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April 15, 2014

Natural products for insomnia


If you’re struggling with insomnia, natural health products could help. But don’t expect miracles, and always use them with caution.

Warm milk, herbal teas, essential oils – many insomniacs give natural health products a try before turning to medications. The good news is that some of these products have calming properties that can actually help reduce anxiety and promote sleep.

Melatonin, the sleep hormone

Available in pill or liquid form, synthetic melatonin duplicates the effects of the natural hormone released by the brain at night – at least in theory. It is believed to work for sleep problems associated with jet lag, night work or rotating shift work.

“Unlike sleeping pills, melatonin does not create a hypnotic effect. It works by resetting the body’s biological clock, helping a person adjust to a new time zone or shift work,” explains psychologist Charles Morin, Director of the Center of Studies on Sleep Disorders at Université Laval. While the research looks promising for jet lag and shift work, it has yet to be shown whether or not melatonin can be beneficial to those with classic insomnia (problems falling asleep, frequent or early awakenings), says the researcher.

The recommended dose of melatonin for insomnia is 1 to 5 mg one hour before bedtime. The supplement will only work if the insomnia is associated with a low production of melatonin. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid melatonin. In addition, people with a serious illness (cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.) should not take this supplement, unless directed by a medical professional.

Herbs to help you sleep

Valerian, passion flower, linden, lemon balm, St. John’s-wort, vervain and hop are some of the plants recognized for their sedative qualities. They can even be combined to enhance their effect (e.g. valerian with hop). In his book, Conquer the Enemies of Sleep, Charles Morin points out that several nights may be needed for results to be felt, and that these results remain quite modest.

“These products target anxiety and may be helpful in treating mild insomnia. But they should always be used with caution. Just because a product says ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it is harmless,” he adds. For instance, in too high a dose, valerian can affect a person’s alertness, much like sleeping pills. Health Canada recommends that women who are pregnant or nursing consult a healthcare practitioner before taking any of these products.

The recommended dose of valerian for insomnia is 400 to 600 mg of standardized extract, 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.

The soothing properties of lavender

Valued for its fresh scent, lavender may also have a slight anxiety-reducing effect. For insomnia, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried lavender flowers in 150 ml of boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes and drink before bedtime. You can also take 1 to 4 drops of lavender essential oil daily on a sugar cube or mixed with honey. Another option is a hot bath with 20 to 30 drops of the essential oil, right before bed.

Melatonin overload and SAD

Unlike insomniacs, people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) experience an overwhelming need to sleep. While the exact cause of SAD remains unknown, many hypotheses have been put forward. One theory is that the lack of sunlight during the winter months may cause the body to produce a greater quantity of the “sleep hormone” melatonin. This, in turn, is believed to increase fatigue and sleepiness. Light therapy has been the recognized medical treatment for SAD for at least twenty years. It involves daily exposure to artificial light that mimics sunlight. When it enters the eye, the white light is converted into electrical signals that work on the brain’s pineal gland to reduce melatonin levels.

For further information, consult our buyer’s guide on light therapy lamps. (In French only).

To learn more:

Guide pratique des produits de santé naturels, Protégez-Vous, 2011. (In French only)
Vaincre l’insomnie, Protégez-Vous, May 2011. (In French only)
Moins de sommeil, plus d’appétit, Protégez-Vous, April 2012. (In French only)

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