Do natural sleep aids really work?

Turning to natural sleep aids has become “ common practice” – particularly among females, young people and those of a higher educational level.1 And the demand for these alternative therapies may well increase thanks to a January 2015 study showing a link between over-the-counter sleep aids and a higher risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.2

First, we’d like to point out that natural sleep aids are not a clinically diagnosed treatment option for obstructive or central sleep apnea. (Here are four sleep apnea treatment options.) However, if you’re one of the millions who struggle to fall or stay asleep due to reasons other than apneas, you may be tempted to give natural sleep aids a try.

Here’s a rundown of the most common natural sleep aids, along with commentary about their effectiveness from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.3

Herbs and dietary supplements

  • Chamomile has traditionally been used for insomnia, often in tea. But NCCIH says “there is no conclusive evidence from clinical trials showing whether it is helpful.” Plus, it warns that you may have allergic reactions to it if you’re also allergic to ragweed or related plants.
  • Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone, is also commonly used for insomnia, and may help people recover from jet lag and shift work-related sleep problems. But NCCIH says melatonin’s ability to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer are “small compared to that of other treatments for insomnia,” citing a 2013 analysis of 19 different studies. Plus, it points out that “the long-term safety of melatonin supplements has not been established.”
  • Kava “is said to have sedative properties,” according to NCCIH, but “very little research has been conducted on whether this herb is helpful for insomnia. More importantly, kava supplements have been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.”
  • Valerian is another herb said to have sedative properties. But NCCIH reports that clinical trials have not yet established its positive effects on sleep or its long-term safety.

Mind and body practices

  • Yoga may be helpful for women who are postmenopausal or have osteoarthritis, according to preliminary studies cited by NCCIH.
  • Acupuncture, hypnotherapy and massage therapy have also shown promising results, but very little research has been done to strengthen those claims, according to NCCIH.
  • Relaxation techniques “may help people with insomnia and nighttime anxiety,” writes NCCIH, particularly in combination with improving other sleep habits like “maintaining a consistent sleep schedule; avoiding caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, and strenuous exercise too close to bedtime; and sleeping in a quiet, cool, dark room.”

We suggest that everyone develop these sleep habits in the bullet above. However, ResMed does not endorse the use of any specific natural sleep aids, but simply offers this blog post as an overview for those seeking more information about them.

You should talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of trying any of these alternative therapies, and tell them right away if you experience any negative side effects after using them. Remember, natural sleep aids and dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA, which means there’s little consistency in labels and dosages. That makes it difficult to judge their safety and effectiveness.

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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