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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask Doctor K: Natural sleep aids not effective

Anthony Komaroff, M.D. Universal Uclick

DEAR DOCTOR K: I’m 71 years old and have trouble sleeping. I don’t want to take sleep drugs, but I’m interested in supplements and natural treatments. Do they work?

DEAR READER: I understand your concern about conventional sleep medicines. Several widely used medicines have been discovered to have important side effects years after they were first approved for use.

However, many supplements and “natural” treatments can cause side effects. And there has not been a lot of research done to test how effective they are.

The most commonly used herbal sleep aid is valerian root. Some studies suggest it is mildly sedating and can help people fall asleep. But evidence is mixed.

An analysis of multiple studies of valerian’s effect on sleep published in 2010 concluded people fell asleep only about a minute sooner than with a sugar pill. There also is some risk of liver damage, and some women report headaches.

Finally, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration monitors how conventional medicines are manufactured, it has no authority from Congress to do that for supplements. In fact, impurities have been found in some herbal preparations.

Another popular natural sleep aid is melatonin. It influences body temperature, sleep and daily body rhythms. The question is whether melatonin taken as a pill can help with sleep.

For most types of sleep problems, I don’t think melatonin has been shown in scientific studies to help sleep.

But one condition where melatonin may help sleep is in older adults, like you. People over 60 with insomnia often have lower levels of nighttime melatonin than those without insomnia. Some studies have found such people may sleep better if they take melatonin supplements.

Acupressure appears promising. Tai chi and yoga may help you fall asleep faster and improve your quality of sleep.

You can also try drinking a cup of chamomile tea before bed. This remedy appears to help people relax. (But avoid it if you’re allergic to plants in the daisy family.)

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