There are many natural and herbal remedies and supplements available over-the-counter for sleeping disorders. None of these are regulated by the FDA. Although these sleep remedies are sold as dietary supplements, they should always be thought of as drugs. As such, they have side effects and may have drug interactions that have not been identified and are not listed (since they are not regulated by the FDA). Some of the most commonly used natural and herbal remedies for insomnia and sleep problems are as follows:
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the pineal gland (a pea-sized gland located just above the middle of the brain) that helps regulate the body's clock or sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is the only OTC hormone available for sale in the United States. (It is available OTC because it occurs naturally in some foods. Also note that melatonin is not an herb) The exact mechanism of how melatonin induces sleep has not been determined. Some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating jet lag or reducing the time it takes to fall asleep (but not necessarily total sleep time)—although the effect is typically mild. Side effects can include headache and daytime sleepiness.
Supplements made from this plant are sometimes taken as sleep aids. Valerian is often combined with other herbs that also cause drowsiness such as passion flower, skullcap, GABA, and chamomile. Some preparations will also combine valerian and melatonin along with the other ingredients listed previously. Although a few studies indicate some therapeutic benefit, other studies haven't found the same benefits. Valerian generally doesn't appear to cause side effects.
Of the limited research studies available related to melatonin or valerian, the results only relate to these compounds used as a single preparation. There are no research studies investigating sleep aids using compounds with many ingredients as discussed above. Since these compounds are not regulated by the FDA, it is not necessary for the manufacturer to complete research studies prior to marketing to the public. As such, it is always important to keep in mind that these preparations are drugs and they should be used cautiously and in an informed manner.
Natural Remedies and Herbal Supplements: Take Appropriate Precautions
It is important to note a few things about these natural and herbal remedy products:
- They have not been exposed to the rigorous testing by the FDA that is required of all prescription products
- Even though these remedies are sold OTC, they are still “medications” that cause chemical changes in the body
- These substances can interact with other medications in a negative manner
- The safety, risk, and dosage profiles of these products are often unknown since they are not rigorously tested.