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5 Things To Know About Sleep Disorders and Complementary Health Approaches

Chronic, long-term sleep disorders affect millions of Americans each year. These disorders and the sleep deprivation they cause can interfere with work, driving, social activities, and overall quality of life, and can have serious health implications. Sleep disorders account for an estimated $16 billion in medical costs each year, plus indirect costs due to missed days of work, decreased productivity, and other factors.

People who have trouble sleeping often try various dietary supplements, relaxation therapies, or other complementary health approaches in an effort to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and improve the overall quality of their sleep. Here are 5 things to know about what the science says about sleep disorders and complementary health approaches.

  1. Relaxation techniques may be helpful for insomnia. Evidence indicates that using relaxation techniques before bedtime can be helpful components of a successful strategy to improve sleep habits. Other components include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule; avoiding caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, and strenuous exercise too close to bedtime; and sleeping in a quiet, cool, dark room.

  2. Melatonin supplements may be helpful for some people with insomnia or sleep problems caused by shift work or jet lag. Research on the use of melatonin for children is more limited; available research suggests some benefit in children, but those studies were small and only addressed short-term use of melatonin. The long-term safety of melatonin has not been investigated.

  3. Current evidence regarding other mind and body approaches such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (a type of meditation), yoga, massage therapy, and acupuncture is either too preliminary or inconsistent to draw conclusions about whether they are helpful for sleep disorders. These mind and body practices are generally considered safe for healthy people and when performed by an experienced practitioner.

  4. Various herbs and dietary supplements sometimes used as sleep aids, including valerian, kava, chamomile, and L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) have not been shown to be effective for insomnia, and important safety concerns have been raised about a few. For example, the use of L-tryptophan supplements has been linked to eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a complex, potentially fatal disorder with multiple symptoms including severe muscle pain. Kava supplements have been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.

  5. If you are considering a complementary health approach for sleep problems, talk to your health care providers. Trouble sleeping can be an indication of a more serious condition, and some prescription and over-the-counter drugs can contribute to sleep problems. So, it’s important to discuss your sleep-related symptoms with your health care providers before trying any complementary health product or practice.