After a few sleepless nights it’s natural to start looking for things which can put a stop to the hours of tossing and turning.
Perhaps you’ve considered asking the doctor for something to knock you out at night. Maybe you’d prefer to steer clear of strong pharmaceuticals and see what mother nature has to offer.
Natural sleep remedies are a popular choice for people who can’t, or don’t want to, take pharmaceutical pills.
And as the stress of long-term sleep problems takes its toll and prescribed sleeping pills don’t seem to help, many people experiment with alternatives which might provide some relief.
In this article I’ll be looking at the various options you have, as well as the scientific evidence that they work. Hopefully you’ll find something which both appeals to you and improves your quality of sleep.
Which remedy to choose
There’s a wide choice of natural remedies which are marketed as promoting sleep. And not just the specific herbs, roots and flowers but also in the form that they come.
Let’s take a look at the most popular types.
Herbal sleep aids
Every year, more and more over the counter natural sleeping remedies are created. The most common ingredient is Valerian, probably because there’s some scientific evidence that it contains sedative properties.
I tried out three popular brands over several weeks to see if they worked. You can find out more about the results of my tests in these individual reviews:
An increasingly popular type of sleep aid, categorized by some as natural, is Melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone your body produces, and which plays a key role in regulating your internal body clock. The tablets do of course contain a synthetic version.
To find out more you can read my review of over the counter sleep aids to find out more about Melatonin and other natural sleep aids.
Herbal tea has stood the test of time as one of the most popular natural sleep aids. And nowadays you can find teas containing a wide range of herbs and flowers, such as:
- St john’s wort
- Kava Kava
- Lemon Balm
- Chinese herbs
To find out more about some specific teas and also more information about each herb and flower, you might like to read my article about bedtime teas.
Do natural sleep remedies actually work?
There isn’t a huge amount of research done on this subject, but what there is unfortunately doesn’t do herbal sleep aids many favors.
In 2012, researchers from Monash University in the United States conducted a large investigation into all the known studies of natural sleep remedies.
They reviewed the scientific literature which had been published about the therapeutic potential and safety of remedies made from herbs such as Valerian, Hops, Chamomile, Kava-Kava and St John’s Wart.
Their conclusion was that there were surprisingly few studies published over the years about them. Moreover, the results of the few that did exist were generally contradictory or inconclusive.
Some examples the Monash University researchers gave of the contradictions and lack of conclusive evidence are:
- One review found 16 studies that appeared to show Valerian, either taken alone or with other herbs, is effective to combat sleeplessness. However, another review pointed to 29 studies which showed that Valerian is safe to take, but ineffective in helping people fall asleep.
- There are inconsistent and very few pieces of research around the effectiveness of Kava-Kava. Considering the safety concerns about Kava-Kava, there’s a definite need for more thorough research.
- There are only a limited number of studies that show St John’s Wart and Chamomile to be effective insomnia remedies.
- Only find one study mentioned lemon balm as having sedative properties.
Why are natural insomnia treatments so popular if there isn’t much evidence saying they work?
There’s a striking lack of evidence that natural remedies can help you sleep, yet millions of people take them, often for many years.
Just to highlight the sheer quantity of people taking them, it’s worth mentioning an extensive health survey conducted in 2002 in the United States.
It found that over 1.6 million American adults were using some form of complementary and alternative medicine to try to cure insomnia.
In the survey people gave 2 main reasons as to why they had tried them:
- It would be interesting to try a natural remedy (nearly 67% of people reported this)
- They thought that it would be helpful when combined with a conventional treatment (64% of people)
Apparently, the majority of people reported that they found natural sleep aids or relaxation therapies useful in helping deal with insomnia.
Perhaps there’s a combination of possible explanations as to why people take the remedies: hope, belief, word of mouth and the placebo effect.
And of course the possibility that despite the rather bleak conclusions of some researchers, maybe some remedies are more effective than the statistics have so far shown.
The power of word of mouth and the placebo effect
My personal opinion is that drinking chamomile tea (just as one example) may be useful because the very act of preparing it, sitting down to drink it, and enjoying it can be relaxing.
And anything that’s relaxing is conducive to helping you fall asleep. So even if there’s a bit of a placebo effect at work, it’s a good effect if it works for you.
And while the scientific jury is still out as to whether natural sleep remedies really work or not, there’s firm evidence that the placebo effect is a powerful thing.
If you believe something will improve your physical or mental health, in many situations that belief can have an effect. And belief can be very powerful in promoting relaxation, which is one essential goal for being able to sleep well.
If you’re told by clever advertising that they can help, then there’s the possibility that even if they don’t have a sedative effect, the placebo effect will still take place.
If your family, friends or colleagues tell you to try something which they believe helps them, then your willingness to believe it may increase even further.
Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Combine it with the placebo effect, and you have a possible explanation for why some of these remedies could help.
To find out more about the placebo effect, the British NHS website has a good article explaining how the placebo effect works.
And of course there’s one other important factor to consider: many people just haven’t heard that there isn’t strong evidence that these remedies work.
They see a packet marked ‘herbal sleeping pill’ in the shop, and buy it in good faith that they will get their money’s worth.
What do you think about natural remedies? Do you think they can help you sleep? And if so, which herbs or flowers have you found helpful?