A study published in BMJ Open this month involving thousands of Americans prescribed hypnotic drugs for sleep problems has shown an increased risk of death associated with their use. Although the relative increase in risk is small it could be another reason in addition to issues of tolerance, dependency and increased risk of some cancers, to try other approaches before using prescription sleeping medication.

Many plants are used traditionally to aid healthy, restorative sleep and several, such as valerian, passionflower, German chamomile, lemon balm, hops and gotu kola, have been shown to interact with GABA receptors (or affect enzymes involved in GABA synthesis) that are the target of the benzodiazepine class of drugs such as Temazepam. However, despite any similarity of action, this is only a small part of the balanced therapeutic activity of the plants and the hypnotic effect tends to be gentler and without issues such as dependence.

Out of interest, there have also been several recent clinical trials which have shown benefits of herbal medicines on sleep quality including valerian, hops, lemon balm, wild lettuce and passionflower (Ngan and Conduit, 2011; Taavoni et al., 2011; Dimpfel and Suter, 2008; Cases et al., 2011; Yakoot et al., 2011)

Caution: The information here is offered for its educational value only and should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent disease; please contact your health care practitioner.

References

Cases J, Ibarra A, Feuillère N, Roller M, Sukkar SG.2011 Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med J Nutrition Metab. Dec;4(3):211-218.

Dimpfel W, Suter A.2008 Sleep improving effects of a single dose administration of a valerian/hops fluid extract – a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled sleep-EEG study in a parallel design using electrohypnograms.Eur J Med Res. May 26;13(5):200-4.

Ngan A, Conduit R.2011 A double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) herbal tea on subjective sleep quality. Phytother Res. 25(8):1153-9. doi: 10.1002/ptr.3400. Epub 2011 Feb 3.

Taavoni S, Ekbatani N, Kashaniyan M, Haghani H.2011 Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial.Menopause. Sep;18(9):951-5.

Yakoot M, Helmy S, Fawal K.2011Pilot study of the efficacy and safety of lettuce seed oil in patients with sleep disorders.Int J Gen Med. ;4:451-6. Epub 2011 Jun 10.