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Whether you need chronic insomnia treatment or sleeplessness is only an occasional problem, there are herbs that can help. Here are three herbs and an herbal formula that are safe, effective, and reliable aids for getting to sleep.

Insomnia is one of the world's most common health problems. One study found that 30 to 35 percent of people surveyed suffered frequent or chronic insomnia [1]. Despite the prevalence of the problem, only about one-quarter of patients bring it up when they see their doctors, and only about one in twenty makes a special trip to the doctor to get insomnia treatment [2].The cost of insomnia can be very real. A British study found that of (well-paid) financial sector workers who "burned out" and wound up quitting their jobs, almost no one quit just because the job was stressful, but rather because they experienced both job stress and insomnia [3]. Women are more likely to get treatment for insomnia than men [4], older people (over 65) are more likely to have sleep problems than younger people [5], and people who are obese or who have lower incomes or who live alone are more likely to have chronic insomnia that people who don't [6]. Fortunately, there are inexpensive natural sleep aids that actually work.

Mainstream Medical Treatments for Chronic Insomnia

If you are one of the few who asks a doctor for help with insomnia, chances are you'll get a prescription for a relatively expensive pill, despite the fact that researchers have known for years that non-drug treatments are superior to drug treatments for insomnia [7,8,9]. The reason you'll get a pill is that the other treatments that work better, such as:

  • biofeedback,
  • cognitive behavior therapy,
  • relaxation therapy, 
  • paradoxical intention (willing yourself to stay awake),

usually aren't covered by insurance or have significant copays. As a result, you will get a pill that is usually problematic.

  • Benzodiazepine sedatives and hypnotic agents, such as Ativan and Valium , "knock you out" but tend to stay in your system the next day. They are especially slow to clear from the body in older people, and they increase the risk of falls. People tend to build up a tolerance to these drugs, so it takes larger and larger doses for less and less sleep. When people stop this kind of medication, even if it isn't working anymore,  they are at risk for rebound insomnia (sleep problems that are worse than they were before) and drug withdrawal symptoms. Why would any doctor give you this kind of drug? These medications are cheap.
  • Selective melatonin agonists (in the USA, the only approved drug in this class is ramelteon) prime your brain to respond to the sleep-inducing effects of melatonin. The reason you would get this drug is you don't fall asleep easily even when it's dark, or you live in a far-north or far-south location with lots of sunshine in the summer. It would seem to make more sense just to give you melatonin, which costs about US $0.02 a dose, but melatonin isn't FDA-approved for insomnia, and ramelteon is. Ramelteon costs a little under US $3 a dose.
  • Zolpidem (Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist, and Intramezzo for middle-of-the-night use) is a gentler sedative of a different chemical class from the benzodiazepines. Some people have dizziness, drowsiness, or headache when they take it, but most people don't. The name-brand drug costs about $12 a dose.
  • Eszopicione (Lunesta) is another sedative drug of yet another chemical class. It's still in your system eight hours after you take it, but most users aren't aware they aren't awake enough to drive or use heavy equipment. It costs about US $4 a dose.

You probably get the picture. You or your insurance company will pay a small fortune for sleeping pills. They tend to leave you hung over the next day. They aren't the best alternative for treating your sleep problem. So what's a better alternative?

Herbs for Sleep Aids

Herbs for chronic insomnia treatment don't work perfectly, either, but they have fewer side effects and they cost a lot less. You should always do what your doctor tells you to do, but if you can't afford the expensive sessions with a psychologist or a biofeedback coach and you don't want the side effects of heavy duty drugs, there are herbal alternatives:

  • Hops are one of the oldest herbal treatments for insomnia that occurs when you can't get to sleep. There are reasons that some people drink a beer before they go to bed: Either drinking a cup of hops tea (you can buy tea bags in any health products shop) or having a beer or "near-beer" (with zero or nearly zero alcohol content) will put you to sleep gently in about 20 to 40 minutes[10]. If you don't overdo the beer, you won't have a hangover the next morning. People who get their hops in the form of near-beer tend to have the best results. Hops are also good for relieving nighttime hot flashes in menopause [11],
  • Passionflower is one of the preferred herbs for sleep aids to take if you can't stay asleep. It's an herb that makes you feel better even though evidence for some of the more objective measurements of insomnia treatment are lacking [12]There's even some evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic passionflower remedies, but it's best to stay to the full dose [13].
  • Valerian is also one of the natural sleep aids that has been used to treat insomnia at least since the time of the Roman Emperor Valerian, and likely long before. It's a little smelly in tea, but it's also available in capsule form and mixed with other herbs. Valerian is a "use with" herb. It helps increase the relaxation response to acupressure massage [14]. It increases growth hormone stimulation during sleep in elite athletes [15]. It works by itself or with other treatments to relieve anxiety [16]. It lessens restless legs syndrome [17], although it's only honest to note the effects in a clinical trial were measurable but not significant; the researchers admitted using a low dose.

Possibly the best of the well known herbal sleep aids, however, is a fourth "herb" that combines all three herbs. Because the herbs contain chemicals that work through different pathways in the brain (benzodiazepine and GABA receptors), combining them increases their therapeutic benefit. Even taking all three herbal sleep aids in a single herbal product like VitalStyle Herbal Dream (which is one among many products that has all three) may not solve all your sleep problems by itself, but you may get just enough insomnia relief to sleep better at night and feel better all day. This makes the combination a favorite alternative for chronic insomnia treatment.