Natural Sleep Aids and Remedies

If you're searching for a natural sleep aid to put an end to your insomnia, here's something to keep in mind. Some sleep aids and herbal remedies may help induce sleepiness. And even though the FDA does regulate dietary supplements, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland in the center of your brain. Melatonin regulates the body's circadian rhythms. Those are daily rhythms such as your sleep-wake cycle. The levels of melatonin in the blood are highest prior to bedtime.

Can melatonin help me sleep?

Melatonin may improve sleep. Scientific findings show that melatonin decreases the time it takes to fall asleep ("sleep latency"), increases feelings of "sleepiness," and may increase the duration of sleep.

Melatonin has been used successfully for sleep enhancement in healthy individuals, as well as to reduce feelings of jet lag during global travels. This natural hormone is also being tested as a sleep aid with the elderly and other populations. In addition, studies are focusing on whether or not melatonin can help improve sleep patterns in individuals with depression.

Are there risks associated with taking melatonin?

Melatonin, like all natural dietary supplements, is unregulated and untested for long-term use in humans. Some people find that melatonin causes grogginess and depression. Others report falling asleep quickly with melatonin only to awaken in the middle of the night. Still, studies show that melatonin is safe with short-term use (three months or less).

How much melatonin does it take to help increase sleep?

A host of studies show that as little as 0.1 to 0.3 milligrams may be enough for most people. Experts suggest that the fast-release melatonin is possibly more effective as a sleep remedy than the slow-release formulas.

Is valerian a helpful sleep remedy?

Valerian is an herbal extract. It is one of the leading natural supplements for managing anxiety and insomnia. Some limited findings show that valerian may reduce the time needed to fall asleep and may improve sleep quality. Unlike the benzodiazepines, most people feel no morning grogginess after taking valerian. Other findings were not as promising. They showed that when compared to a placebo, valerian didn't relieve anxiety or insomnia any better than the placebo.

There is some support for the idea that using valerian over a period of time (such as over four weeks) may be more effective than taking it one night only. People who are poor sleepers may find more benefit that those who are normally good sleepers.

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Are there risks associated with taking valerian?

Valerian is usually well-tolerated for up to a month to six weeks. Sometimes there may be headache or a "hangover" feeling after using valerian. A few studies indicate valerian impairs thinking for a period of time after it is used.

There are no reports of drug interaction with alcohol with valerian. Also, there are no reports of "valerian addiction," like you might find with some pharmaceutical sleep aids. Some people report a stimulating effect with valerian.

Is chamomile a safe sleep remedy?

Chamomile is a popular herbal sleep remedy that's been used for centuries. This herb also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.

German chamomile is best taken as a tea. Roman chamomile has a bitter taste and may be taken as a tincture. Both types may have a calming effect, which can help people feel relaxed and more prepared for sleep.

Is kava a safe natural sleep remedy?

Kava, also known as kava kava, is an herbal remedy that's used for stress and anxiety relief and insomnia. Kava acts by way of a different mechanism. It induces relaxation without hindering memory or motor function.

While kava has some sedative properties, it is now considered unsafe. Reports in Europe of more than 20 cases of cirrhosis, hepatitis, and liver failure suggest the possibility of liver toxicity associated with its use.

What about tryptophan as a natural sleep remedy?

Tryptophan is a precursor in the synthesis of serotonin in the brain. That means it's a biochemical substance that is necessary for the formation of the more stable serotonin.

During the late '60s and early '70s, sleep studies suggested that the neurotransmitter serotonin may play a role in sleep induction. Later on, research in animals showed that destruction of parts of the brain that housed nerve cells containing serotonin could produce total insomnia. Partial damage to these areas of the brain caused variable decreases in sleep. The percentage of destruction of these particular nerve cells correlated with the amount of slow-wave sleep.

Because tryptophan is present in milk and warm milk helps some people feel drowsy, tryptophan became a much sought-after item for the treatment of insomnia at natural food stores. Yet some people who took tryptophan as a natural supplement developed a syndrome with features of a disease called scleroderma. Those features included skin tightening, pain in the joints, muscle aches, and weakness. These people also developed anxiety, depression, and difficulty learning. Some people died. Scientists later believed the deaths were the result of taking the amino acid tryptophan. Not everyone who took tryptophan, however, experienced these side effects. In addition, not everyone who took tryptophan received help for insomnia.

The influence of tryptophan on sleep continues to be studied in major sleep laboratories across the nation. While this amino acid is not available as a natural dietary supplement or sleep remedy, you can easily include tryptophan in your diet through food sources such as turkey, cheese, nuts, beans, eggs, and milk. You can also boost serotonin levels in the brain -- helping you to feel calm and sleepy -- by eating foods rich in carbohydrates.

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What is 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)?

5-HTP is a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan. It is used to boost serotonin in the body. 5-HTP is also the precursor of melatonin, which regulates sleep cycles.

Some findings show that 5-HTP may ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Other studies show that 5-HTP may be useful in controlling appetite and pain. There are also a few studies that show no benefit with supplementation of 5-HTP.

How much 5-HTP is used as a sleep remedy?

Follow package instructions with 5-HTP, and talk to your doctor about other medications you may be taking. All natural products have the risk of interacting with drugs.

What about catnip, passionflower, and hops as sleep remedies?

Catnip is a stimulant for cats, yet some claim this herbal remedy works as a sedative similar to valerian in humans.

Passionflower (also known as maypop) is another natural sleep remedy and sedative that's widely used for insomnia and "nervous" gastrointestinal complaints. A few studies indicate a benzodiazepine-like calming action with passionflower.

Hops is another herb that may promote sleep. But the jury is still out on claims that hops is beneficial.

Are natural sleep aids and remedies safe?

Like all drugs, natural sleep remedies can have side effects and risks. Pre-market evaluation and approval by the FDA are not required for OTC aids, dietary supplements, or herbal products. The particular brand you buy may have inappropriate dosing. You may get less or more of the herb than intended, which could make it dangerous to use to treat children or the elderly.

It's important that you understand all about the natural sleep remedies you take. Know what you're putting into your body and how to discern which natural remedies will enhance your health and which ones might increase your chance of illness. In addition, talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of natural sleep remedies.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on /2, 15

Sources

SOURCES:

Natural Standard.

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: "Herbal/Plant Therapies" and "Complementary/Integrative Medicine."

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