study published in the journal, Fitoterapia, some researchers compared the biological activities of both Passiflora plants. Their findings show that while the methanol extract of P. incarnata had significant anxiolytic effect at 125 mg/kg, the extract of P. edulis barely had any anxiolytic activity.
This study is important because it establishes the difference between the two most popular species of passion flower (there are over 500 members of this passion flower plant family).
Furthermore, the study shows that P. edulis cannot be substituted for P. incarnata as an anxiolytic herb.
A 2013 study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology compared the efficacy of a 3-herb combination to zolpidem, a sleep medication, in the treatment of insomnia.
The polyherbal preparation used contained passion flower, hops and valerian. By giving one tablet of either the polyherbal preparation or zolpidem to the patients at bedtime for 2 weeks, the researchers determined that both treatment improved both the duration and quality of sleep.
They also found that there was no difference between the groups taking the herbal preparation and the group given the sleep medication.
In addition, the study showed that both groups encountered similar and mild side effects.
Therefore, the researchers concluded that the herbal combination of hops, valerian and passion flower was a safe and effective alternative to zolpidem in the treatment of insomnia.
This study confirms that the combination of sedative-hypnotic herbs produces excellent results for insomnia patients. It also demonstrates that these herbs can be safely combined and that they produce better results than individual herb for reducing anxiety and inducing sleep.
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