FIT FOR LIFE : Dreaming of the big sleep

Nick Walker on a range of herbal cures for insomnia
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Indy Lifestyle Online
More than 11 million prescriptions for sleeping pills are issued in Britain every year. One in three of us suffers problems sleeping. Worries about the addictiveness of many traditionally prescribed drugs have spawned a growing market for non-habit-forming "natural" remedies that can be bought over the counter.

Boots alone stocks about 10 products that claim to aid sleep. The market is worth around pounds 12m a year and is still growing, according to Vere Awdry, marketing director of GR Lane Health Products, which makes herbal remedies such as Naturest and Kalms. Some 65 to 70 per cent of the customers are women.

Alongside the herbal remedies, there are pharmacy-only antihistamine- based products such as Nytol, which produces drowsiness by dulling certain brain receptors. Stafford Miller, the manufacturer of Nytol, claims more than 60 per cent of the market, leaving herbal remedies with a mere 20 per cent or less.

Herbal remedies with ingredients such as valerian, motherwort, passion flower and wild lettuce would seem a simple and safer proposition than prescribed drugs. But it is not clear how they work. The distinction between an anti-stress product and a sleep aid is often only in the balance of herbs.Valerian, for instance, has a long history as an anti-spasmodic, and also has sedative properties. The drug is derived from a plant root and its effect is thought todepend upon a volatile, or essential oil, and to some extent upon valeric acid.

According to the British Medical Journal in 1989, valerian could lead to headaches and liver damage. Mr Awdry dismisses this, saying the sample group was "too small" and the dosage levels too high to make its findings relevant. "This is a licensed remedy. Even if it is unclear how valerian works, there is no evidence of any detrimental effect." The Medicines Control Agency reviewed the licences for many herbal remedies, including those containing valerian, in 1990, and said there was no need for further regulation.

"If something says 'natural', it should still be treated carefully," says Christine Steward, vice-president of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. "No one should take a sleeping remedy if they are taking orthodox medicine for sleeping without first talking to their herbalist or GP."

Sharon Buckle, a Boots healthcare specialist, says: "We would recommend that any remedy should be for short-term problems only. Certainly we wouldn't recommend an over-the-counter remedy for more than three weeks."

Herein lies a potential problem. Many remedies may take a week or more to have any effect.

"These remedies can sometimes help," says Ms Steward. "But an ongoing sleep problem needs a longer-term solution. I had a patient who was not sleeping because she was reading thrillers at bedtime. People look for short cuts these days. They want to sleep, but aren't prepared to change their lifestyle. It's not that easy."