Night and Day: Tea for Insomniacs

MEG BERNHARD

One evening I decided to try nightcap tea before I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I realized why we referred this tea to out customers. I hadn’t woken up once that night.

Free Topic, Meg Bernhard ArticleThe great cultural history of tea—from the methods of its cultivation to the alterations of its flavor—is steeped in experimentation. Legend has it that in 28 BCE, dry tea leaves fell into the Chinese emperor Shennong’s boiling cup of water. Shennong tasted his drink, what he thought was purified water, and was delightfully surprised at its refreshing taste. Over the following centuries the practice of tea brewing spread throughout Asia, evolving along the way. During China’s Period of Disunity, tea leaves were steamed, dried, and pounded into cakes. In Japan, monks whipped powdered tea leaves in an elaborate ceremony. This trial-and-error methodology led to the production of refined black teas, a change that attracted Dutch merchants in the early 17th century and beckoned tea into the Western world.

Fast-forward four hundred years. The energizing beverage that was once exclusive to China has traversed the globe to Temecula, California, where I work in a spice and tea shop. We carry almost every class of tea—oolong, white, green, black, pu-erh—in loose-leaf form. Despite the summer heat, many people have been asking for warm, sleep-inducing teas. I usually direct them to our nightcap tea, an herbal blend of rosemary, chamomile, spearmint, and hops. According to one of my co-workers, hops are the primary sedatives in our nightcap tea, while herbs like chamomile and spearmint enhance the calming effect. Hops produce methylbutenol, a sedating substance with similar effects to melatonin. We don’t carry hops outside of the nightcap tea, but in our backroom we store other natural sedatives such as passionflower and valerian root (the latter of which increases levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep). Few people ask for these herbs; only the anxiety-riddled insomniacs seek them out.

Eventually, I realized I too was lacking sleep. Each night I would wake up at least twice and stare at my ceiling before falling asleep again. My disrupted sleep was beginning to affect my mood (read: grumpy), so one evening I decided to try nightcap tea before I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I realized why we referred this tea so often to our customers. I hadn’t woken up once that night.

Curious, I decided to mimic the ancient trial-and-error method, designing “experiments” to isolate which ingredients had most impacted my sleep. I set out six bowls, each filled with three tablespoons of traditional green tea, which lacks caffeine and contains more catechins and antioxidants than do other teas. Next, I placed each constituent of the nightcap tea (spearmint, rosemary, and chamomile) into separate bowls, so that each bowl contained one of them. I placed other ataractic herbs – lemon balm, lavender, and hibiscus – into different bowls as well, each herb measuring a quarter ounce. Over the next six days, I tried a different blend each night.

I won’t pretend my experiment was controlled—some days I worked, some I rested; I wore different pajamas; I showered infrequently—but it did provide formative results. I eliminated lavender and rosemary from my experiment, since these hadn’t affected my sleep, and I brewed more blends with the remaining ingredients. After more “trials” I found that chamomile had the most calming effect on my body. Chamomile, I read, affects the stomach and the lungs. It contains azulene, a calming organic compound, and tannic acid, which was used in World War One to treat burns. While not as potent as hops, chamomile alleviates stress and dissipates stomachaches.

It’s been a month since I ran my experiment, and since then my sleep has been flawless (in fact, I’m packing nearly a pound of nightcap tea for my freshman year). While not as accurate as the scientific method, my trial-and-error experimentation allowed me to analyze the intersection of physiology and herbalism, and, in a sense, to gain insight into the practices of ancient tea brewers as they searched for the perfect cup of tea.

Meg Bernhard is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at mbernhard@college.harvard.edu.