Alternative insomnia treatments

Always tell your doctor when you try alternative treatments, and any combination of herbs with over-the-counter sleep aid preparation or prescription sleeping pills. Herbal supplements are not always are safe as you might think. Some people have allergies, and the herbal supplement industry is not nearly as regulated as the pharmaceutical companies are. The dosages printed on the bottles are notoriously unreliable so you can’t always compare the strength of a dose from bottle to bottle.  Even if they were reliable, the medical establishment has not promulgated recommended dosages for these substances.

The U.S. government National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2002 and 2007 found that only 1 to 2 percent of respondents used so-called complementary and alternative medicine for insomnia in the previous year. The same survey found over 17 percent of respondents reported insomnia.

Warm baths

Some people find these relaxing. They can help relax the muscles and promote sleep. It is possible that the thermoregulation system, so tied into the sleep cycle, is affected by the warmth and subsequent cooling that happens when the person gets out of the tub. Hypnosis is also a possible therapy for insomnia.


Some people swear by the ancient practice of acupuncture for a range of maladies, including insomnia. There is no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture. A recent meta-study (evaluation of other studies) at Emory University concluded that although most showed some positive effects of acupuncture, the studies were not set up according to scientific standards and their results could not be accepted as scientifically valid.

Similarly, a meta-study by Penn State psychiatrists found that acupuncture studies were for the most part flawed (a common occurrence in alternative medicine investigations) but that the available evidence did support efficacy of the procedure for alleviation of insomnia. They called for a larger, more systematic study of acupuncture for sleep disorders.


Don't imagine herbs are somehow exempt from the commercial forces that drive conventional medicine. This is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide.


Passionflower is a vine native to Europe that no grows in the United States also. Herbal supplement companies put extracts into capsules and make it into tea-like preparations. Passionflower is used by enthusiasts for anxiety and insomnia.


Chamomile is an ancient remedy for a range of problems. The flowers are dried and crushed and infused into a tea. Some people are allergic to it. There does not seem to be any scientific evidence it helps with insomnia.


Extracts from this shrub are used for aroma enhancement in a range of consumer products. It is also used for aromatherapy for insomnia.


A drink made from the roots of the kava plant has been used in ceremonies in the Pacific Islands for centuries. Some have used Kava for insomnia and to relieve stress, but the FDA has issued a warning that kava preparations pose a risk of liver damage.


Note that a US government report in 2005 found that valerian had no significant effect in helping people get to sleep. More on valerian. A German study showed a slight benefit to children treated with a combination of valerian and lemon balm. Valerian is often marketed in combination mixtures with other herbs.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

A Beijing University study found traditional Chinese medicine (herbs) were useful in treatment of senile dyssomnia. Compared to modern medicine, the success rate was about the same and the side effects were lesser.

Counting Sheep

Engaging in boring mental activity is an age-old method of inducing sleep.  Indeed, the proliferation of personal electronic devices and easy home entertainment is blamed for shortening sleep times in modern society.


Melatonin is probably the most widely known plant product used for insomnia. We have a separate page on melatonin.

A recent meta-study by University of Melbourne researchers found that alternative medicine evaluations did not live up to the standards of formal science.

Related: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health page on sleep disorders

Prescription of Chinese Herbal Medicine and Selection of Acupoints in Pattern-Based Traditional Chinese Medicine Treatment for Insomnia: A Systematic Review

Classification of Insomnia Using the Traditional Chinese Medicine System: A Systematic Review

The website for National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says relaxation techniques and melatonin can be useful for sleep disorders, but “the evidence for other complementary approaches is either inconsistent or too limited” for that organization to recommend their use.

Victorian Times

Magnets were popular sleep aids in the nineteenth century. The magnets were sometimes put in the pillows or bed. There is no reason to think this therapy will have any benefit. One newspaper in the 1800s recommended insomniacs apply soap to their heads and sleeping with the soap on. The American Housekeeper's Encyclopedia recommended applying a wet cloth to the wrist. There were also liquids and pills marketed for all sorts of maladies - this was the era of "snake oil" before modern government regulation and a vocal medical establishment. Chloral hydrate began to be used in this time period, and it is still used today (although rarely.)

Ancient sleep aids

Fried lettuce is a French folk remedy for insomnia, while sea slug entrails is a Japanese folk remedy. In the American South, peppermint tea is said to help people fall asleep, and another custom in the United States involves eating a raw onion before bed. Warm milk is of course a well-known sedative, allegedly because it contains the amino acid tryptophan. Researchers have found, however, that the effect of tryptophan per se may be overrated. UCLA researchers found that tai chi, the Chinese martial art practice, can help sleep quality and duration in older people.

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians knew about opium, and used it to induce sleep. (Representations of the Greek sleep god Hypnos often featured a poppy flower.) Of course, opium contains opiates, which were later refined and abused for recreation and used as anesthesia. Doctors would not recommend opiates for sleep today except in the most extreme circumstances. Three thousand years ago in India people were using the roots of Rauvolfia evergreen trees to promote sleep. Herbal remedies used by Europeans included mandrake, mandragora, and henbane. These could be classified as hypnogogic plants, although they are not as powerful as opium



Vishnu the sleeping god


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