Treatment of Insomnia With Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

Int Rev Neurobiol. 2017:135:97-115. doi: 10.1016/bs.irn.2017.02.006. Epub 2017 Apr 3.


Insomnia is a condition with sleep problems and many people suffered from it. Chronic insomnia can last for long time and it will severely affect people's health and the quality of life. In conventional medicine, the most commonly used the medicine is benzodiazepine. It is effective but also has significant side effects. Patients try to use some kinds of alternative medicines. Chinese medicinal herbs and formulas have been used in the treatment of insomnia for more than 2000 years in China. In recent decades, Chinese herbal medicine has been widely used in the Western countries. Many clinical studies including randomized controlled clinical trials and research on pharmacological action mechanisms of the herbs for treatment of insomnia have been conducted. It is very important and very helpful to review the published research papers to gather the available information for a critical analysis. This chapter evaluated the data from both of clinical studies and pharmacological researches on the therapeutic formulas and on some key herbs used in the treatment of insomnia. Clinical studies showed a very wide spectrum of herbs that were used in clinical treatment of insomnia. This was due to different syndrome patterns happened with insomnia. This brought complexity and difficulties to identify which are the essential key herbs or formulas. It was found Suanzaoren decoction (Ziziphus spinose decoction ) is the most frequently used formula for the treatment of insomnia. Based on the clinical data, several herbs were identified as most frequently used sedative and hypnotic herbs in Chinese herbal medicine including Suanzaoren (Ziziphus spinose ), Fuling (Poria cocos ), and Gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis ). The underlying pharmacological action mechanisms discovered in the studies on some key herbs used in the treatment of insomnia were evaluated. The major pharmacological action mechanisms shared by most of the sedative herbs are to act through the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) or via stimulation of GABAAA receptor. Some herbs exert sedative activities via inhibition of 5-hydroxytryptamine 1A receptor. Another mechanism shown by some herbs is to upregulate the expression of orexin-A, leptin, orexin receptor-1, and leptin receptor in the brain, reducing insomnia-induced negative consequences, and thus indirectly help improvement of insomnia.

Keywords: Herbal medicine; Insomnia; Sleep disorders; Traditional Chinese medicine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / chemistry
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / therapy*


  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal