Alternative Treatments for Insomnia

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 02, 2023
5 min read

Alternative therapy includes many disciplines 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.

Complementary medicine is essentially alternative medicine that is taken along with regular treatments.

Natural remedies for insomnia

There isn’t a lot of evidence to show that herbal remedies work well to treat insomnia, or that they are safe to take.

Since herbal supplements can interact with certain medications, always tell your doctor if you are using any.

  • Valerian root. Some studies have suggested that the root of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) may help people fall asleep or stay asleep. It's possible that it can interfere with some medications. It also has side effects and is not safe for small children or during pregnancy.
  • Chamomile is another commonly used herb for the treatment of insomnia. The FDA considers chamomile to be safe, and the herb has no known side 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. 
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). One study found that the leaf of this herb contained triethylene glycol (TEG), which positively affected rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Another study suggests 300 milligrams two times a day can help you fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality.
  • Kava. This South Pacific root is thought to have a calming effect. In one small study, 24 people with insomnia caused by stress were given 120 milligrams daily for 6 weeks. All showed improvement. And a lab study on rats found the herb had hypnotic effects and also improved sleep quality. But there are also concerns about kava’s effect on the liver, so it’s not recommended.
  • 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.

Melatonin for insomnia

Melatonin is a hormone 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 treatment for circadian rhythm disorders and may help decrease sleep disturbances caused by jet lag. Studies are mixed, but it may help with falling asleep more quickly and help with insomnia

Melatonin needs to be taken at the right time of day in the right dose to be effective, but how much to take is poorly understood. The amount of melatonin in over-the-counter supplements can raise the level in the body up to 20 times normal. Adverse effects of melatonin are minimal, but long-term studies examining efficacy and toxicity of melatonin supplements are needed.

Acupuncture for insomnia

Acupuncture is often used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of insomnia. This procedure involves the insertion of very fine needles (sometimes in combination with electrical stimulus or with heat produced by burning specific herbs) into the skin at specific acupuncture points in order to influence the functioning of the body. The results of recent studies have shown acupuncture improved sleep quality in people with insomnia. However, additional research is required before the effectiveness of acupuncture is proved conclusively for the relief of insomnia.

Relaxation and meditation or mindfulness for insomnia

Increased muscle tension and intrusive thoughts can interfere with sleep. Techniques aimed at relaxing muscles (progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback) and quieting the mind (meditation) have been found to be effective treatments for insomnia. Most people can learn these techniques, but it usually takes several weeks before they can sufficiently master them well enough to help ease insomnia. There is a growing body of evidence that supports the value of meditation in treating insomnia. Several studies show that regular meditation practice, either alone or as a part of yoga practice, results in higher blood levels of melatonin.

Exercise for insomnia

Regular exercise deepens sleep in young adults with or without sleep disorders. In addition, several studies show that exercise can improve sleep in older adults. Recent studies show that even the low-to-moderate tai chi and certain yoga practices enhance sleep quality in older persons and cancer patients with sleep problems, respectively. Although consistent exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, most experts advise to stop exercising at least 3 to 4 hours before bedtime to avoid interference with sleep.

CBD and cannabis for insomnia

CBD is short for cannabidiol. It’s a compound in cannabis (marijuana), but it doesn’t have psychoactive effects like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That’s what makes you feel high. Both CBD and cannabis may help you fall asleep faster, but more research is needed to know how they affect sleep quality and if there are any long-term complications. And one, both, or neither may be legal depending on where you live.

Also, your brain and body get used to the chemicals in cannabis or other drugs. You’ll have to use a higher dose to get the same effects. With repeated use, cannabis might not help you sleep as well, or you might find it hard to snooze on your own.

Sleep hypnosis for insomnia

This form of hypnotherapy is done by a licensed professional. A doctor, psychologist, or another health care worker guides you to what may look like a trance-like state. Once you’re there, they suggest sleep-related changes. These could include not being anxious about your sleep problems or practicing better sleep hygiene, such as waking up and going to bed the same time every day.

Alternative therapies are not FDA approved and not always harmless. By definition, alternative therapies are not generally accepted standard of care practice in the U.S. Consider the following points before starting alternative therapy.

  • Always talk to your doctor before trying an alternative approach, and be sure to tell all your doctors which alternative treatments you are using.
  • If you experience side effects such as nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, anxiety, diarrhea, or skin rashes, stop taking the herbal product and notify your doctor immediately.
  • Avoid preparations made with more than one herb.
  • Beware of commercial claims of what herbal products can do. Look for scientific-based sources of information.
  • Select brands carefully. Only purchase brands that list the herb's common and scientific name, the name and address of the manufacturer, a batch and lot number, expiration date, dosage guidelines, and potential side effects.