image for natural sleep aid article If you need help getting a good night's sleep, but don't want to take medication, an herbal supplement may be just what you're looking for. Here are the facts on the herbs most commonly used to induce sleep.

Insomnia is the inability to sleep at the expected time. Sleeping pills and cold medicines that cause drowsiness can provide temporary relief, but eventually the effects will diminish. Ultimately the dose may have to be increased and drug dependence can occur. Moreover, sleeping pills can have serious side effects.

Herbal remedies are an alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals. Catnip, chamomile, hops, kava, lavender, lemon balm, oats, passion flower, skullcap, and valerian are the herbal remedies most commonly used for insomnia. They can be purchased individually or in combinations. Most of them are also used for conditions other than insomnia.

Catnip

The leaves of the catnip plant ( Nepeta cataria L. ) may produce sedation in humans. However, there are no clinical trials to prove the effectiveness or to determine the optimal dose. Catnip is safe to consume at reasonable doses; however, there has been a case report of a toddler becoming less alert after consuming large quantities of catnip. Do not use catnip if you are pregnant.

Chamomile

The chamomile herb is the dried or fresh flowers of a small, daisy-like plant (Matricaria recutita). Chamomile has been used for thousands of years to treat insomnia. Apigenin is a chemical in chamomile that works in the brain to produce muscle relaxation and initiate sleep; it has been shown to produce a sedative and anti-anxiety effect in mice. However, there are no human clinical studies proving the sedative effects of chamomile. The exact dose of chamomile that produces sedation is not known.

Chamomile is safe to consume. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a doctor before consuming chamomile for therapeutic purposes. People who are allergic to ragweed may also be allergic to chamomile. Highly concentrated chamomile tea may induce vomiting.

Hops

The hops plant (Humulus lupulus) is typically used to flavor beer. Historically, the flowers have been used to treat mild insomnia. Sleeping on pillows filled with hops flowers is said to promote sleep. Hops, in combination with valerian, is mildly sedating. The most effective dose is not known. Hops is relatively safe. There are reports of allergic skin rash after handling the plant. Do not use hops if you have depression .

Kava

Kava is extracted from the root of a deciduous shrub called Piper methysticum. South Pacific Island cultures have used kava for centuries. However, in some countries kava has become a drug of abuse and is a serious social and health problem. Kava acts as a stimulant or depressant. Therefore, to help insomnia, take kava one hour before bedtime.

The dose depends on the amount of the active ingredients, called kavalactones, in the product. It is recommended that people use kava extract standardized to 30% kavalactones. Do not take kava if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have clinical depression. Kava may affect judgment or reflexes during the operation of machinery and may enhance the effects of alcohol and psychiatric drugs. German and Australian authorities recommend that people who use kava daily do so for only 1-2 months.

Lavender

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a flowering plant with a pleasant odor. The flower oil is calming and may help insomnia. One study of elderly people with sleeping difficulties found that inhaling lavender oil was as effective as some sleeping pills. Internal use of the essential oil can cause severe nausea and should be avoided. External use in reasonable amounts is safe during pregnancy and breast-feeding.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm is a plant ( Melissa officinalis L. ) with a pleasant lemon smell. It can be grown in most gardens. The leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat sleep disturbances. There is not enough evidence to recommend lemon balm as the sole treatment for insomnia. Therefore, there is no recommended dose. Lemon balm appears to be safe. Large doses may cause digestive upset or diarrhea. Pregnant women, people with glaucoma , or people with hypothyroidism should not use lemon balm.

Oats

The fruit or green tops of the oat plant (Avena sativa L.) have been used in folk medicine to treat insomnia. There have been no clinical trials to prove its effectiveness or dosage. People allergic to wheat may be allergic to oats. Otherwise, oats can be safely consumed.

Passion Flower

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata L.) was used historically and is used currently as a mild sedative. In studies of mice, passion flower produced sedation. There is not enough evidence to recommend it for the treatment of insomnia. Nonetheless, German authorities approve of taking 4-8 grams per day. It seems to be safe, although it may increase the effect of other drugs, especially sedatives.

Skullcap

Skullcap is an herb (Scutellaria lateriflora L.) that was used historically as a sedative. It is currently found in insomnia products. There is no evidence to support the effectiveness or recommend dosages. There is no proven safety, and there is debate over whether it can cause liver toxicity.

Valerian

For centuries, Europeans have used valerian as a sedative and sleep aid. The valerian plant has thick roots with a foul smell. Valerian extract is made from the dried roots and is currently used for relaxation and for promoting sleep. Clinical research studies have shown inconsistent evidence for the effectiveness of valerian for insomnia. Valerian appears safe to use, but may impair the ability to drive or operate machinery. Long-term use may cause headaches, excitability, and insomnia.

Insomnia may sometimes be related to other health issues. If you are experiencing frequent, severe, or worsening bouts of insomnia, or if you’ve had insomnia for a while, it is best to discuss it with your doctor.