Herbal Supplements to Treat Sleeplessness
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Herbal Supplements to Treat Sleeplessness

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image for natural sleep aid articleIf you need help getting a good night's sleep, but don't want to take medication, an herbal supplement may be just what you're looking for. Here are the facts on the herbs most commonly used to induce sleep.

Insomnia is the inability to sleep at the expected time. Sleeping pills and cold medicines that cause drowsiness can provide temporary relief, but eventually the effects will diminish. Ultimately the dose will have to be increased and drug dependence can occur. Moreover, sleeping pills can have serious side effects.

Herbal remedies are an alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals. Catnip, chamomile, hops, kava, lavender, lemon balm, oats, passion flower, skullcap, and valerian are the herbal remedies most 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 sedation in humans. However, there are no clinical trials to prove the effectiveness or determine the optimal dose. Catnip is safe to consume at reasonable doses; however, there has been a case report of a toddler being hospitalized after consuming large quantities of catnip. Do not use catnip if you are pregnant.


The chamomile herb is the dried or fresh flowers of a small, daisy-like plant (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile has been used for thousands of years to treat insomnia. Apigenin is a chemical in chamomile that works in the brain to produce muscle relaxation and initiate sleep; it has been shown to produce a mild sedative and anti-anxiety effect in mice. However, there are no human clinical studies proving the sedative effects of chamomile. The exact dose of chamomile that produces sedation is not known.

Chamomile is safe to consume. However, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should consult a doctor before consuming chamomile for therapeutic purposes. People who are allergic to ragweed may also be allergic to chamomile. Highly concentrated hot chamomile tea may induce vomiting.


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. There are no clinical trials examining the effectiveness of hops on insomnia; therefore, the most effective dose is not known. Hops is relatively safe. There are reports of allergic skin rash after handling the dried flowers. Do not use hops if you have depression.


Kava kava is the root of a deciduous shrub called Piper methysticum. South Pacific Island cultures have used kava for centuries. However, in some countries kava has become a drug of abuse and is a serious social and health problem. Kava acts as a stimulant or depressant depending on the amount taken. Therefore, to help insomnia, take the daily dose all at one time, one hour before bedtime.

The dose of kava required depends on the amount of the active ingredient-substances, called kavalactones, in the product. German authorities recommend that people use kava extract standardized to 30% kavalactones. Do not take kava if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have clinical depression. Kava may affect judgment or reflexes during the operation of machinery, and may enhance the effects of alcohol and psychiatric drugs. German and Australian authorities recommend that people who use kava daily do so for only four weeks to three months.


Lavender (Lavandula) is a flowering plant with a pleasant odor. The flower oil is calming and may help insomnia. One study of elderly people with sleeping difficulties found that inhaling lavender oil was as effective as tranquilizers. Internal use of the essential oil can cause severe nausea and should be avoided. External use in reasonable amounts is safe during pregnancy and breast-feeding.

Lemon Balm

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 are no clinical studies examining the effect of lemon balm as the sole treatment for insomnia. Therefore, there is no recommended dose. Lemon balm appears to be safe. Large doses may cause digestive upset or diarrhea. Pregnant women, people with glaucoma, or people with hypothyroidism should not use lemon balm.


The fruit or green tops of the oat plant (Avena sativa L.) have been used in folk medicine to treat insomnia and are commonly added to formulations to treat insomnia. However, German authorities do not approve of the use of oats as a sedative. There have been no clinical trials to prove its effectiveness or dosage. People allergic to wheat may be allergic to oats. Otherwise, oats can be safely consumed.

Passion Flower

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata L.) was used historically and is used currently as a mild sedative. In studies of mice, passion flower produced sedation. There are no human studies examining the effect. Nonetheless, German authorities approve of taking four to eight grams per day. Passion flower is generally safe. However, it may increase the effectiveness of other drugs, especially sedatives. In fact, some people have been admitted to the hospital after taking prescription drugs along with an herbal mixture containing primarily passion flower.


Skullcap is an herb (Scutellaria lateriflora L.) that was used historically as a sedative. It is currently found in insomnia products. There have been no clinical trials to test the effectiveness or recommend dosages. Skullcap appears safe, but 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. Numerous clinical research studies have shown that 270-600 milligrams of valerian taken daily for 14-30 days decreases the time it takes to fall asleep. People report an improvement in sleep quality and general well being, and feel more rested after waking. Valerian is safe to use, but may impair the ability to drive or operate machinery. Long-term continuous use may cause headaches, excitability, and insomnia.

Insomnia may sometimes be related to other health issues. If you are experiencing frequent bouts of insomnia, it is best to discuss it with your health care provider.


American Academy of Sleep Medicine

National Sleep Foundation


Better Sleep Council of Canada

Canadain Sleep Society

Last reviewed August 2007 by J. Thomas Megerian, MD, PhD, FAAP

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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