Q: There are a ton of supplements and herbal remedies that claim to help you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly. Do any of them actually work?
A: If you are plagued by insomnia and want to consider supplements, two have been studied scientifically and shown to have beneficial effects:
Valerian. This herb has been used as a sedative for hundreds of years. Like sleep medications known as benzodiazepines (which include Xanax, Valium, Librium, and Ativan), valerian seems to enhance the action of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), which acts to calm us down and make us sleepy. Studies examining the effectiveness of valerian as a sleep aid have been mixed — some studies show no benefit, while others show improvements in certain measures of sleep quality. If you’d like to give valerian a shot, look for an extract standardized to contain 0.4 to 0.6 percent of valerenic acid. Take 400 to 900 milligrams per day, two hours before bedtime. Although valerian has been well researched for safety, it shouldn’t be taken for longer than 30 days. Common side effects include headache, itchiness, dizziness, and gastrointestinal distress. You should not take valerian if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are also taking a prescription sedative. Although valerian has not been shown to have any significant interactions with medications, it is always best to talk with your doctor before beginning any herbal supplement.
Melatonin. This neurohormone has long been linked to sleep. Research shows that people with some forms of insomnia have lower–than–normal levels of melatonin. Reviews of the medical literature suggest that taking melatonin may help some people with insomnia — in particular, some older people and so–called night owls who naturally have a hard time falling asleep before 2:00 a.m. Melatonin seems to be safe if taken for only a month or two. The most common side effects are nausea, headache, and dizziness. If you want to try melatonin, the recommended dosage is 3 to 5 milligrams per day taken 30 to 60 minutes prior to bed time. (When buying supplements, remember that 1 mg = 1000 micrograms.) If you have trouble falling asleep, use immediate- release form; if you have trouble staying asleep, use sustained–release form. You may need to take it for several days before you see any results. If you don’t see results after two weeks, chances are it won’t work for you at all.