Insomnia is the inability to sleep at the expected time. Sleeping pills and cold medicines that cause drowsiness can provide temporary relief, but they may not be appropriate for everyone and may cause side effects.
Herbal remedies are an alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals. Catnip, hops, kava, lavender, lemon balm, passion flower, skullcap, and valerian are examples of herbal remedies commonly used for insomnia. They can be purchased individually or in combinations. Most of them are also used for conditions other than insomnia.
The leaves of the catnip plant (Nepeta cataria L.) may produce sleepiness in humans. However, there are no clinical trials to prove the effectiveness or to determine the optimal dose. Catnip is safe to consume at reasonable doses. However, it can be dangerous if taken in very large quantities. Do not use catnip if you are pregnant.
The hops plant (Humulus lupulus) is typically used to flavor beer. Historically, the flowers have been used to treat mild insomnia. Sleeping on pillows filled with hops flowers is said to promote sleep. Hops is generally taken with another sedative, like valerian. The most effective dose is not known. Hops are relatively safe. But there are reports of allergic skin rash after handling the plant. Women who have had breast cancer or who are at high risk for breast cancer should probably avoid hops due to its estrogen-like properties.
Kava is extracted from the root of a deciduous shrub called Piper methysticum. South Pacific Island cultures have used kava for centuries. However, in some countries, kava has been abused and is a serious social and health problem. To help insomnia, take kava one hour before bedtime.
The dose depends on the amount of the active ingredients, called kavalactones, in the product. It is recommended that people use kava extract standardized to 30% kavalactones. Do not take kava if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Kava may affect judgment or reflexes during the operation of machinery. It also should not be combined with antipsychotic drugs or drugs for Parkinson disease.
Kava may cause problems with the liver. If you are taking kava, you should be monitored by your doctor for liver problems.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a flowering plant with a pleasant odor. The flower oil is calming and may help insomnia. Two studies showed that lavender oil as aromatherapy decreased agitation in people with dementia. A very small observational study indicated that lavender oil did help people with mild insomnia compared people using sweet almond oil. Internal use of the essential oil can cause severe nausea and should be avoided.
Lemon Balm is a plant (Melissa officinalis L.) with a pleasant lemon smell. It can be grown in most gardens. The leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat sleep disturbances. There is not enough evidence to recommend lemon balm as the sole treatment for insomnia. There are two studies however, that give promise that it may work if combined with valerian. In small oral doses, lemon balm can have a calming effect. Lemon balm appears to be safe but may cause excessive sedation if taken in combination sedative medications.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata L.) was used historically and is used currently as a mild sedative. In studies of mice, passionflower extracts produced decreased agitation and promoted long sleep. In humans, passionflower helped reduce anxiety, but there is not enough evidence to recommend it for the treatment of insomnia. It seems to be safe, although it may increase the effect of other drugs, especially sedatives.
Skullcap is an herb (Scutellaria lateriflora L.) that was used historically as a sedative. It is currently found in insomnia products. There is no evidence to support its effectiveness or to recommend dosages. It has not been proven to be safe, and there is debate over whether it can cause liver toxicity.
For centuries, Europeans have used valerian as a sedative and sleep aid. The valerian plant has thick roots with a foul smell. Valerian extract is made from the dried roots and is currently used for relaxation and for promoting sleep. Clinical research studies have shown inconsistent evidence for the effectiveness of valerian for insomnia. Valerian appears safe to use, but may impair the ability to drive or operate machinery.
Insomnia may sometimes be related to other health issues. If you are experiencing frequent, severe, or worsening bouts of insomnia, or if you have had insomnia for a while, it is best to discuss it with your doctor.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
National Sleep Foundation
Better Sleep Council of Canada
Canadian Sleep Society
Catnip. Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary/. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Insomnia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated December 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Kava. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary/. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Lavender. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary/. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Osterhoudt KC, Lee SK, Callahan JM, Henretig FM. Catnip and the alteration of human consciousness. Vet Hum Toxicol. 1997;39(6):373-375.
Passionflower. Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary/. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Shinomiya K, Inoue T, Utsu Y, et al. Effects of kava-kava extract on the sleep–wake cycle in sleep-disturbed rats. Psychopharmacology. 2005;180:564-569.
Sleep Aids and Insomnia. National Sleep Foundation website. Available at: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/sleep-aids-and-insomnia. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Skullcap. Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthlibrary/. Updated July 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Valerian. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/valerian. Updated November 28, 2008. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Last reviewed December 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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