A Sleep Journey with Ancient Dream Herbs

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I have to put in the obligatory disclaimer: you should talk to a doctor before using any herbal supplements and always do your own research. This post is intended to be informative and reflects my own personal experience. I am not making any recommendations or medical assertions about these substances.

I’ve never been someone who dreams a lot or who remembers my dreams. Usually dreams I do remember are unpleasant or stress-related. When I read that certain herbs are known to have psychoactive effects, particular on sleep, I was intrigued. After all, it was mid-quarantine, boredom was setting in. I thought, why not experiment a little and see if I could make my dreams exciting? I also think dreams, when we actually remember them, can give us tremendous insight into our own subconscious feelings and desires. They can help us reflect on where we are in our lives and inform our choices. Dreams are their own form of spiritual practice. In the west, we don’t often enough value our dreams as opportunities to explore and heal.

I purchased all of these herbs through Etsy. I look for shops who not only have good reviews but also ethically source their plants. It’s important to remember some of these plants have strong cultural and spiritual significance to indigenous peoples. Most aren’t in danger of being over harvested, but always show respect for the plant allies you work with. Understand what you’re buying and who you’re buying from.


The Basics

Passionflower has been used by a number of indigenous peoples in South America as a sedative and sleep aid. It is a mild MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor), a type of drug known to have antidepressant properties, because it contains an alkaloid called harman. It also contains GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is an amino acid naturally produced by the brain. GABA is found in quite a few foods, and is your body’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitter. It slows down your neural activity, which leads to relaxation, pain reduction and sleepiness. Passionflower can make you feel calm and relaxed, reduce stress, balance mood and aid with sleep. It is also considered a dream aid, although its most often mixed with other herbs. It is even mixed with ayahuasca sometimes to enhance visualization, although passionflower itself is non-hallucinogenic. 

How to use

Most people consume passionflower in tea, as it has a rather pleasant taste. It can also be smoked, and has a nice smoke flavor as well. If you drink it as tea for dream enhancement, most people recommend using at least 2.5-3 grams. It is great in blends with other sleep herbs, such as valerian, hop, St. John’s wort, kava and Calea Z. 

My experience

I felt immediately sleepy after smoking passionflower. I slept easily and woke up feeling pretty rested. My dreams weren’t as intense as they were with some of the other herbs I tried, but parts of them were memorable. In one, I was in an old building looking for apartments. The building was beautiful and historic, and I wanted the landlord to pull up the carpet. When he obliged the floor underneath had beautiful painted designs on it. The apartments were meant for college kids, and in the dream I was going to be doing my final year of grad school/ college in a different city away from Aaron. I was excited because the apartment reminded me of the places I lived in my early 20s–not exactly fancy, but lots of character and special because they were “mine.”

I think this dream gave me insight into some of the mixed emotions around my own life. On the one hand, I’m getting ready to do all the “adult” things I’ve always wanted: get married, finish grad school, buy a house. On the other hand, I think a part of me is a little nostalgic about those “simpler” times when I had less responsibility. It was interesting to reflect on that through my dream experience. Passionflower is a gentle ally and a good sleep aid, even when not taken for dreaming specifically.


The basics

Mugwort is a plant with an incredible array of health benefits and uses. It has become associated with witchcraft because it was a favorite of herbal healers and midwives (you know, “witches.”) In high doses, it can induce labor/ contractions in pregnant women. Do NOT use mugwort if you’re pregnant, as it is classified as a convulsant (don’t freak: in small doses it’s very safe.) It is an antagonist for GABAs, and actually has mild stimulant/ mood lifting properties, so combining it with herbs like passionflower, valerian, etc may counter their sedating effects. 

Mugwort contains thujone, which is thought to maintain a shallower sleep, enhancing lucid and vivid dreaming. Thujone is also the active compound in wormwood, a relative of mugwort, which was originally used to flavor absinthe. Thujone is only toxic in very high doses. Despite what the movies would you have you believe about absinthe, there is absolutely no evidence that it’s hallucinogenic.

Chances are, you can harvest your own mugwort if you’re motivated to do so. It is a common weed and grows wild in temperate climates. An old folk magic trick is to place mugwort under your pillow to dream, but I promise it works much better if you actually ingest it.

How to use

You can make a mugwort tea, tincture or grind it up and take it in pill form. A lot of psychonauts who take it for dreaming take it as a capsule. Personally, I think it’s very pleasant to smoke. There’s something sort of mystical and ancient about the smell, taste and feeling you get when you smoke it.

My experience

When I asked Aaron he wanted to try smoking mugwort, he laughed out loud. “Smoke what? That’s not real.” He’d heard mugwort referenced in films or media about witches so many times, he assumed it was something made-up by Disney. It is indeed known as the witch’s herb, so when I pulled a big jar out of the cabinet he was… impressed?

My experience smoking it has been very good. It creates a mild euphoria and has a pleasant taste. While it is mildly stimulating, I also didn’t have much trouble falling asleep after. It can create a dreamy sort of feeling while you’re awake and pairs quite nicely with wine. Some also say it is a good pair to cannabis, but I’ll let you make that call.

Both Aaron and I noticed we woke up more frequently during sleep and sleeping less deeply, especially towards the morning. I found myself waking up dead wide awake at like 7 am, which NEVER happens to me (I don’t even know what 7 am is.) I think it’s actually a rather useful herb for days you have to get up early. Because it inhibits deep sleep, mugwort isn’t an everyday kind of herb for me, but I did have some lovely dreams with it.

One in particular stood out. I walked through what seemed like an indoor garden, but everything was stone, almost as though it were in a cave or a catacomb. It was dark, but there was illumination coming from somewhere. The colors were very brightly colored and ambient, sort of how it is when you hold a light behind a silk cloth. All of the flowers and leaves looked that way. There were these very deep but small rectangular pools that went on for a long time. I walked along what were the narrow stone walls between each pool. Beautiful vines were hanging above me. The color of the water was a very vivid green, like the color of mercury glass. There wasn’t much more to it that I can remember. Those are the best dreams I think— where you get to live in a beautiful world without getting pulled into human drama. Mugwort is a magical herb, and I can say that it gave me a magical dream.

Calea Zacatechichi

The basics

Calea is also known as “dream herb” or “God leaf.” It grows mainly in Mexico, is related to the common sunflower, and has long been used for divination, lucid dreaming and enhancing mental clarity. It also has a host of other health uses. It is said to cause mild auditory hallucinations in higher doses, and the Chontals of Oaxaca believed the leaf could help you hear the voice of God.

Not many studies have been done on Calea Z, but one study showed that Calea did indeed induce “lively hypnagogic imagery” and increased both dream activity and dream recall.

How to use

Calea is most frequently smoked, but it can also be consumed as a tea. The tea is fairly bitter, so smoking or taking it in capsule form is my suggestion. 1-3 grams is a good amount to start until you’re familiar with the plant.

My experience

The very first night I smoked Calea Z, I had the longest most intense dream I’ve had in a very long time. It was semi-lucid, so I felt conscious of the fact I was dreaming, but didn’t feel a lot of ability to control it. I was more frustrated by the “vibe” of my dream and wishing I could change it. Inside the dream, I could actually recall the dream I’d had the previous night, which had been less stressful. In the dream, it was my wedding day. It was strange, as all dreams are, so I’ll spare most of the details. It was exceptionally vivid, the kind where it feels like it lasts a week and is so real you wake up emotionally exhausted by it. I didn’t wake up feeling well-rested at all. Of course, the point of inducing intense dreaming experience isn’t exactly to get peaceful sleep though right?

The dream brought up a lot of anxieties. For one thing, without getting into details, both of my parents were behaving poorly about my wedding. I wanted to make sure I had lots of champagne for the reception but was worried about not be able to afford it. I was getting married in the city where I live, but realized I had forgotten my wedding dress in the city where I’m from (an hour away.) And then the weirdest and most intense part of the dream: I realized at the last minute I had no plan for the actual ceremony. I want to do a handfasting, which is a pagan tradition binding the couple’s hands with cord. I went to a local fabric store to buy ribbons, but I was annoyed they didn’t have enough colors.

This was one of the more interesting parts because I remember very clearly how all of the different ribbons looked and could see each color so realistically, even the minor variations between different shades of yellow. There was a long, involved conversation with the woman helping me, which I also remember. Eventually I was able to get the ribbons for my handfasting chord and made it to my ceremony. Everything went wrong, but Aaron was calm and consistent. I think that bodes well for my own subconscious’s perception of my relationship, right?

Dreams aren’t always fun or restful, but the point of inducing them with herbal allies is to expand our understanding of ourselves. I can say absolutely this dream was revealing about my own anxieties, but also encouraging in what it showed me about where my inner peace lies: in a dream about my own impending wedding, the world and circumstances and people around me felt chaotic, but my actual relationship did not.

Silene Capensis

The basics

Silene Capensis is also known as “African dream root” and “white path.” It is a night-blooming flower that has spiritual significance to numerous tribes in Africa, particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is relatively unknown to the western world, but plays an important role culturally and spiritually. The Xhosa people use it ritualistically to communicate with ancestors through their dreams.

How to use

Only the root has psychoactive properties. Traditionally, it is ground and pummeled, added to water then shaken until a thick foam forms. The foam is consumed on an empty stomach until the person feels so full they vomit. A bit like ayahuasca, vomiting is seen as a “cleansing” and is part of the ritual. It can also be consumed as a tea, but it is not generally considered effective when smoked. Some tribes also chew it. Not a whole lot of research has been done on the active compounds of the plant because it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the west. However, I did find a good one here if you want to dive into it deeper. It’s thought to contain acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEls), which increase REM sleep, and subsequently, dreams.

My experience

I ended up making a tea by pouring boiling water over the pummeled root. Not gonna lie, it was labor intensive. The root is very tough. I added some flax milk, honey and cinnamon to make it palatable. Eventually I would like to try doing something close to the traditional method and consuming the foam (maybe not til I throw up though), as some say the water (tea) can upset your stomach. I didn’t fall asleep easily, but once I did, my dreaming was definitely strong and constant through the night.

Much like the mugwort, I found my sleep to very shallow, and I got up several times. I had a few dreams I could remember well upon waking, but probably my most vivid was the last dream cycle I had. In the dream Aaron had created a “LSD Playground” with his friend. Basically, children and adults both would do LSD then go into this huge McDonald’s Playplace-like structure while tripping (doesn’t that sound rad?) Aaron wanted to build a gift shop at the entryway. He was going to sell these sort of zen arrangements of sea glass and river stones. I helped him make the arrangements but was annoyed he was using my river stones because they were personal to me. Ha. Sounds like me.

I woke up feeling a little groggy, which is the opposite of how others generally report feeling. Supposedly lots of people wake up well-rested even with less sleep after consuming Xhosa root. Not me. I’d also had some wine before bed, so that could have influenced the quality of my sleep.

So what’s my conclusion?

I have to say, this has been a really cool journey. I plan to continue my exploration and add a few more to the mix (blue lotus is next). I would say of the four, Calea Z had the most obvious impact on my dream state. It was amazing to have such a realistic, semi lucid dream, even if the dream itself wasn’t “fun.” I will probably work with Calea more in the future. If you try some of these herbs, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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