So you have insomnia or some other form of sleep disorder, but you’ve decided the prescription pharmaceutical route (i.e. Ambien) isn’t going to work out for you. You begin looking over the all-natural and OTC options … and there’s a staggering amount. Where do you even start? Are all of these substances safe to try? What exactly is a “valerian root,” anyway?
The truth about OTC sleep aid ingredients is that some of them do have some amount of science backing them, but there is a lot more anecdotal (non-scientific) evidence from individual users who have experienced good ongoing effects with them. Even with the ones that work, however, the dosing can be highly individualized — the optimal amount for you may not be what works for someone else.
The chemical compound ingredients — like melatonin and GABA — tend to have better track records of actual properly controlled scientific study backing them. The problem is, the dosing is all over the map for each individual, and basically has to be discovered by experimentation. Not only that, some people are “non-responders” to these chemicals and will never see any benefit from them, no matter what the dose!
As far as the all-natural herbal compounds go, it’s generally safe to experiment with these if you don’t have an allergy to them. However, something to keep in mind is that these types of products are poorly regulated by the FDA. A chemical compound is actually subject to tighter regulatory restrictions, and is more likely to be completely pure! Unless the manufacturer voluntarily lists the specific extracts that the herbal supplement has been standardized for and their amounts, you can’t be sure you’re actually getting a dose of the compound that has been shown to work.
Whether herbal or chemical, not all ingredients function the same way. Some are better at getting you to sleep, but don’t really help to keep you asleep for an extended period. Some are the opposite in that they don’t have much of an impact on intrusive feelings of wakefulness, but if you can get to sleep you will experience a much more prolonged and restful state once you do. It’s important to recognize which problem you tend to have and pick an appropriate solution.
If you’re able to get to sleep at a normal time but experience sleep interruptions and a feeling of grogginess or exhaustion in the morning, you likely need to improve your sleep quality. If your brain is wired so that you can’t get to sleep until 4 A.M. but you crash out soundly for hours once you do, then the issue is initiating sleep to get your natural circadian cycles back in balance. Of course, it’s also possible to have both problems at once! That’s where a blended solution with multiple ingredients comes in.
Whatever your personal struggle is, look up the scientific studies that back ingredients that are appropriate for it. When you find positive results, look at the dosages used in the clinical studies that were cited to ensure your dosing is similar. And while it’s OK to experiment on the basis of anecdotal advice, it’s always wise to speak to a doctor before taking anything that might potentially trigger allergies or be contraindicated with any prescription medicine you are taking.