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.
Complementary medicine is essentially alternative medicine that is taken along with conventional treatments.
Alternative Therapies for Insomnia
- 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.
- 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. 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 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
Increased muscle tension and intrusive thoughts can interfere with sleep. Therefore, it is not surprising that 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, an important regulator of sleep.
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 exercising at least three to four hours before bedtime to avoid interference with sleep.
Points to Consider About Alternative Therapy
Alternative therapies are not FDA approved and not always benign. By definition, alternative therapies are not generally accepted standard of care practice in the U.S. As mentioned, some herbal therapies can interact with other medications you may be taking. 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 what 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.