There are two herbs or supplements that have the best data supporting their effectiveness. Both appear to be safe but have modest effectiveness.
- Valerian(Alone or Combined with Hops or Melissa)
Melatonin: Rapid Effect on Sleep
The body uses melatonin as part of the way it regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
Taking melatonin as a supplement seems to stimulate sleep when the natural cycle is disturbed. The most common uses are to aid with jet lag or help people who have to adjust their schedule from time to time because of work.
A major review published in 2001 concluded that melatonin was useful for jet lag (Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for preventing and treating jet lag. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(1):CD001520).
Mixed results have been seen in studies involving the use of melatonin for swing-shift workers and for elderly individuals with insomnia. (for the full discussion of the research I encourage you to subscribe to Consumer Lab and then go to this page).
Valerian: Appears to Improve Sleep Gradually
Valerian has a long traditional use for insomnia, and today it is an accepted over-the-counter drug for insomnia in Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Valerian is most commonly recommended as an aid for occasional insomnia. However, the results of the largest and best designed study suggest that it may be more useful for long-term improvement of sleep (Vorbach EU, Gortelmeyer R, Bruning J. Therapy for insomniacs: effectiveness and tolerance of valerian preparations [translated from German]. Psychopharmakotherapie. 1996;3:109-115.).
This 28-day, double-blind, placebo-controlled study followed 121 people with histories of significant sleep disturbance. This study looked at the effectiveness of 600 mg of an alcohol-based valerian extract taken 1 hour before bedtime.
Valerian didn’t work right away. For the first couple of weeks, valerian and placebo were running neck and neck. However by day 28, valerian had pulled far ahead. Effectiveness was rated as good or very good by participant evaluation in 66% of the valerian group and in 61% by doctor evaluation, whereas in the placebo group, only 29% were so rated by participants and doctors.
This study provides good evidence that valerian is effective for insomnia. However, it has one confusing aspect: the 4-week delay before effects were seen. In another study, valerian produced immediately noticeable effects on sleep (Leathwood PD, Chauffard F, Heck E, et al. Aqueous extract of valerian root ( Valeriana officinalisL.) improves sleep quality in men (Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1982;17:65-71), which is what most practitioners believe to be typical. Why valerian took so long to work in this one study has not been explained.
Other studies of valerian alone, or in combination with hops or melissa, have produced mixed results.(for the full discussion of the research I encourage you to subscribe to Consumer Lab and then go to this page).
In addition several other treatments have some data to support their effectiveness, but the quality of that data is poorer and there may be safety issues as well.
5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan); Acupuncture or Acupressure; Ashwagandha; Astragalus; Biofeedback; Chamomile; He Shou Wu; Hops; Kava; Lady’s Slipper Orchid; Passionflower; Relaxation Therapies; St. John’s Wort; Skullcap