Do herbal supplements help sleep?
Many people use herbal supplements for sleep. The most commonly used herbs are valerian and hops, but there are a number of others that can also be effective. Herbal treatments for sleep can be purchased over the counter without prescription, and are often what people try first if they are having trouble with sleep before going to see a health care professional.
What are herbal medications?
Herbal medications are medicines derived from plants. Unlike chemical medicines, which are usually a single active ingredient or compound, herbal medicine may contain many chemicals that together produce their effect. In addition, these chemicals are often broken down in to metabolites in the body which can produce many of the therapeutic effects.
As herbal medications come from plants, the exact concentration of various chemicals depends on factors such as the soil they are grown in, how the plants are grown, fed and watered, what stage they are harvested at, the weather conditions throughout the growing period, and how the plants are handled after harvesting. This means that the concentration or strength of active chemicals in herbal medications can vary from batch to batch and different brands, which source their ingredients from different sources, may have different effects. This can make it hard to perform scientific research studies on the effect of herbal medications.
Principles of using herbal supplements for sleep
Like prescription medication, herbal supplements can have side effects and may not work for everyone, so it’s important to manage lifestyle factors as well as thinking and behaviour about sleep before resorting to using tablets. Although herbal supplements come from natural sources, they still work by altering brain chemistry, so aren’t something to be used lightly. Their effect can also tend to wear off over time, so relying on herbal medication alone to manage sleep is not a good long-term approach.
Unlike chemical medicines, because herbal medicines often have their effect via metabolites, their effects can some time to develop and may not happen after the first dose. For sleep, that means using a herbal medication on 1 night and feeling that it didn’t work, doesn’t mean that it may not be effective if used each night over a week. For that reason, if people plan to use herbal medications, I usually advise using them most nights for at least a few weeks, rather than only on odd nights as they might do with prescription sleeping tablets.
The most commonly used herbal medicine for sleep is valerian. The extract comes from dried root of the plant Valeriana officinalis, and historically has been used as a sedative or for pain and anxiety. The exact mechanism of valerian is not clear, but the various active components of valerian root are thought to act on GABA receptors.
There have been a number of studies of valerian for the treatment of insomnia. These have been summarised in a meta-analysis that showed that valerian is effective at improving sleep quality.
Hops are the female flowers (also called seed cones) of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. Hops have been used historically as a sedative, either as a medicine, a component of beer, or even as a pillow. There has been little published research on the effectiveness of hops as a treatment for disturbed sleep. One study showed that hops reduced night-time activity in quails. Most research on hops has been when it is used in combination with valerian. A study from Canada, published in 2005, showed that a valerian-hops combination improved how people rated their sleep to a similar extent to use of the anti-histamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl or Unisom SleepGel capsules).
Other herbal medicines used to help sleep
Whilst these substances are commonly used to help with sleep there have been very few research studies assessing their effect.
- Kava Kava – has historically been used as a sedative and to help with anxiety. It comes from the root of the Piper methysticum plant that is most commonly used in Polynesian cultures as a drink.
- Passionflower – leaves from the Passiflora incarnata plant were used by native North Americans as a sedative. Now passionflower is most commonly combined with other herbal medications as a mild sedative.
- Lemonbalm – from the Melissa officinalis plant has been studied in combination with valerian in a randomised controlled trial, showing improvements in sleep quality compared to placebo.
Related posts & links:
- Using melatonin to help sleep
- Medication for insomnia. What are the options?
- Having trouble sleeping. When is it insomnia?
- Insomnia: Strategies for better sleep
- Insomnia: Why doesn’t it just go away by itself?
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