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Can this tea help with insomnia and anxiety? Find out...

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Chamomile tea is usually recommended for its calming and sedative effects. Chamomile tea does not make you calm or sleepy because of its long association with these benefits. Rather, there are a good number of positive studies that have confirmed the effectiveness of this herbal tea in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. This article discusses the mechanism by which chamomile relaxes the body and promotes sleep. It also provides a concise summary of the scientific evidence available to support the traditional uses of this tea.

The Herbal Tea known as Chamomile

Chamomile is the name for a number of daisy plants in the Asteraceae family. The most commonly used species in traditional medicine is the German chamomile or Matricaria chamomilla.

The chief traditional use of the herbal remedy prepared from chamomile is as a gentle sleep aid.

While both Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German chamomile can both aid in sleep, one key difference is that German chamomile is annual, while Roman is perennial.

Chamomile is also used in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and stomach troubles. Besides its sedative effect, the herb also has anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-mite and laxative properties.

The gentle oil is one that is safe to use when pregnant and can even be used on infants (6-12 months) in minimal amounts.

The part of the plant used in the preparation of the herbal remedy is the flower. The dried flowers of chamomile are steeped in hot water for 10 – 15 minutes and kept covered to prevent the volatile essential oil from evaporating.

Some of the bioactive phytochemicals in chamomile are found in these essential oils. These include flavonoids (such as chrysin, luteolin, and apigenin), coumarin, terpene bisabolol, farnesene, and chamazulene.

It is important to prepare chamomile rightly to ensure that the active ingredients are present in the herbal extract.

The processes of drying the flowers and making it into an herbal tea are the most delicate parts of its preparation. At these stages, the temperature to which chamomile is exposed to has to be properly regulated to prevent the volatile oils from evaporating.

Lastly, it is also important to press the marc (pulp) of the dried flower while making chamomile tea.

By pressing the marc, the plant cell walls are broken and even more bioactive compounds are released into the tea solution.

Besides the tea form, other dosage forms of chamomile are capsules, tincture, liquid extract, cream, and ointment.

Chamomile is generally well-tolerated and considered safe. However, it can cause vomiting when taken in large amounts. In addition, the herb should not be used along with blood thinners because its anticoagulant effect may increase the risk of bleeding.

Lastly, chamomile is not recommended for pregnant women because it can cause uterine contraction and, therefore, induce premature labor.

The Sedative and Hypnotic Effects of Chamomile

While different studies have established that chamomile can relieve anxiety, improve mood and promote sleep, the exact mechanisms by which this herb produces these effects are still unknown.

However, a 2011 study published in the journal, European Neuropsychopharmacology, showed that the phytochemicals in chamomile do have 3 effects on the central nervous system that contribute to the herb’s anxiolytic and sedative properties.

How Chamomile Improves Sleep and Anxiety
  • Modulate neurotransmitter transmission in the brain
  • Bind to GABA receptors
  • Influence the actions of neurohormones

Action on GABA Receptors

The major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Even though GABA is technically an amino acid, the body does not use it to synthesize proteins. Rather, it blocks the excitatory effects of certain neurotransmitters. Therefore, it blocks neuronal conduction and reduces the activity of the cells in the sleep center of the brain.

The overall effect of GABA in the brain is the promotion of calm (relieves anxiety) and the induction of sleep (sedative effect). In addition, GABA relaxes the muscles and can, therefore, produce a calming effect on the muscles too.

To produce these effects, GABA as well as other medicinal agents (drugs, herbs, and dietary supplements) that increase its concentration and/or activity need to bind to GABA receptors.

There are 3 types of GABA receptors: GABA-A, GABA-B, and GABA-C receptors. GABA-C receptors are really a subset of GABA-A receptors.

Of these GABA-A receptors are the most important ones with regards to sleep and anxiety.

Therefore, when phytochemicals in chamomile such as chrysin bind to GABA receptors, they reduce brain activity and produce an overall calming effect in the central nervous system.

At low doses, chamomile can provide relief for anxiety without necessarily inducing sleep. However, in sufficiently high doses, chamomile can also promote sedation.

Effect on Neurotransmitters

Besides GABA, there is evidence to show that some of the active phytochemicals of chamomile can also affect other neurotransmitters in the brain. These neurotransmitters are the ones belonging to the monoamine family.

Monoamine neurotransmitters include serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin is involved in sleep and mood while dopamine is strongly involved in mood.

Therefore, the effects of chamomile on monoamine neurotransmitters will not only improve sleep but also relieve depression.

Depression is closely linked to anxiety and insomnia. Researchers believe that the underlying causes of all three conditions involve the same set of neurotransmitters and the same parts of the brain. In addition, there isare evidence to suggest that patients record improvements in their sleep quality and anxiety levels when treated for depression.

Effect on Neuroendocrine System

Besides neurotransmitters, neurohormones can also affect sleep and the cognitive performance of the brain. The most important neurohormone involved in sleep is melatonin.

Melatonin is released from the pineal gland in response to darkness. It is important for maintaining the sleep-wake cycle.

When melatonin production falls, it becomes difficult to sleep at night. Therefore, chamomile can help with insomnia by acting on the neuroendocrine system.

Studies on Chamomile, Insomnia, and Anxiety

There are very few human studies done to investigate the therapeutic benefits of chamomile. However, almost of all these have been positive.

The NCCAM Study

This 2009 study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology is the most detailed human trial investigating the effect of chamomile on anxiety. It was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study determined the efficacy and tolerability of chamomile on a group of patients with mild to moderate GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). For this study, the researchers gave 57 such patients either placebo or chamomile extract for 8 weeks.

Initially, the chamomile group received 220 mg per day of chamomile extract standardized to contain 1.2% apigenin. This dose was present in 1 capsule of the chamomile product.

The daily dose was increased to 2 capsules in the second week. Some participants received increasingly higher doses (to a maximum of 5 capsules per day) up to the end of the study.

To determine the effects of both treatments, the researchers tested the outcomes with

  • HAM-A (total Hamilton Anxiety Rating) test
  • Beck Anxiety Inventory
  • Psychological Well Being
  • Clinical Global Impression-Severity

The results of the study showed that the patients who received chamomile scored better on all 4 outcome tests than the placebo group. In addition, there was no difference in observed side effects between the 2 groups.

This study is significant because it is the first controlled clinical trial involving chamomile extract in the treatment of GAD.

In their conclusions, the researchers recommended chamomile for treating anxiety disorders.

They also called for larger and longer studies to further investigate the anxiolytic and sedative effects of chamomile.

However, they cautioned researchers to expect different results from different chamomile dosage forms (tea, oil, capsules etc.) as well as from chamomile extracts standardized to constituents other than apigenin.

Can Chamomile Help with Depression Too?

In 2012, another paper published in the journal, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, took data from the NCCAM study to determine whether chamomile has both anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.

The authors of this paper noted that of the 57 participants who undertook the 2009 study, 19 also suffered from depression while another 16 had past histories of depression. For this study, the authors extracted the relevant data of the participants from their (HAM-D) Hamilton Depression Rating scores.

The results of this study showed that chamomile improved mood in all 57 participants.

Its antidepressant effects were most effective in the participants who suffered from anxiety and depression at the time of the trial.

The researchers, therefore, concluded that the combined anxiolytic and antidepressant activities of chamomile may be especially useful for patients who suffer from anxiety disorders comorbid with depression.

Long-lasting Effect

One of the proposed advantages of chamomile over prescription sedative and anxiolytic drugs is that its medicinal benefits can outlast those of these drugs.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry provided scientific proof for this claim. The researchers used urine analyses to determine the longevity of the active phytochemicals of chamomile.

By determining the constituents of the participants’ urine samples for 2 weeks before, 2 weeks during and 2 weeks after taking chamomile tea, the researchers were able to determine the rate at which the body metabolized this herb.

Their results showed that chamomile has a long-lasting effect because even after 2 weeks, there was still appreciable levels of certain chamomile phytochemicals (especially glycine, a muscle relaxant and hippurate, an anti-inflammatory agent).

This result is important because it indicates that the sedative and anxiolytic effects of chamomile may still persist long after its use has stopped.

Therefore, people who take chamomile tea to help with their insomnia and anxiety should get a prolonged response and may not need to use the herb every day.

Chamomile Jelly

While most studies that have investigated the sedative effects of chamomile used animal models, this study published in ISHS Acta Horticulturae and presented at the International Symposium on Chamomile Research, Development and Production detailed the sedative effect of chamomile on human subjects.

The researchers recruited 40 adults and gave them either warm chamomile jellies or ordinary chamomile-free jellies.

They found that the ingestion of warm chamomile jellies raised skin temperatures. More significantly, the researchers found that those who consumed chamomile jellies were more relaxed, slept faster and stayed asleep longer than those who took the chamomile-free jellies.

Therefore, the researchers concluded that chamomile (through warm chamomile jelly) can improve sleep and may be helpful in the treatment of insomnia.





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