Sleep Care

Alternative Remedies for Insomnia

Since they are a cheaper alternative and available without a prescription, billions of dollars are spent each year in America on over-the-counter (OTC) medications and herbal supplements. However, because many of these have not been subjected to the same scientific testing that prescription medications have, it can be dangerous to assume that they are safe and effective.

This article reviews a few of the non-prescription drugs and herbal supplements that are often used in treating insomnia. It is important to remember that this material is for information

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purposes only and any plans to begin taking a new supplement should be done with physician consultation and approval. This is particularly true with OTC drugs and herbal supplements, since their active ingredients may not be known and dangerous interactions can occur with prescription drugs already being taken.


This group includes medicines such as Allegra, Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, and Clarinex. While they are used primarily to combat allergy symptoms, because drowsiness is a side effect, they are sometimes combined with an analgesic and marketed as sleeping aids.

Histamine is a chemical in the brain that promotes wakefulness. Antihistamines work by inactivating or suppressing the receptors for histamine to bind to, thereby producing drowsiness or a sedated feeling.

Studies evaluating the effectiveness of antihistamines (in various doses) have yielded a variety of results, although they have generally been rated as effective by patients and medical professionals. However, an area of concern when using antihistamines is that tolerance to their sedating effects develops quickly, which may prompt some individuals to take unhealthy dose amounts in an effort for the medicine to “work”. Some of the other reported side effects of taking antihistamines in the studies were vomiting, depression, dry mouth, headaches, weakness, and difficulty going to the bathroom.

Valerian Root

Valerian root is an herb that is often used to treat insomnia because of its sleep-promoting qualities. It acts in the brain somewhat similarly to benzodiazepines, a particular class of prescription drugs that can have a sedating effect. Studies comparing valerian root to a placebo have been largely inconclusive—patients who felt valerian was effective in helping them fall asleep sooner also often reported a similar result when taking the placebo (although the valerian effect was more pronounced). Side effects from valerian root are generally mild, such as slight headaches or a “hangover” feeling.


German chamomile (Matricaria recuitita) is an herb that can be used for restlessness and insomnia. Similar to valerian root, its sedative effect is thought to be caused by a chemical in the flower head that acts similarly to benzodiazepines in the brain. It is popularly served as a tea. Unfortunately, no clinical studies have examined the effects of chamomile specifically on insomnia. Studies investigating the properties of chamomile in general have found that it can induce vomiting and negatively interact with anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs, so it should not be taken in combination with these medications.

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