In ancient Greece, before the Fifth Century BC, if one suffered from insomnia it may have been considered a punishment from Hypnos, the god of sleep. However, during the Fifth Century BC, Hippocrates voiced the belief that diseases came from natural causes rather than from the gods or “superstition” (and was imprisoned for 20 years for this belief). He focused on gentle treatments for his patients, believing that just as diseases formed from natural causes, so, too, was the body constantly trying to heal itself in a natural way. Today he is thought of as the founder of Western medicine and was one of the first to describe the medicinal properties of valerian root. Later, Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher, was the first to use valerian root as a cure for insomnia.
Although today we understand that an individual’s insomnia may result from various causes, we still recognize valerian root – an herb native to Europe and parts of Asia – as a helpful treatment for inducing sleep without causing drowsiness the next day. If you should be so lucky as to have this plant growing nearby, you could dig up the rhizomes yourself (in late fall), cut off the tiny fibrous roots, and dry them in a dark warm place. When the roots have dried, you can cut them into tiny pieces and store in a container in a dark place closed to the air. Then during a sleepless spell, you could retrieve that container and infuse its contents to induce sleepiness (in hopes that Morpheus will bring good dreams).
One method of preparing valerian root tea is to add two tablespoons of valerian root to two cups of warm water in the morning and let it steep until the evening. Then drink one cup after dinner and another cup an hour before going to bed. To minimize the harm boiling water may cause to the oils crucial to the desired effect, you could also simply pour boiling water over the herb and let it steep for 10-15 minutes. You might add other ingredients that promote relaxation, such as chamomile or lavender, to the mix. These ingredients may help improve the scent, since, although valerian root was used as a perfume in the Sixteenth Century, most find its scent a bit repugnant.
I first heard of this herb from a friend who’s extremely knowledgeable about the healing properties of plants. As a natural sedative, valerian root can also be used to help with anxiety and certain forms of pain. It is particularly useful for intense menstrual cramps. During World War II, it was used on patients suffering from shellshock or “bombing neurosis.” Valerian root should be used with some caution; one should moderate one’s dosage as it can cause lethargy or headaches. Another friend used valerian root to help him sleep once and wound up sleepwalking right to the edge of a balcony – so use a bit of caution. Most people report very positive results in healing pain and promoting sleep without negative side effects. (Be aware if you have cats, though, as apparently it sends them into an ecstasy even more maniacal than catnip.)
I personally cannot wait to try valerian root tea and will let you know how it works. Who knows at which point my brain started producing less melatonin – perhaps someday I’ll find out. Until then, I will see if natural valerian root entices Hypnos to break this sleepless spell. Perhaps I will dream of the Grey Pug moths as they fly around at night feeding on valerian flowers, which does not cause them to sleep, but only to swirl near lights ever-rejuvenated. Perhaps the naturalness of disease and cure came to Hippocrates himself through dream – as poets write about the gates in Demos Oneiroi (Land of Dreams), where one is made of sawn ivory and the other of polished horn. False dreams pass through the ivory gate, while prophetic truthful ones wing their way out through the horn gate.