Almost half of all Americans experience sleep problems on an ongoing basis, but if you don’t want to take prescription medications to help with your sleep issues — and these medicines do have side effects and can become habit-forming — what can you do? Are there natural substances that can help?
The answer is yes, perhaps. There are indeed natural substances that have been used for centuries by people needing help to get to sleep and stay asleep. Here are three of them, with no particular ordering:
Chamomile: This is a natural herb that is readily available and widely drunk as a tea. It also comes in extract and ointment forms. While not widely tested on human beings, chamomile given to animals has been shown to both help with sleep and create no side effects.
Valerian: This is a compound that is derived from the root of the Valerian plant but it is often mixed differently by different manufacturers, so many doctors caution against its use. Valerian, however, has been used for centuries as a sleep aid, and many, many people swear by it. Some doctors also caution against mixing valerian with other sleep substances, though you can certainly find many over-the-counter sleep aids that routinely combine valerian with other substances.
Melatonin: This is the body’s natural sleep hormone, produced by a trigger in our brains when our eyes sense that it’s become dark around us (thus making it hard to sleep with the lights on). As we age, the body often produces less and less melatonin. Many people swear by melatonin supplements, but doctors aren’t sure if it’s any help in “curing” insomnia.
The biggest problem with judging these natural sleep aids is the lack of definitive studies on their use. Thus we’re left dealing with anecdotal evidence — literally, what we hear from other people, informed or not.
If you do have problems sleeping, the first recourse is to adhere to good sleep hygiene practices, which we’ve discussed here on many occasions. If that doesn’t help, then by all means it’s time to seek professional evaluation and guidance.