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:

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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).

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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.

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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.


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