Do you difficulty sleeping and prefer alternative remedies to strong prescription sleeping pills? Perhaps conventional medicine hasn’t worked for you and you’re interested in trying something different.
Alternative medicines have long been used by people suffering from sleep disorders. Back in 2006, a large scale survey showed that more than 1.6 million Americans use some form of alternative medicine to help them sleep.
And estimates from Statista.com suggest that, in 2016, the global value of the alternative medicine industry exceeded $14bn.
Part of the reason they’re so popular may be that herbal remedies work slowly, usually with a gentle effect on the body and minimal toxic side effects.
But what do scientists think of these treatments? Are alternative remedies safe and do they even work? Some people are skeptical of the benefits of alternative medicines, viewing them, at best, as less effective than modern treatments.
At worst, they see them as unsafe and untested substances that could harm your health. This view is outdated and inaccurate though – at least where some treatments are concerned.
As you’ll see in this article, well-designed clinical trials have shown that some natural remedies can be safe and reliable treatments for a range of disorders, including insomnia.
Sleep and alternative medicine: a short history
Complementary and alternative medicines have been used as a cure for insomnia for at least 5,000 years.
For example, in 2AD, the famous Greek surgeon Galen is thought to have prescribed valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to patients suffering from insomnia.
Unlike Valerian though, not all historical cures have endured. Renaissance Europe produced a series of strange and probably ineffective cures.
Italian mathematician Gerolamo Cardano recommended that his patients smear their teeth with the earwax of dogs. The English writer and physician Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) advised his readers to “anoint the soles of the feet with the fat of a dormouse.”
Whilst scientists unsurprisingly haven’t tried to investigate Cardano’s or Burton’s remedies, they have begun to look at ancient herbal treatments to see if, and how, they work.
They hope that a better understanding of alternative treatments for insomnia could improve our understanding of the problem and give sufferers a wider range of tools to help them achieve a good night’s sleep.
Below are some of the herbs and treatments that scientists have recently investigated.
Valerian has a distinguished track record in being used to combat insomnia. It remains among the top selling herbal remedies in the US.
In an analysis of relevant research papers, Dr Stephen Bent and his colleagues reported that using valerian extracts brought about a statistically significant improvement in reported sleep quality.
Furthermore, use of valerian was found to improve sleep without the unpleasant side effects (such as headaches and drowsiness) associated with conventional sleep medicines.
However, they note that there were some methodological weaknesses across the research that they reviewed. So there’s a need for more rigorous clinical trials to confirm these findings.
Researchers have also conducted studies on animals to investigate the effects that valerian has on the brain.
They found that mice who were given valerian have increased levels of proteins in the brain that are associated with the onset of sleep – specifically GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid.)
Valerian was also observed to relax and reduce wakeful activity in the animals’ central nervous systems.
The discovery of an observable link between valerian and brain activity lends strong support to traditional beliefs about the effectiveness of valerian as a cure for insomnia.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is among the most common herbs used for medicinal purposes, including combating insomnia. Dried chamomile flowers are often turned into relaxing nighttime teas or ground into herbal extract tablets.
Researchers have reported that drinking a cup of chamomile tea 30 minutes before going to bed can improve your chances of experiencing a good night’s sleep.
Chamomile assists with sleep because of the plant’s mild, natural sedative qualities. This has been widely observed in studies on animals, although there have been relatively few clinical trials looking at the effect of chamomile extract on insomnia for people.
However, a study by the University of Pennsylvania found that chamomile was significantly more effective than an inert placebo in promoting sleep and reducing anxiety.
In addition to its sleep promoting properties, chamomile and chamomile extracts are also widely used to treat common skin conditions, such as rashes, inflammation and cracked skin.
Chamomile is also thought by scientists to have preventative qualities. In a research paper published in 2005, Professor Wang of Imperial College London reported that frequently drinking chamomile tea over a two week period increased the presence of antibacterial compounds in participants’ bodies.
Chamomile was thought to stimulate the body’s production of naturally occurring defenses against disease. Perhaps a healthier immune system could contribute to better, longer sleep.
Lavender extract is often distilled and sold as an oil. And lavender aromatherapy has long been seen as a calming, sleep inducing treatment. However, evidence for these claims have, until recently, been largely anecdotal.
Lavandula, the genus of lavender, comes down to us from the Latin word lavare, which means ‘to wash’. This tells us about the earliest recorded therapeutic uses of the herb; lavender’s calming properties meant that it was used to help bathers relax during Roman bathing rituals.
In 2005, Dr Namni Goel and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania conducted controlled clinical trials into the effects of lavender extract on sleep.
Lavender was found to lower blood pressure, reduce participants’ heart rate and promote sleep. Those who were exposed to lavender before sleep also felt more vigorous and energetic the following morning. This suggests that lavender also improves the quality of sleep.
Another area of interest that scientists are considering is how traditional, natural cures could be used safely and effectively with conventional medicines.
When studying the effects of lavender, researchers found that patients who used a combination of the herb and Diazepam (a widely prescribed conventional medicine commonly used to treat anxiety) had better health and sleep outcomes than those who used only lavender or Diazepam.
Despite some reason for optimism, British researchers in 2012 weren’t quite so positive. They conducted a systematic review of previous research into the effects of lavender on sleep, finding that:
Most studies had small samples and methodological limitations…Early results appear promising but they should be viewed with caution. More scientifically rigorous and adequately powered trials are needed to investigate the true effect of lavender oil aroma inhalation on sleep.
Nowadays, homeopathic medicines can be found in many pharmacies and supermarkets. And of course, practicing homeopaths can devise more personalized treatments for their patients.
However, studies considering the effects of homeopathy on sleep haven’t shown that it provides any benefit compared to receiving a placebo, or no treatment at all.
These findings have been recently repeated by Dr Edzard Ernst of the University of Exeter, who found no significant differences between homeopathy treatments for insomnia and placebos.
So why does the scientific evidence support other alternative remedies, but not homeopathy?
The studies conducted on animals to investigate the properties of valerian provide a clue. Here, scientists found an observable effect on the brain; components in the herb effected brain chemistry.
It’s possible that the homeopathic practice of ‘Potentisation’ (significantly diluting ingredients to the point where treatments may not, in fact, include any active components) mean that there’s nothing in the treatment that can affect the brain.
With no active components, there can be no change in brain activity, and therefore no effect on patients’ insomnia.
In response to studies demonstrating that homeopathy doesn’t appear to work, in 2016 the US government ordered that producers of all homeopathic treatments would either have to provide scientific evidence that they work, or inform consumers that there is no such evidence.
So far, I’ve looked at how scientists are catching up with alternative remedies and discovering the active components that help induce longer and better sleep.
An interesting recent study did the opposite; it identified an effective sleep inducing chemical and searched for naturally occurring examples.
Cherries and cherry juice aren’t traditional alternative remedies. However, scientists have shown that two weeks of drinking cherry juice can improve symptoms of insomnia, and improve sleep time and quality.
Cherries are rich in phytochemicals and encourage the body’s natural production of melatonin, a key sleep hormone.
Some people take melatonin supplements as a form of conventional medicine (such as tablets prescribed by a doctor) to help them sleep.
However, these pills can have unpleasant side effects, such as headaches, drowsiness and nightmares. Cherries, on the other hand, appear be able to induce the positive effects of conventional melatonin supplements without the drawbacks.
This is an exciting finding, as it shows scientists driving the search for natural cures and remedies.
By first identifying the key chemical compounds, then searching for natural sources, they might be able to provide effective cures for insomniacs without resorting to conventional medicines.
Although is still remains to be seen if a reliably effective natural remedy for insomnia will ever be discovered, there is some room for optimism.
While some alternative treatments, such as the much maligned homeopathy, have taken a beating in recent research and government policies, there are ancient remedies still around today and new ideas for insomniacs to try.
Do you take any herbal remedies to help you relax or sleep? Do you feel that they make a big difference? Feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts.