(The list of natural medicine treatments for insomnia could easily number into the hundreds, and that’s not an exaggeration! This short little two-page article is going to be far from an exhaustive survey!)
Before we even get into the pills and powders, I should point out a paper published in the January, 2003 issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research which compared a wide range of conventional (drug) therapies with various behavioral therapies, such as biofeedback and relaxation techniques, in people with chronic insomnia. It turned out that the drugs and the behavioral techniques worked equally well, except for in one instance (sleep latency) in which the behavioral therapies actually worked better. Popping a pill may be easier – pharmaceutical pill, herbal pill, whatever – but it usually won’t work any better than learning how to sleep again!
I want start off with melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain when light stops hitting our eyes; in other words, it tells us “it’s dark out now.” Melatonin, more than anything else, helps synchronize our body’s wake/sleep cycles to the day/night rhythms of the planet.
Melatonin can “reset the clock” during jet lag, or help night shift workers sleep during the day. It often helps older people, who tend to make less melatonin than younger folks. It may help long-term vegetarians who have become vitamin B-12 deficient, since B-12 is needed to make melatonin in the body. And melatonin generally improves sleep in people with brain disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, mental retardation, seizures, following traumatic brain injuries, etc.)
Bear in mind, though, people can stay awake in the dark, just like they can sleep in daylight, and that’s because melatonin is not a particularly strong sedative. Melatonin simply whispers to your brain “now’s the time when you ought to sleep.” But the brain can still ignore that message. Melatonin usually doesn’t do much for normal people with normal schedules who are just too stressed to sleep.
Melatonin may do a lot more than just trigger the psychological process of sleep at night. There’s now growing evidence that it may trigger nighttime physical repair processes as well. In various trials, melatonin has been shown to: increase quality of life in epileptic children, protect rat livers from the damaging effects of cholesterol, lower blood pressure in type I diabetes, grow hair on balding women, treat chronic lung disease in premature infants, reduce nighttime urination in men with enlarged prostates, and protect rats from Alzheimer’s disease – all in the last year alone! Wow! It appears to be one of our most versatile antioxidants. And perhaps most impressive, a number of studies have shown melatonin to double the average lifespan of human patients with terminal cancers (in high, 10-20 mg doses). Because it is a hormone released at specific times by the brain to regulate sleep, I still don’t want to recommend megadoses to people without insomnia – but that may change.
You can naturally increase your own melatonin production with appropriate light/dark cycles. Get BRIGHT light first thing in the morning; sleep in total darkness. Advanced practitioners of meditation also have higher melatonin levels. Cell phone users have lower levels.
5-HTP: A Precursor to Melatonin, and More
In our bodies, we make melatonin from something called serotonin. And we make serotonin from something else called 5-HTP. It goes like this: 5-HTP >>>>> Serotonin >>>>> Melatonin. So why take 5-HTP if it has to go through two conversions before it becomes melatonin? Why not take melatonin directly? That’s because serotonin itself can be quite calming and relaxing in its own right. Serotonin is a “happy” brain chemical, and a major target of most modern antidepressants. You know that relaxed, drowsy feeling you get after a big meal of pasta? 5-HTP is for when you want to feel that! People use all sorts of doses, with all sorts of time frames. But 50-100 mg three hours before bed, plus another 100-200 mg an hour before bed often works quite well. A rare but serious side effect can occur if you take 5-HTP with SSRI or MAOI antidepressants. So don’t.
Glycine: Calmative and Relaxant
I’m a big fan of the amino acid glycine as not so much a sedative as a calmative. First, it’s cheap. Second, it tastes like sugar. Third, it’s very, very safe even for small children. In fact, the best local herbalist I know used to give it to his 4-year-old. “For some reason,” says the herbalist, “he’d get a little wild before he had to go to bed. I found the glycine helped calm him down.” The noted naturopathic doctor, Bill Mitchell, says “the effect is to calm the mind and spirit,” and suggests a half-teaspoon in a glass of warm water with about 40 drops of your favorite calmative herb. I think of glycine for people who act and/or feel like hyperactive children, racing around, all worked-up – either around bed-time or even during the day. If Bill Mitchell’s half-teaspoon dose is ineffective, doubling or even quadrupling the dose should be completely safe in a normal individual.
Herbs for Sleep
Probably the most popular herb for insomnia is Valerian. And there’s plenty of good research behind it, too. Plus it’s the number-one selling over the counter sleep aid in Germany (where herbal medicine is endorsed by the government). Michael Moore writes in Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West that valerian “is a useful, safe, and reliable sedative and antispasmodic – for some people. It is most effective when you have been nervous, stressed, or become an adrenalin basket case, with muscular twitches, shaky hands, palpitations, and indigestion. You aren’t hungry and you don’t want a massage; you sit down or lie down, and jump up to do something five minutes later.” He goes on to say that valerian is a funny herb, because about 15% of people who take it get even more wakeful and excited, probably those with already very robust constitutions.
Passionflower is another useful sleep herb. (This is, incidentally, the flower that later becomes passionfruit). Whereas valerian is more of a sedative, passionflower is more of a calmative. According to Michael Moore, this time in Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, “Passionflower is a simple, uncomplicated sedative… it has little of the ‘downer’ sensation of other herbs and drugs… It is virtually devoid of side effects in sensible doses and is more calming than narcotic. Some people like an ‘edge’ to their sedatives; Valerian would probably be their choice… There is no edge to Passionflower; it lets you down a couple of notches, and it’s then up to you to take it from there.” Try a squirt in your glycine?
When it comes to combination products, there are again literally hundreds. Here are three that I really like. The first is “Calms Forte,” from the Hyland’s company. Calms Forte has been one of the best-selling natural supplements for decades now. It combines low-dose calmative herbals with minerals in a pleasant-tasting lozenge. Calms Forte is a mild product and suitable for children or animals too. Remember, it’s mild — in other words, doesn’t pack much of a punch.
If anxiety is a factor, the Sound Sleep formula from Gaia Herbs combines both sleep stuff, quiet-the-mind stuff, and anti-anxiety stuff. It includes the glycine, valerian, and passionflower mentioned earlier, as well as other ingredients which round out the formula nicely. I think of Sound Sleep for folks who are dealing with sleep problems with a twinge of anxiety.
Finally, our newest sleep product is the Sleep Tight formula, from Tori Hudson’s Vitanica company. Yes, I know Vitanica markets itself as “products for women’s health,” but this is a great supplement that can really be used by anyone. It has the valerian and passionflower as well, plus some 5-HTP and melatonin. And then it adds in a healthy dose of some b-vitamins, B-12 and B-6 especially, to assist your brain in making stuff like melatonin and serotonin itself.
Remember, a warm bath or a long hike can work wonders. A cup of tea, or some relaxing music, perhaps. And if you don’t remember your dreams, try P-5-P!
 “On the comparability of pharmacotherapy and behavior therapy for chronic insomnia. Commentary and implications.” Perlis, M. L. et al.