Natural Supplements for Insomnia

Since insomnia is such a common problem, and many people are aware of the negative effects of the medications prescribed for insomnia, we’re often asked about natural supplements for insomnia.

Principal Proposed Natural Treatments

There are two herbs or supplements that have the best data supporting their effectiveness. Both appear to be safe but have modest effectiveness.

  • Melatonin
  • Valerian (Alone or Combined with Hops or Melissa)

Other Proposed Natural Treatments

In addition several other treatments have some data to support their effectiveness, but the quality of that data is poorer and there may be safety issues as well.

5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan); Acupuncture or Acupressure; Ashwagandha; Astragalus; Biofeedback; Chamomile; He Shou Wu; Hops; Kava; Lady’s Slipper Orchid; Passionflower; Relaxation Therapies; St. John’s Wort; Skullcap

Valerian: Appears to Improve Sleep Gradually

Valerian has a long traditional use for insomnia, and today it is an accepted over-the-counter drug for insomnia in Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

Valerian is most commonly recommended as an aid for occasional insomnia. However, the results of the largest and best designed study suggest that it may be more useful for long-term improvement of sleep (Vorbach EU, Gortelmeyer R, Bruning J. Therapy for insomniacs: effectiveness and tolerance of valerian preparations [translated from German]. Psychopharmakotherapie. 1996;3:109-115.)

This 28-day, double-blind, placebo-controlled study followed 121 people with histories of significant sleep disturbance. This study looked at the effectiveness of 600 mg of an alcohol-based valerian extract taken 1 hour before bedtime.

Valerian didn’t work right away. For the first couple of weeks, valerian and placebo were running neck and neck. However, by day 28 valerian had pulled far ahead. Effectiveness was rated as good or very good by participant evaluation in 66% of the valerian group and in 61% by doctor evaluation, whereas in the placebo group, only 29% were so rated by participants and doctors.

This study provides good evidence that valerian is effective for insomnia. However, it has one confusing aspect: the 4-week delay before effects were seen. In another study, valerian produced immediately noticeable effects on sleep (Leathwood PD, Chauffard F, Heck E, et al. Aqueous extract of valerian root ( Valeriana officinalisL.) improves sleep quality in man.Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1982;17:65-71), and that is what most practitioners believe to be typical. Why valerian took so long to work in this one study has not been explained.

Other studies of valerian alone, or in combination with hops or melissa, have produced mixed results.(for the full discussion of the research I encourage you to subscribe to Consumer Lab and then go to this page).

Melatonin: Rapid Effect on Sleep

The body uses melatonin as part of the way it regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

Taking melatonin as a supplement seems to stimulate sleep when the natural cycle is disturbed. This is probably the best use for the supplement (for instance in treating jet lag, or in people who have to shift their sleep wake cycle from time to time for work).

A major review published in 2001 concluded that melatonin was useful for jet lag (Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for preventing and treating jet lag. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(1):CD001520).

Mixed results have been seen in studies involving the use of melatonin for swing-shift workers and for elderly individuals with insomnia. (for the full discussion of the research I encourage you to subscribe to Consumer Lab and then go to this page).