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Nervousness, stress, tension, anxiety—the little worries of everyday life can occasionally disrupt a good night’s sleep. If you crave a restful sleep or suffer from mild insomnia, you may be tempted to use one of the many over-the-counter sleep medications on the market. However, the active ingredients in many of these medications are antihistamines.
Antihistamines (particularly diphenhydramine, the most widely used antihistamine) relieve the symptoms caused by allergies and can certainly make people feel sleepy. It’s important to realize that when you choose a product like Benadryl to help fall asleep, you’re actually using it for its side effect, not for its intended treatment. There’s little long-term research that examines the risks associated with prolonged use of over-the-counter sleep aids.
If you're having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, before yielding to the quick fix of medication consider a more natural approach. There are many herbs, such as valerian, passionflower, lemon balm, hops, and lavender, that may provide a healthy sleep without the side effects that accompany over-the-counter and prescription medications, such as dizziness, blurred vision, and depression.
Hops – Not Just for Flavouring Beer
The same flower that imparts a bitter, zesty, or citric flavour to beer can also help you sleep. Traditional medicine has long used the dried, flowering part of the hop plant as a mild sedative because of its calming and hypnotic effect. It’s well known that while harvesting hops, pickers would feel sleepier as the day went on.
However, hops are not as good at maintaining sleep and are often combined with other sleep-inducing herbs. The results of a study done in India showed that the combination of valerian, hops and passionflower is a safe and effective alternative to zolpidem (Ambien).1 Another hops-related study showed that the combination of valerian and hops “favourably influence sleep.”2
There haven’t been any serious side effects reported from using hops, though it’s recommended that it not be taken if you’re suffering from depression.
Valerian Root – Nature’s Valium
Its name comes from the Latin verb valere, meaning “to be strong, healthy” - a name that undoubtedly comes from its beneficial effects on stress and anxiety. Perhaps the best known sleep-inducing herb, valerian is a classic ingredient of phytotherapy and has been used since antiquity.
The hypnotic virtues of valerian are concentrated in its thick brown roots. Numerous studies have found that the root extract is effective at bringing about sleep quicker, improving deep sleep as well as the overall quality of sleep. Valerian increases the amount of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain, a chemical messenger that slows neural activity. Sedatives such as Valium bind to the same neural receptors as GABA.3
Although valerian is considered safe when used in the short term (i.e. 4 weeks), some people have experienced side effects such as headache, dizziness, and stomach problems.
Lavender – The Floral Fragrance of Sleep
The fresh, floral scent of lavender has been linked with the production of endorphins, which in turn relieves stress and enhances a pleasurable feeling. Empirical and clinical studies have confirmed that lavender improves sleep and alleviates anxiety.
A double-blind randomized study that involved adults with Generalized Anxiety Disorder compared an oral lavender oil capsule to benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety drug. The 6-week study concluded that lavender oil “effectively ameliorates generalized anxiety” and “appears to be an effective and well tolerated alternative to benzodiazepines for amelioration of generalized anxiety.”4
What makes lavender especially effective as a sleep remedy is its versatility. Whether you make a potpourri or fill your pillow with its dried flowers, consume it as a tea or add its essential oil to your bath, lavender has shown to lower the heart rate, lower blood pressure and put you in a relaxed state – ideal conditions for a good night’s sleep.
Lemon Balm – For Medicinal and Sleep Relief
Lemon balm has been used for its health benefits since ancient Greece. This remarkable perennial herb is still cultivated today for its medicinal properties, and has been used to remedy a multitude of ailments including sleeplessness, nervousness, and anxiety.
The leaves of lemon balm contain citronella, which gives the plant its tart, lemon-like fragrance. Citronella oil is known to be a mild sedative. Like other herbs, lemon balm is most effective when combined with other natural sedatives.
For example, a clinical study that compared the effectiveness of a valerian-lemon balm combination against Halcion (a prescription sleep medication) found the natural remedy was just as effective at inducing sleep and providing a better quality of sleep. However, the next day the Halcion group reported feeling hungover and had trouble concentrating, while those who took the herbal combo reported no lingering side effects.5
Lemon balm is considered safe for adults when used in the short-term. Unfortunately, not enough is known about its effect when used for a prolonged period.
Passionflower – Proven and Effective
In addition to having sedative and anti-anxiety properties, passionflower is antispasmodic (suppresses muscle spasms). There are many species of passion flower but the one most commonly used for medicinal purposes is Passiflora incarnata. The other species have little or no beneficial effect, and some are considered toxic.
Despite being a well-known and effective remedy for sleeplessness, it is only recently that passionflower has been the subject of clinical studies. Researchers confirmed this herb worked just as well as prescription sleep medication. In 2001, a clinical trial involving a pure passionflower extract showed that the plant was as effective as oxazepam in relieving patients with generalized anxiety.6 In another clinical study of patients undergoing surgery, an extract of passionflower taken approximately two hours before surgery successfully reduced preoperative stress.7
Passionflower is generally considered safe with a few reported serious side effects. However, large doses may result in unusually low activity in the central nervous system. Pregnant and lactating women should avoid using passionflower.
Natural Sleep Remedies Work!
Most of these herbs are available as teas and in tinctures, but the most effective remedies will come from a properly formulated blend in the form of a supplement.
The clinical studies have shown that herbal remedies are highly effective in improving sleep, and alleviating stress and anxiety. However, you should still do your own research and talk to your health care provider or doctor. It's important to understand what you're putting into your body and how to discern which natural herbal remedies will enhance your health.
1 Maroo, Hazra, Das: Efficacy and safety of a polyherbal sedative-hypnotic formulation NSF-3 in primary insomnia in comparison to zolpidem: A randomized controlled trial. Indian J Pharmacol. January-February 2013.
2 Cornu, Remontet, Noel-Baron, Nicolas, Feugier-Favier, Roy, Claustrat, Saadatian-Elahi, and Kassai: A dietary supplement to improve the quality of sleep: a randomized placebo controlled trial. BMC. Complement Altern Med 2010.
3 Stevinson, Ernst: Valerian for insomnia: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Sleep Medicine 2000.
4 Woelk, Schläfke: A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine. 2010 Feb.
5 Dressing, Riemann, Low, et al.: Insomnia: Are valerian/balm combination of equal value to benzodiazepine? Therapiewoche 1992 [in German].
6 Akhondzadeh, Naghavi, et al.: Passionflower in the treatment of generalized anxiety: a pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial with oxazepam. J Clin Pharm Ther 2001 Oct.
7 Movafegh, Alizadeh, et al.: Preoperative oral Passiflora incarnata reduces anxiety in ambulatory surgery patients: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Anesth Analg. 2008.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.