It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for tackling anxiety and insomnia – drink a relaxing cup of chamomile tea.
For some people it works wonders; others prefer stronger medication or different techniques altogether.
Personally, I’m a fan of chamomile. I like the taste, it seems to help a little, and the act of sitting down to drink a cup of chamomile or valerian tea makes for a relaxing ritual in itself.
But does it really work, or is it all in the mind? The placebo effect can be a powerful thing, as research has shown time and time again.
If you’re looking for a herbal remedy to help you through difficult times, the good news is that there is growing evidence that chamomile has a real sedative effect.
In this article, I’ll be looking at some of the latest research, and discussing the many health benefits that chamomile might just have after all.
The varieties of chamomile used in herbal medicine
Chamomile is a member of the Asteraceae family of plants, which consists of many other species, such as daisy and sunflower.
There are several varieties of chamomile plant, but two of them are most frequently used in herbal medicine:
- German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Of the two, German chamomile is the more popular, but Roman chamomile is also widely used in some countries.
An ancient and popular medicinal plant
The use of Chamomile as a medicinal plant dates back to ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek times. And in the modern day, it remains one of the most popular medicinal plants around the world.
Research in Quebec, for example, showed chamomile was the most popular natural sleep aid. Out of 997 adults, 18.5% had taken a natural sleep aid in the previous 12 months, with chamomile being the most popular.
And it’s estimated that around 1 million cups of chamomile tea are drunk across the world every day!
Research evidence that chamomile helps
Considering how popular chamomile is as a herbal remedy for sleep problems and anxiety, it’s surprising how few clinical trials have been done to investigate its effectiveness.
There have been a few interesting experiments in the last decade though. So let’s take a closer look at what the research has to say.
1. Research into insomnia
In 2011, researchers at the University of Michigan looked at subjective sleep quality and daytime functioning in 34 patients with chronic insomnia.
For 28 days, the participants were given either 270 mg of chamomile or a placebo twice a day. They found it had mild improvements in some sleep aspects, concluding that:
Chamomile could provide modest benefits of daytime functioning and mixed benefits on sleep diary measures relative to placebo in adults with chronic primary insomnia.
Despite that positive effect, they found the placebo group had a slightly better total sleep time than the chamomile group! They also report that it was safe to take chamomile at that dosage.
2. Research into anxiety
The research into chamomile and anxiety seems more promising than the rather limited insomnia evidence.
In 2009, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine gave chamomile extract to 28 people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). A further 29 patients were given a placebo.
After 8 weeks, they found a significant reduction in anxiety among the chamomile group. The researchers said:
The demonstration of chamomile’s efficacy and tolerability in patients with milder GAD may provide a wider acceptability of anxiolytic treatment in the general medical community. Despite the limitations of this initial study, the present findings suggest that chamomile may possess modest anxiolytic effect in some patients with mild GAD.
3. A long-term anxiety study
More recently in 2016, researchers in the United States conducted the first long-term chamomile experiment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
In the first phase, 179 participants took 1500 mg chamomile extract daily for 12 weeks. After that, they were split into two groups for another 26 weeks. One group continued with the chamomile therapy, and the other was given a placebo.
They found some very promising results:
- Participants had significantly better anxiety symptoms, and improved psychological well-being.
- The chamomile group went longer before experiencing a relapse.
- They had improved blood pressure.
- There were no sexual side effects (seen with some medication).
- The larger dose of 1500 mg appeared safe. There were only a few mild side effects, which were also seen in the placebo group.
Many people experience insomnia because of anxiety, stress and the normal worries of life. Could it be then that chamomile helps some people sleep better because they feel better at night and worry less?
4. Anxiety and depression research
In 2012, the team at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a different analysis of the data from their original 2009 study (see above).
They found some of the patients had anxiety and depression, some anxiety with a history of depression, and some just current anxiety. They found a significant reduction in depression scores for all the groups, saying:
chamomile may exert an antidepressant effect along with its previously reported antianxiety effects in this same population…chamomile may produce a clinically meaningful antidepressant effect in humans
As is often the case with clinical research, the teams in all of these studies say that more research is needed to confirm their results. But they do provide a reason for optimism, especially where helping with anxiety is concerned.
Perhaps future research will show that those whose insomnia is closely connected to anxiety, stress or depression might benefit most from chamomile.
5. Other benefits of chamomile
Chamomile has long been used for a wide range of ailments, not just anxiety and insomnia. For some conditions, there’s growing research that it works; for others, it remains popular belief – at least for now.
A particularly interesting benefit might be for cancer. A team in Sweden tested a botanical agent, known as TBS-101, that consists of chamomile and 6 other plant extracts. They found that it had ‘significant anti-cancer activity’ with rats with prostate cancer.
In 2010, researchers in Cleveland investigated all of the traditional uses of chamomile. They were able to find research demonstrating that chamomile can help with:
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Stimulating the immune system
- Providing some protection against cancer
In addition, they found that in parts of the world, chamomile is thought to have many other benefits and uses, such as:
- Menstrual cramps
- Wounds, ulcers, eczema, gout, skin irritations, bruises, burns, neuralgia, sciatica, arthritis, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids
- Common cold, ear and eye infections, blocked tear ducts, conjunctivitis, and nasal inflammation
- Bacterial infections of the skin, mouth, and respiratory tract
- Indigestion, diarrhea, flatulence, motion sickness, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting
- Diaper rash, chicken pox, colic and fevers in children
Side effects and safety
Most people tolerate chamomile very well. It’s listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (generally recognized as safe).
The Pennsylvania research team, for example, found that:
Chamomile also appeared to be exceedingly well tolerated relative to placebo.
However, some people might have an allergic reaction to chamomile. The U.S. National Institutes of Health advises that it’s more likely if you’re sensitive to plants in the same family, such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, or daisies.
How exactly does chamomile work?
Considering the vast number of conditions chamomile is reported to help with, the question of how it can do so much naturally arises!
Scientists still aren’t 100% sure how it works, even in the areas where research does show it to be effective.
For anxiety and sleep problems, one theory is that a flavonoid compound in chamomile called apigenin causes relaxation. It’s thought that apigenin binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which then has a sedative effect.
Although apigenin is currently receiving a lot of attention, chamomile has many other active compounds which could contribute to its sedative effect, and possibly the other benefits.
How to take chamomile
Chamomile can be bought in many different forms: ready-made tea bags, loose dried flower heads, oil extract, creams, lotions, and herbal sleeping pills.
When making tea, the dried flower heads can be used to make infusions. Just add 2 or 3 teaspoons to a tea ball or press and leave to steep for up to 15 minutes. Alternatively, add 1 or 2 drops of essential oil to a cup of boiled water.
You might find you have to drink it regularly to reap the same benefits as shown in the research studies.
And because chamomile is available in so many forms, it’s wise to follow the instructions to work out the correct dosage and length of time it can be used for.
If you intend to use it for one of the less proven conditions, I recommend doing some careful research online to get more specific advice. A good starting point is the Whole Health Chicago website, which has a comprehensive section on different preparations.
It’s sometimes said that herbal remedies work best because of the placebo effect, or the relaxation that comes from simply taking some time out to prepare and enjoy a relaxing drink or other activity.
While it might be true that it can be a useful part of a bedtime routine to drink herbal tea, it appears there might be more to it than that in the case of Chamomile.
Evidence seems to exist that it has a sedative effect, particularly helping people with anxiety. And although the direct link between chamomile and sleep remains tenuous, perhaps there’s a chance that it helps indirectly by reducing the negative effect of anxiety on our sleep.
Do you use chamomile for anxiety, sleep problems or any other condition? Do you find it helps, and if so, what form do you take it in?
Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below!