Natural Sleep Aids

Natural Sleep Aids: what to take
when you need to take something

After over 25 years of practice, I have finally discovered the real value of natural sleep aids. Certainly it’s true that natural remedies for insomnia beat sleep medications hands down when it comes to minimizing dangerous side effects, but that’s not it. The main value in my recommending for insomnia herbs and natural health supplements is that you (yes, you) can tell the difference in your body and the quality of sleep you have. No one enjoys that drugged, hangover feeling that often lingers the morning after taking a prescription sedative for sleep. And that foggy feeling of “I stayed asleep all night but I don’t feel rested and now I can’t think straight” does not occur with natural sleep aids. Good news.

One of the problems with prescription sleep medications is that they can actually interfere with the attainment of the deepest and best stages of sleep. Overuse of sedative, sleep inducing medications or alcohol can interfere with restful restorative sleep. So for chronic insomnia, prescriptions can be useful only as a short term bridge to a better long term solution, or you risk an addiction problem without improving sleep.

What are the natural sleep aids that I trust and recommend most often? An herb called valerian tops the list. Valerian is a natural and safe sleep aid which usually does not result in any hangover feeling in the morning. Many people report that it takes perhaps two weeks of nightly use in order to begin to notice the best effects. It also tends to have a moderate anxiety reducing effect with prolonged use. The combination with Lemon Balm adds nicely to anxiety and stress reduction. (Nature’s Way makes a combination of Valerian and Lemon Balm called Valerian Nighttime). Because it has a sedative effect, I recommend its use at bedtime only, and not before driving. For valerian alone, the recommended dose is either in the range of 500 mg of a standardized extract or 1.5 to 2 grams of dried root powder, taken 30 minutes before bedtime. Be aware, this herb smells like dirty socks, so don’t even think about taking it as a tea; the capsules are not so bad. I do not often recommend valerian in children less than age 12 since we have little data on its safety in children. Do not combine this natural sleep aid with sedative prescription drugs.

In addition, I often recommend chamomile. This time honored herbal medication has a long history of use and safety in children as well as adults. Chamomile also can be used in the daytime for its gentle anti-anxiety effect. Since it is often found as an herbal tea in health food stores, that is an easy dosage form. However, in order to get “medicine strength” chamomile for sleep or anxiety, you need from 3 to 5 teabags steeped for 10 minutes in 8 ounces of boiled water. This makes a very strong tea, but the taste is still gentle, as is its effect at improving sleep and mood. Chamomile has the added benefit of calming an upset stomach, especially safe and effective for little ones.

Among other natural sleep aids to consider is melatonin. While this is a natural hormone which our bodies make to aid in deep restful sleep, and it can be very effective, I have a some reservations about its long term use.

Magnesium is another natural sleep aid worth considering, especially if the reason for poor sleep is chronic pain or fibromyalgia. When combined with a dose of calcium at bedtime, this may help induce more sound and restorative sleep, though the scientific evidence for that claim is weak. However, many of us are magnesium deficient without knowing it, so this is a safe supplement that will help more than sleep. (the list of benefits of adequate magnesium in the diet is impressive, reducing risks of heart problems, diabetes, chronic pain and more). Aim for around a 300 mg dose; avoid magnesium oxide (more risk of diarrhea) and magnesium carbonate (poorly absorbed); magnesium gluconate or magnesium chloride are the preferred forms for oral dosage.

Also on the list of herbal remedies for sleep are: Hops, Lavender (try the essential oil, a form of aromatherapy), Passionflower and Skullcap.

Expect medicinal herbs to take a bit longer to be effective than a prescription medication, so don’t be surprised if you do not experience their full benefit for as much as 2 weeks after starting. Melatonin works more rapidly for occasional insomnia.

With these few herbal remedies, you are well on your way to sleeping better, knowing that herbal medications are only one part of a holistic approach to sleep. Use them along with good sleep hygiene , deep breathing exercises, psychotherapy to deal with anxiety, regular exercise and healthy diet, and you will find the rest you are looking for.

To your health and wellness,



Robert Pendergrast, M.D. 

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