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Natural Sleep Aids

By Constance Matthiessen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD

Jana Barber, a teacher in San Francisco, has had insomnia off and on for 20 years. She's learned to function on just a few hours a night, but sometimes, she says, lack of sleep catches up with her. "I get really ragged sometimes," she admits. "When you haven't slept, it's tough to keep your sense of humor -- and your patience -- and you need both when you work with kids."

What are the options for people like Barber, who don't want to take prescription sleep medications but crave a good night's sleep? WebMD consulted some sleep experts about "natural" sleep aids to learn more about how -- and how well -- they really work.

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Natural Sleep Aids: Dietary Supplements

  • Valerian is a dietary supplement that has been used since ancient times for insomnia and nervousness. Although many people use valerian as a sleep aid, its effectiveness has not been proven. Jawad Miran, DO, a sleep medicine specialist at Somerset Medical Center's Sleep For Life program in Hillsborough, N.J., cautions that that there is little consistency in the quality or ingredients of valerian preparations on the market today: "There is no one compound which is valerian, rather there are numerous compounds in varying amounts," says Miran. He says most doctors he knows don't recommend valerian to their patients with insomnia. People who take valerian should not combine it with other supplements or medications for sleep.
  • Chamomile, like valerian, is a traditional herbal remedy that has been used since ancient times to fight insomnia and a wide range of other health complaints. Chamomile is sold in the form of tea, extract, and topical ointment. Chamomile is widely available in health food stores and supermarkets. Chamomile's effectiveness as a sleep aid has not been widely researched in humans, but in animal studies it has been shown to be a safe and mild sleep aid. 
  • Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is believed to play a central role in regulating sleep and circadian rhythms. Synthetic melatonin is a popular dietary supplement that is sold as a sleeping aid and antioxidant. According to Miran, there is evidence that melatonin eases circadian rhythm disorders like jet lag and delayed sleep phase disorders, but it hasn't been proven effective in treating insomnia or improving sleep quality in the long term.

While scientific research has not proven the effectiveness of many natural sleep aids, that doesn’t mean they won’t help you sleep, says sleep specialist Lisa Shives, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "The research has not been robust," she says, still, some of her patients find these dietary supplements effective. "People like to feel they are taking something," she points out.

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