Study questions natural herbals for sleep disorders

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Study questions natural herbals for sleep disorders

Related tags Alternative medicine

A review of the scientific evidence for over-the-counter herbal remedies that are often used to combat sleep disorders such as insomnia has revealed that ‘surprisingly’ little research backs up their safety and efficacy.

The study – published in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies​ – reviewed the scientific literature on herbal remedies that are commonly used to manage insomnia, including valerian, hops, kava-kava, chamomile, and St. John’s wort.

Led by Josefine Antoniades of Monash University, USA, the researchers concluded that few scientific studies had been published that report on the therapeutic potential and safety of such remedies and the results were either inconclusive or contradictory.

“It is surprising that herbal remedies used for insomnia and sold as over-the-counter remedies have received very little research attention,”​ said Antoniades and her colleagues.

“Considering the rise in the use of complementary and alternative medications, it would seem appropriate that such preparations were assessed scientifically for therapeutic potential and safety,”​ they added, noting that additional research is needed in order to provide evidence for the effectiveness and safety of popular herbal remedies as therapeutic agents.

“This review of the literature highlights the need for more research on the efficacy of the reviewed herbal remedies. In the limited studies identified, it appears that their results are inconclusive or contradictory regarding potential therapeutic benefits of these herbal remedies for managing insomnia.”

Sleep disorders

Insomnia is a common complaint in the general population across most developed countries, with prevalence rates varying from 19% in France, 27.6% in the United Kingdom, and 21% in the United States.  In Australia, the authors noted that overall prevalence is similar, with an estimated 5% of the population experiencing severe chronic insomnia.

For some people, symptoms may be temporary, but for others, symptoms are frequently stable and persistent and, if left untreated, may be linked to increased morbidity, such as mental health problems, poor immunity, heart disease, and increased accidents, they said.

As a result the management of sleep disorders such as insomnia includes pharmacotherapy and behavioural interventions. However, many people also use complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) to self-manage insomnia.

“Over-the-counter (OTC) herbal remedies are used to ameliorate insomnia symptoms, and, in recent years, there has been a rise in the use of CAM,” ​said Antoniades and her team.

Study details

As a result the US-based researchers reviewed biologically based CAMs – including herb-based products – for the management of insomnia.

“Despite the traditional use of these herbal remedies, limited research was found that reports on the therapeutic benefits for managing insomnia,”​ they revealed.

Antoniades and her colleagues revealed that a number of systematic reviews have fuelled a debate regarding whether or not valerian (Valeriana officinalis​) is, in fact, effective for managing insomnia.

“One review identified 16 studies examining sleep quality and the use of valerian alone or in combination with other herbs and concluded that valerian may improve sleep quality, whereas another review of 29 controlled studies concluded that valerian may be safe, however it is not effective as a sleep aid.”

They added that inconsistent and scant research results, combined with safety concerns related to kava-kava (Piper methysticum​) use suggests that further research needs to be conducted for the herbal remedy to be considered for managing insomnia.

“Chamomile and St. John’s wort have traditionally been used to improve or facilitate sleep; yet, only a few articles were found that provided evidence to support the therapeutic use of these herbal remedies for treating insomnia,”​ explained the researchers.

Similarly, they noted that lemon balm (Melissa officinalis​), traditionally used for its sedative qualities, appears to have not yet received research attention; “only one study was found that alluded to the sedative properties of lemon balm.”

“Considering the rise in the use of CAM in general, it would seem appropriate that such preparations were assessed scientifically for their therapeutic potential and safety, especially considering the benefits that a natural-management strategy could offer patients with insomnia as an alternative to pharmacological interventions,” ​concluded the team.

Source: Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Volume 18, Issue 3, Pages 136-140, doi: 10.1089/act.2012.18310
“Sleep…Naturally: A Review of the Efficacy of Herbal Remedies for Managing Insomnia”
Authors: A. Josefine, J. Kay, H. Craig, P. Leon

Related topics Research Suppliers Botanicals

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1 comment

Other natural alternatives?

Posted by Anne,

This is a very interesting study, but just because herbal remedies do not seem to work it does not mean that other forms of alternative and natural therapies are ineffective. Consumer Reports recently released a piece about the effectiveness of meditation and yoga for combatting stress. And, personally, I have found guided meditation and Belleruth Naparstek’s tips for insomnia.

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