Sleep is an essential part of life, with most people needing seven or eight hours each night in order to stay healthy. It is a natural recurring state that helps to restore hormonal and immune systems, stabilise mood and cognitive functions, and rejuvenate the body and mind. Despite its essential nature, however, getting enough sleep can be a challenge in the busy modern world. Sleep deprivation leads to a range of problems, from specific physical complaints through to emotional issues like stress, anxiety, and irritability. Sleep deprivation is often a vicious cycle, with a lack of sleep likely to induce unwanted emotional and cognitive changes that make it harder to relax. Rather than getting caught up in this unhealthy pattern, considered lifestyle and diet changes can help to break the cycle. Some natural compounds can be taken to promote sleep, including several members of the Passiflora genus known as passionflower.
What is Passionflower?
Passionflower is the name given to Passiflora incarnata, a fast-growing perennial vine often used to treat sleep problems and associated conditions. There are around 500 known species of passionflower, with the entire family of plants known as Passiflora. Many of these species have been used historically as a herbal medicine to treat sleep disorders and related problems. These plants are native to the Americas, and have been used by the Cherokee for thousands of years for food and medicinal purposes. Passionflower is now used as a health tonic around the world, and is included in the European and British Pharmacopoeias. Many studies show that certain species of the plant have medicinal benefits, especially in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. According to a study by the European Medicines Agency, it "can be used for the relief of symptoms of mental stress and to aid sleep."
The importance of sleep and relaxationSleep is defined by inhibited sensory and reduced muscle activity, with a repeated and prolonged period of rest needed to help the body function at its optimal level. Sleep is essential for every aspect of life, with even a single night of bad sleep likely to adversely affect your work performance, relationships, and state of mind. Whether it's the result of specific sleep disorders like insomnia and hypersomnia, or simply trying to do too much, lack of sleep is associated with a range of physical and mental problems. In order to understand how passionflower aids sleep and promotes relaxation, it's important to understand the four stages of sleep and the difference between REM and non-REM sleep cycles.
The 4 stages of sleepWhile it's somewhat of a continuum, there are generally believed to be four separate stages of sleep. The first three stages are known as non-REM sleep (NREM), and the final stage is known as REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement, with this deep stage of sleep distinguished by fast, random eye movements, low muscle tone throughout the body, and vivid dreams.
- Stage 1 is the lightest stage of NREM sleep, with this period distinguished by drowsy feelings, slow eye movements, and slowing brain wave activity. Some people experience hypnotic jerk movements during this stage, with subjective drifting feelings also common.
- Stage 2 is the first stage of real defined NREM sleep. Common features of stage 2 sleep include slowing brain waves, sudden bursts of oscillatory brain activity mixed with K-complex EEG waveforms, and dropping heart rates and temperatures.
- Stage 3 is known as deep NREM sleep, with this restorative stage defined by delta wave brain activity that is much slower than the previous two stages. Awakenings are rare during this stage, which is also when sleepwalking or sleep talking occur.
- REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep, with vivid dreaming common, eyes moving fast from side to side, and the brain much more active than the previous three stages. Getting enough REM sleep is essential for your general health and wellbeing.
4 reasons to try Passionflower for sleepPeople have problems sleeping for many reasons, from hormonal imbalances and physical complaints through to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. As mentioned above, sleep problems can be the result of a vicious cycle, with compounds sometimes taken to promote rest and relaxation. Passionflower has been used historically to treat restlessness and agitation, and also shows promise in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The ability of this plant to calm the mind and promote rest presents itself in the following ways:
Passionflower for anxietyAnxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the world, with millions of people suffering from this condition every day. Passionflower has shown promise in treating generalised anxiety disorder, which is the modern name used to describe a range of symptoms such as constant worry, restlessness, and trouble with concentration. In fact, passionflower was used historically to treat conditions such as “restlessness” and “hysteria," which share many symptoms with the modern definition of anxiety. Passionflower contains a number of beneficial flavonoids that are useful in decreasing anxiety, including chrysin and benzoflavone, among others. These compounds increase the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which mirrors many of the effects induced by benzodiazepines and other standard anti-anxiety medications. GABA limits the reactivity of the brain’s neurons, which decreases “excitability” and helps to calm the mind. According to a study that compared passionflower to the benzodiazepine drug oxazepam, its reputation as a safe and natural mild sedative exists for a very good reason. The conclusion of the paper mentioned: "The results suggest that Passiflora extract is an effective drug for the management of generalized anxiety disorder, and the low incidence of impairment of job performance with Passiflora extract compared to oxazepam is an advantage. A large-scale trial is justified."
Passionflower for depressionDepression is another potentially debilitating mental health disorder that affects millions of people around the world. Depression is associated with a range of behavioural and physical symptoms, including changes in sleeping patterns, changes in appetite, low energy level, poor concentration, and bad self-esteem. Passionflower can be taken to promote mental health and wellbeing, and has shown promise in studies for the treatment of depression. Both anxiety and depression are prevalent among cancer patients, with a number of significant negative symptoms noticed in early and late-stage cancer studies. According to a recent study into herbal medicines for depression and anxiety, passionflower was one of a few compounds shown to have benefits comparable to standard anxiolytics and antidepressants. Along with lavender and saffron, passionflower appears "to be worthy of consideration for the treatment of depression and anxiety with minimal risk of serious side effects. They appear to be reasonable options for patients who prefer a natural approach."
Passionflower for irritability
Herbal medicines have long been used for relaxation purposes, with passionflower traditionally used to treat nervous anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, irritability, and hysteria. Most of the positive effects of this plant are believed to be related to benzoflavone, which is the most active constituent of the plant extract. Benzoflavone directly increases the amount of GABA in the brain, which decreases anxiety and helps to moderate irritation through the promotion of relaxation. Irritation can occur for many reasons, with physical irritants, mental stimuli, and unwanted emotional and cognitive associations all known to have an adverse effect on the body and mind. One study from 2016 analysed the effects of passionflower extract on common causes of irritation, including allergies, asthma, sinus irritation nausea, dizziness, and somnolence, among others. After investigating the effects of passionflower on the perceptual processing system, the plant extract was associated with a reduced risk of threat and significant decline in auditory omission errors due to perceived anxiety.