Herbal Treatment

Herbal treatment for sleep problems

I love a cup of decaffeinated earl gray tea or chamomile  in the evenings because it helps me relax and maybe sleep better, why not. There is a growing public interest in the use of herbs for treating insomnia or other medical conditions. Herbs have been used in other cultures for centuries.

When advocating for the use of herbs in general, I have to use caution as a physician. I like to see published studies that support or refute the use of a specific herb. Some studies on herbal medications have been done in the petri dish in a laboratory or animals and their effect on humans is unknown. I think it is a promising field that requires engagement and research from the medical community. I am not against it, but I like to know if there is any harm associated from an herb or any plant that I put in my body. It is a safety issue. I am not opposed to some of their use if they are known to be safe.

Chamomile is the most widely used herb for sleep problems. People swear by a cup of chamomile to help them wind them down and sleep better. One study actually evaluated chamomile extract to see if it helps people with chronic insomnia. They did not find any significant difference. There was some improvement of their daytime functioning, but their total sleep time, how fast they fell asleep and the number of awakenings did not improve. There was no harm of side effect. This was published in BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine’s September issue of 2011. My feeling is that if a cup of chamomile helps you sleep better, go for it. There is no harm.  Few drops of chamomile oil can be put into a hot bath to soothe you and help you sleep better.

Here is a quote from an article published in Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2005 April issue which makes a statement on the use of oral nonprescription treatment of insomnia:  “Sparse or no scientific data were found to support the efficacy of most products as hypnotics, including chamomile and St. John’s wort. There is preliminary but conflicting evidence suggesting Valerian officinalis L. and first-generation histamine-1-receptor antagonists have efficacy as mild hypnotics over short-term use. There are significant potential risks associated with the use of Jamaican dogwood, kava kava, alcohol, and I-tryptophan”. The Clinical Practice Review Committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that there is limited evidence for their use.

For those with restless legs syndrome (RLS) and periodic limb movements (PLMS) who have insomnia, oral magnesium therapy has been helpful. A 1998 study from Germany which was published in the August issue of Sleep showed that patients slept better with magnesium. Magnesium can be a good alternative therapy for those with mild to moderate RLS or PLMS.

An Italian study found a mixture of melatonin, magnesium and zinc helped elderly folks who live in a nursing care facility with their insomnia. This study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in 2011 gave the participants 5 mg melatonin, 225 mg magnesium, and 11.25 mg zinc, mixed with 100 g of pear pulp one hour before bedtime. After 8 weeks, the mixture resulted in considerable improvement in ease of getting to sleep, quality of sleep, increased total sleep time and best, they were more alert in the morning.

Tips on the calming effect for evening and night

  • Chamomile tea or extract.
  • Lavender is a soothing herb. You can add a few drops to a bath or foot bath just before bedtime. Lavender oil can be used for massage.
  • If you have restless legs or even insomnia, try magnesium oxide or magnesium citrate at 200 to 400 mg a day. Watch out for loose stool. It might not do anything for your restless legs but it can help if you have constipation.
  • Try this combination: Melatonin 5 mg, magnesium 200 to 400 mg and zinc 1 hour before bedtime. You can purchase any of these supplements from the local pharmacy.