Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, and for the person you’re caring for. Too little sleep can lead to poor decision-making, irritability, inability to concentrate, increased stress, memory loss, and eventually, serious medical illnesses. But often we find that when we finally have a chance to lie down, our mind starts going through all the things left undone today; all the things yet to be done tomorrow; our brain seems to want to take the opportunity to make lists while it has our undivided attention. And then, after a couple of hours, we become stressed thinking about the minutes ticking by, and the sleep we should be getting, and that just makes it harder to go to sleep. Some people find meditation works; others a white noise machine. But everyone has those nights when no amount of mind-quieting or stress-reducing techniques seem to work.

That’s when a sleep aid can help. Keep in mind, what works great for one person may not work at all for another, or may make them feel groggy and drugged the next day. So you may have to try a few before you find the right one for you. If you can find a natural sleep aid that works for you, that would be best, but sometimes it’s also good to have an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription sleep aid for those nights when nothing else is working for you.

Just keep in mind that any drug that relaxes you enough to go to sleep has the potential to be addictive. No matter what the drug company may say, it can be very tempting to avoid the struggle and just take the pill that will make you drop off quickly so you can get as much sleep as possible. This can eventually lead to problems (see my blog post, “Addicted To Sleep Meds”, to read about how I had to wean myself off of Ambien).

However, taken in sensible doses, and only when needed, the right sleep aid can do wonders for your frame of mind. Here are some common Natural, Over-The Counter, and Prescription sleep aids.

NATURAL Sleep Aids

Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body at night that helps regulate the sleep cycle. Supplementation of melatonin can help regulate the sleep cycle, especially for those suffering jet-lag, odd sleep/wake cycles, or in areas with light/dark cycles that affect sleep.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps improve sleep. It is a pre-cursor to serotonin. Low serotonin levels lead to irritability, restlessness, and difficulty sleeping. Tryptophan can be increased by eating foods such as; turkey, cottage cheese, peanuts, soy, milk, and brown rice.

Valerian is the most popular herb for insomnia and it is is the natural source of Valium. It eases nervous tension, muscle tension and anxiety. It can be used as an occasional treatment for restlessness, but may be most beneficial for insomnia treatment over the long term. It works well in combination with other sedative herbs.

Chamomile has been used for centuries as a herbal sleep aid. It is a very gentle herb and is considered safe both for adults and children. As a herb for insomnia is most often drunk as a tea, which has a mild, pleasant flavor. It has a mild soothing effect which aids sleep and reduces restlessness. It also has a positive effect on digestion. Those taking prescription medications should consult their doctor before consuming chamomile, as it can interfere with the efficacy of some medications.

Passion flower
This herb, used by the Aztecs as a sedative, has a calming, sleep inducing effect. This herb is commonly found in the list of herbs to help you sleep. This is a gentle, non habit-forming herbal sleep aid. This is a very safe herb and has been used by both adults and children to counter the effects of stress and tension. It helps relax the mind and body to induce restful sleep.

California poppy
California poppy can be found in many herbal sleep aids sold in the United States today. This natural herb can help promote sleep, relaxation and ease mild anxiety. Because of this herb’s mild sedative properties, it is also safe to give to children who have trouble sleeping.

Traditionally used for restless leg syndrome and other causes of insomnia, the herb “Skullcap” relieves nervous tension and renews the central nervous system.

Lemon Balm
Lemon balm,  also known as Melissa, is a traditional herbal folk remedy for sleep problems. It inhibits the breakdown of the sedative neurotransmitter GABA and possibly acetylcholine. Many herbal sleeping pills contain lemon balm, but few clinical trials have been done. One found the combination of valerian and lemon balm effective and very well tolerated for sleeping problems and restlessness in children. Lemon balm can also be used as a tea.

This common flavoring for beer also has a calming, sedative effect. It is a nervous tonic and helps relieve pain, as well. It can be taken in tea or tincture form. Pillows are sometime made of hops to help induce relaxation and restful sleep. This herb should be avoided by individuals who have depressions due to its depressant effect.

Cowslip has been used for centuries to make sedative tea. Its leaves are said to be mildly narcotic, and it is used as an herbal remedy for insomnia as well as hyperactivity. In Europe, it has been an effective calming beverage for problems related to nerves and anxiety for many generations. The flowers are thought to be a milder sedative, and are used to calm children and help them sleep.

Some people find the smell of jasmine (Jasminum spp) helpful in aiding sleep. Decaffeinated green tea with jasmine may be something to try. Green tea also contains L-theanine, an amino acid which relieves anxiety and stress, but is not sedative by itself.

Also known as “Indian ginseng”, Ashwagandha has some immunostimulant effects, but is also a good herb for sleep – even its Latin name means “sleep-inducing”. It may work by increasing brain levels of GABA and acetylcholine.

Kava or Kava-Kava is an ancient crop of the western Pacific that is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia (including Hawaii), Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia and Australia. Kava is sedating and is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. Safety concerns have been raised over liver toxicity largely due to the use of stems and leaves by supplement makers, as opposed to solely the root of the plant as dictated by traditional uses. For this reason, the sale of Kava Kava is banned in some countries.

Get more information at The Herbal Resource:

Popular Natural Sleep Aid Combinations at

Formula 303 Maximum Strength Natural Relaxant

Alteril Sleep Aid

Schiff Melatonin Plus 3 with Theanine

Other places to buy herbs online:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Diphenhydramine (ZzzQuil, Sominex, Nytol) and Doxylamine (Unisom) are antihistamines currently marketed as OTC sleep aids. Diphenhydramine is the only agent that is considered to be safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. The safety and effectiveness of Doxylamine has not been evaluated adequately for FDA approval. Other uses for diphenhydramine include allergy, motion sickness, and cough suppression. Scientists don’t know the exact mechanism that makes these drugs work.

Acetaminophen & Diphenhydramin Combinations – Excedrin PM, Excedrin PM Caplet, Midol PM, Tylenol Extra Strength PM, Tylenol PM, Tylenol Severe Allergy Caplet, Tylenol Sore Throat Nighttime, Unisom with Pain Relief, Bayer Select Max Strength Night Time Pain,  Sominex Pain Relief Formula, Tylenol Extra Strength PM Rapid Release Gelcaps, Excedrin PM Express Gels.

These combination products should not be used if pain is not present because the added pain reliever is not necessary.

People with liver disease, glaucoma, kidney disease, enlarged prostate, or urination problems should not use these medications.

Possible side effects of Acetaminophen & antihistamine combinations include: fast, pounding, or uneven heartbeats; confusion, hallucinations, unusual thoughts or behavior; severe dizziness, anxiety, restless feeling, or nervousness; urinating less than usual or not at all; easy bruising or bleeding, unusual weakness, fever, chills, body aches, flu symptoms; or nausea, stomach pain, low fever, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative Hypnotics
Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative Hypnotics – Eszopiclone (Lunesta); Zalepon (Sonata) act more specifically than benzodiazepine drugs on the same area in the brain. They are thought to have fewer side effects, and less risk of dependency, but are still considered controlled substances. Eszopiclone (Lunesta), has been tested for longer term use, up to six months, in clinical trials.

Receptor Specific Benzodiazepine Hypnotic
Zolpidem (Ambien) is used for the short-term treatment of insomnia, as well as some brain disorders. It is a short-acting nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic that works quickly (usually within 15 minutes) and has a short half-life (2–3 hours). Trade names of zolpidem include Adormix, Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, Damixan, Hypnogen, Ivedal, Lioran, Myslee, Nytamel, Sanval, Somidem, Stilnoct, Stilnox, Stilnox CR, Sucedal, Zoldem, Zolnod and Zolpihexal.

Today’s prescription sleeping pills don’t carry the same level of risks of dependence and overdoses as sleeping pills of the past. But risks remain — especially for people who have certain medical conditions, including liver and kidney disease. Always talk with your doctor before trying a new treatment for insomnia.

Benzodiazepine Sedative Hypnotics
Benzodiazepines – Estazolam (ProSom); Flurazepam (Dalmane); Quazepam (Doral); Temazepam (Restoril); Triazolam (Halcion) are the oldest class of sleep medications still commonly in use. They are thought to have a higher risk of dependence than other insomnia sedative hypnotics. These drugs are now less frequently prescribed than non-benzodiazepines. Primarily used to treat anxiety disorders, there are several benzodiazepines which are FDA approved to treat insomnia.

This page on the Mayo Clinic website has  important information on some of the most common types of sleeping pills used today, including drugs that help you fall asleep and drugs that help you stay asleep, such as: Lunesta, Rozerem, Halcion, Sonata, Ambien, Edluar, Estazolam, and Restoril.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


What do you do when the world’s asleep and you’re awake? All-Nighters is an exploration of an ancient malady and modern fixation — insomnia. With contributions from writers, scientists, artists and others, it will document the many ways we approach sleeplessness — as a nuisance, a disease, a curse, an opportunity or even a gift.


24 Responses to Sleep Aids

  1. Em says:

    I keep meaning to add here another natural sleep aid I found out about last year. I had attended a one-day retreat let by Harvard University’s Buddhist Chaplain when he visited us here in Wisconsin (he’s an old friend of a friend) and I mentioned to him I often am struck by bouts of insomnia and he mentioned using nutmeg to help. However he also cautioned that you need to use it sparingly because it can be very harmful if you take too much. And pregnant women or one nursing a child should never use it. You should also consult with a nurse-practitioner to be certain it won’t interact poorly with any medication you use.

    Although one article I found suggests putting it in cup of warm milk, I drink almond milk so that doesn’t work for me. He had mentioned that some people put it in organic sesame oil and massage it into their skin which is as effective as ingesting it. I have ground fresh nutmeg and either shake a little on a piece of toast with peanut butter, or in a cup of caffine-free vanilla rooibos tea. Below are a few links if you want to look into it for yourself.

  2. joyce says:

    DLH, Has anyone heard of the benefits of cherry juice and sleep? Thx, Joyce

    • Karen says:

      Hi Joyce, not me. Have you tried it? How has your sleep been since you posted in December below? I feel for you because I know teachers have to be up so early and alert and on first thing in the morning and I know it can be very tough on the body if you’re forcing yourself to rise so early after not enough sleep the night before. My mother-in-law, a former teacher, takes a hot bath before bed and that helps her a lot to relax and I think makes her back feel better too. I was watching Dr. OZ the other night and he had a simple & inexpensive remedy for sore necks out there: take a sock, fill it with rice and add some lavender tincture for calming and relaxation aromatherapy. It can then be warmed up in the microwave for pain relief. I could use one right now myself as my neck is a bit sore right now!

    • joyce says:

      I am in the process of trying to find the articles that I first read about cherries and melatonan. I will post when i find it. Thx.

      • Jean F says:

        Joyce, I looked it up, and you’re right! “A study done by Dr Russel Reiter University of Texas, well known melatonin researcher, found that Montmerency tart cherries were a rich source of melatonin, pineapple and bananas were also tested but were found to have low levels of melatonin. Dr Reiter has also studied walnuts and found them to be not only a significant souce of omega-3 fatty acids, but also to contain melatonin.

        Although melatonin is readily available as a supplement, Dr Reiter does not advise it to be taken in this form, but rather to obtain it from natural food sources such as tart cherries and walnuts.”

        I’m going to try it! ~ Jean

        p.s. I guess Harry and David Chocolate Covered Cherries don’t count?

        • Char says:

          Jean, Joyce, Karen, and All
          I do believe if you are “sleep walking” the chocolate covered can be used!
          At any extent, this is something I will be trying, the tart cherries and walnuts that is. Thanks

          • Karen says:

            You guys are making me hungry! Plus, I love tart things. Dark chocolate & tart cherries sounds delish. I wonnder who makes these??

        • Lisa M says:

          Hi All,
          I’m sure if you order the Dark Chocolate (heart heatlhy) Covered Cherries you’re good to go! Walnuts are also great for lowering cholesterol.:)

          • Karen says:

            See that above Lisa, won”n”der, my typos have increased tenfold since my eyes went rogue on me! Do not feel bad!

            • Lisa M says:

              Thank you Karen. I appreciate the encouragement. I realize life is so much bigger than a typo, but I still find it frustrating – especially on this site, which I appreciate and respect so much. Mainly, the lesson to me (which apparently I haven’t quite grasped yet) is to just slow down! :-)

        • Lynn says:

          Do you know if Absolute cherry martinis (with cherry liqueur) would count?!! Have not researched it since I probably do not want to know the answer:)

          • Char says:

            I would be happy to volunteer to do some “on the job” research. I may not be able to get back to you anytime soon, as I have never had a martini, and I am sure one way or another, I will be sleeping!

          • Marietta says:

            I don’t drink martinis but that sounds DELICIOUS! LOL. <3 I'm not volunteering to research this one either – dang kids and their video cameras – LOL.

    • Jean F says:

      Okay Joyce, I got some “Michelle’s Miracle” tart Montmorency cherry concentrate and have been taking it for a few nights, and while it doesn’t knock me out, I think it’s helping me stay asleep longer. I took it in the afternoon yesterday to see about some of the other health benefits they claim, and I had to take a nap. Plus, it’s deLISHous (if you like tart tart, which I do), I stir it in half of the amount of water they say to so the taste is stronger, and actually spooned it right out of the bottle once and it’s yummy. I ordered it from Amazon, and I’ll try it again when I get back home to my normal routine. That’s my report. ~ Jean

      • joyce says:

        Jean, Thank you for the informative report! That’s my teacher voice.
        Hope the longer sleep and any other health benefits will continue for you.
        I am so glad you investigated and experimented and found the concentrate at Amazon. Tonight I will try the all natural dark cherry juice from the market. I’ll be a lab rat and will report back any findings. If there are any type of sleep benefits I will be trilled. I AM at home and my routine is not normal….”Maybe this week” is my mantra…
        Safe travels. Joyce

    • joyce says:

      Sweet Side to the tart cherry by Karen Ravn
      A year after I posted about cherry juice , I found this article about tart cherries.

      ” A 2011 study in the European Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking tart cherry juice during the day may pay off in better snoozing at night thanks to high levels of sleep regulating antioxidant melatonin.”

      The article also mentioned studies involving tart cherries for pain relief and Type 2 diabetes.
      Los Angeles Times- Saturday July 14, 2012

      certainly worth a try… Joyce

  3. Joyce says:

    Just thought I would chime in about prescription sleep aids. As I have mentioned before I have the mind that has a hard time shutting down at night. I seem to get a second wind, right before I need to get to bed. I am a night owl stuck in a teacher’s body. I am always on the lookout for help. So whenever I see a commercial for prescription sleep drugs I tend to focus on the TV. I saw this very soothing and convincing ad for Lunesta last week. What shocked me was the mention of all the possible side effects. The “voice” read a long list of possibilities that got worse as the list went on…. When I heard “thoughts of suicide,” That to me was very scary… has anyone else seen or heard about this?

    • Char says:

      Hi Joyce,
      I do not sleep well either, after reading your comment I went to the Lunesta site and sure enough the possible side effects are:
      “Abnormal thoughts and behavior. Symptoms include more outgoing or aggressive behavior than normal, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, worsening of depression, and suicidal thoughts or actions”
      This to me is a red flag, although any med can cause possible side effects, and we all react differently, I am not going this route.
      But, one of my 2011 things to do, is to get more sleep, so I will be going the natural route, first trying the passion flower caps. Have you tried any of the ones that Jean has listed above? I hope to try the passion flower asap, and will let you know how it works for me.

      • Joyce says:

        Char, I’ll join you on doing some research and experimenting with some of the above natural suggestions. I’ll report my findings. As I mentioned to Lynn, like you, I am going to try and get more sleep. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we hit the “dream jackpot.”
        All the best to you and your family for 2011, Joyce

    • Lynn says:

      Hi Joyce;

      Both Lunesta and Ambien are causing some really ‘funky’ symptoms for a large percentage of people. The Docs I work with believe the side-effects are under-reported; they expect the FDA to tighten up on the warnings and restrictions. You are correct about “thoughts of suicide”. Yet it is hard to determine the cause and effect. Many people are sleep-deprived because of stress and depression, so which came first? I had noticed a worsening of depressive symptoms for many of my (already depressed) clients. Thoughts of suicide were present at times.

      To try to minimize the side-effects, I have had clients and friends use them sporadically; every third of fourth night for the short term. Since they are not using it every night or every other night, they are not building a resistance. AND, most importantly, they feel really rested on the couple of nights they do take it. Good luck, night owl!!!

      • Joyce says:

        Lynn, Thank you for your informative response. I have read in magazines about people who have had side effects from Ambian. That was enough to scare me… I was just so surprised when I heard all of the side effects from Lunesta. I personally think that drug companies are amping up the ads for sleep aids since many people, for a variety of reasons do not get enough sleep.
        Interesting thinking on does sleep depravation lead to stress/depression or can it go the other way. I could make a case either way… I am beginning to understand how important it is “to shut down” the electronics and get to bed earlier, before the second wind kicks in! I do hear, “getting more sleep,” as a New Year’s Resolution for many of my friends this year.
        I would like to explore some of the more natural methods as reported by Jean above. It is good to know that we have you to guide us with factual information from your work with clients. Nice to connect with you again. Best wishes for 2011, Joyce

  4. Cheryl Marian says:

    Dear Jean,

    Just a quick question, our story can be shared at another time.

    I have been taking care of my mother who has Alzheimer’s in my home, she hasn’t been able to live on her own for a number of years now. She often will not sleep at night. Are these natural ways good to try with her? Of course, it is probably a yes, but I wanted to know if any are contra-indicated with the condition, also. I have been running on empty for quite awhile now and would love to get a good night’s sleep myself. Even when she does sleep I have to sleep with one ear open to make sure that she isn’t trying to get out or rummaging into something she shouldn’t.

    Thank You,


    • Jean Fogelberg says:

      Hi Cheryl, yes, I’d say natural is a good thing to try first. I’ve tried just about every natural sleep aid out there, and never had an adverse reaction. But I’d suggest you talk to your mother’s doctor and ask if any of her meds would react adversely with any natural sleep aids. Then you just have to try a few until you find the one that works for her, and for you. Start with the smallest doses and see what works. As I wrote before, what worked for my husband didn’t work at all for me, and vise versa. It seems to me our mother’s generation was into warm milk or Chamomile tea. Does she get much exercise in the daytime, say, a walk around the block, to help her sleep at night? Is that even possible for you? Have you considered calling Home Care or Hospice to see if you can’t get someone to come a couple nights a week so you can sleep? It’s so so so important that you get a few good nights of sleep, and sleeping with one ear open, as you know, doesn’t leave you very refreshed. I’d be interested to hear what others who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s do about the night walks. ~ Jean

  5. Ann says:

    I sometimes have problems w/mild insomnia, so I thought I’d try one of the natural aids listed above. First I gave Valerian a whirl, and the reviews were correct….Valerian STINKS (literally!!). I can only compare the “scent” to farm animal manure….I live in the midwest, so I’ve had many a manure whiff! Now there’s a similar taste, and it doesn’t seem to go away, so I always had a mint or some gum handy. I didn’t notice any big benefits using Valerian 2 nights in a row. However, I’ve read it can take 2-3 weeks to see the full effects. So if you can tolerate Valerian for that long, it may be the ticket for you.

    The last 2 evenings I’ve taken Passion Flower capsules, and, maybe it was a placebo effect, but I fell asleep more quickly than usual. I also read at bedtime, so that probably helped w/relaxing. I really slept peacefully the past 2 nights and woke up refreshed. Will keep you posted :-)

    Thanks for the list of natural sleep aids, Jean. I had never heard of some of them, including the two I’ve tried.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.