Alternative therapy encompasses a variety of disciplines that include everything from diet and exercise to mental conditioning and lifestyle changes. Examples of alternative therapies include acupuncture, guided imagery, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, aromatherapy, relaxation, herbal remedies, massage, and many others.
In each issue of WebMD the Magazine, we put five of the most-asked questions on the WebMD community boards to one of our health experts. In our January-February 2011 issue, we gave WebMD's sleep expert, Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM, the top five sleep questions -- including why we need it, how much we need, even whether or not it can really make us beautiful.
Valerian root. Some studies have suggested that the root of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) may help with the onset of sleep and with sleep maintenance. However, more research is needed before a final conclusion can be made about the safety and effectiveness of valerian for insomnia. It's possible that it can interfere with some medications. It also has side effects and is not safe in small children or during pregnancy.
Chamomile is another commonly used herb for the treatment of insomnia. More research is needed, however, to see if it is effective. The FDA considers chamomile to be safe and the herb has no known adverse effects. You should not take it, though, if you are sensitive to ragweed or chrysanthemums or other members of the Compositae family such as daisies or sunflowers. You could develop contact allergies if you are, especially if you are taking other drugs that help to trigger the reaction.
Other herbs promoted as effective sleep remedies include passionflower, hops, and lemon balm. These still need to be studied to determine their safety and effectiveness.
Clinical studies to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of herbs are scarce. More information is required before these herbs can be recommended as a first line of treatment against insomnia.
Melatonin is a hormone that is made by a gland in the brain in humans and produced in animals as well as plants. Although the effects of melatonin are complex and poorly understood, it plays a critical role in the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms. Melatonin has been studied as a possible treatment for circadian rhythm disorders and may be helpful in decreasing sleep disturbances caused by jet lag.