Any time you're laying in bed trying and failing to fall asleep, mind circling events throughout the day, you know how frustrating it can be. Sleep is crucial to health in a huge number of ways, but sometimes it can be a long time in coming. Pressures from the day, stresses, health problems, pains, lingering caffeine, and sugar, there are hundreds of reasons why you might be unable to sleep.
Luckily, this has been a problem for centuries, and everything from ancient herbal medicine to modern science has turned towards finding an issue. There is a huge array of possible medications, from Eszopiclone to Diphenhydramine, and there are just as many natural remedies, including Valerian Root and Melatonin.
It's those latter two that we're concerned about today. Which one is better, can you take them both, and what kind of side effects might you experience?
The Basics of Melatonin
Melatonin is perhaps the single most natural supplement you can take because your body already makes it. The pineal gland is a small gland that produces certain hormones, including melatonin, in the body. In the body and the brain, this hormone is responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle. The exact process of how it works is pretty complicated, involving regulating the circadian rhythm, blood pressure, and other effects. It's even a minor antioxidant, though it's not meant to be a dietary supplement.
Melatonin is found in two forms: natural and synthetic. Natural melatonin is an animal product that is harvested from the pineal glands of animals since animals have melatonin as well as humans. This form is not generally recommended for a few reasons. For one thing, it's not vegan, so anyone on the vegetarian or vegan end of the spectrum will not want to consume an animal product. For another thing, there's a small chance that animal-harvested melatonin might be contaminated with animal viruses. This is a slim chance, but it means that well-processed natural melatonin is more expensive, and can still carry a slight risk.
The other option is synthetic melatonin, which is created in a lab out of precursor ingredients. This is guaranteed to be pure and safe and free of contamination, but it might turn off some people who worry about synthetic replicas of natural compounds. Chemically there should be no difference between the two, but some people like to avoid it anyway.
How Melatonin Works
Melatonin is usually a small pill that you dissolve under your tongue. This lets the hormone penetrate the soft flesh of the inner mouth and seep into the bloodstream, where it can be carried to receptors that would normally receive your body's natural melatonin.
As for what it does, it's meant to basically "flip the switch" that makes your body decide it's night time and thus time to sleep. It doesn't really extend the length of sleep or make you sleep better, it's just meant to help you fall asleep.
There have been studies about taking supplemental melatonin, and results are mixed. Some studies showed test subjects falling asleep an average of six minutes sooner on melatonin than off, with no change in how long they slept or how restful their sleep was.
The Basics of Valerian Root
Valerian root is an herb originally found in Asia and Europe but is now grown pretty much everywhere, including the US and China. Flowers were used as a perfume, and roots as medicine. It has been in use as a medicine for hundreds of years, at least since the days of ancient Greece. It was used to treat nervousness, headaches, heart palpitations, and other concerns.
These days, you're unlikely to be getting the root as-is. More often, you'll find it grown and processed into capsules, tablets, liquids, or even as part of a tea.
Since it's an herbal remedy, it can be difficult to discern exactly what impact it has. There have been studies that show it can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and also improve the quality of sleep, unlike melatonin. On the other hand, other studies have shown little or no statistically significant improvements.
Part of the cause of all of this inconsistency is the inherent variance in plants. A plant is a living organism, and it changes and grows in reaction to stimuli. If it grows with more or less sunlight, it can grow differently. If the soil has different nutrients, it can grow differently. If it is harvested sooner or later, it can have different properties. There's a lot of variances and it's difficult to discern what any given batch will do for you.
How Valerian Root Works
So how does valerian root perform in comparison to melatonin? Rather than a hormone that interacts directly with the brain, valerian has a few chemicals in it that are active ingredients, including valerenic acid, isovaleric acid, and a range of antioxidants.
In particular, valerian has been shown to interact with GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric aicd, which is one of the chemicals that transmit neural impulses and nerve signals throughout your brain and nervous system. Low GABA levels in the brain are somehow related to high stress and low quality sleep, though we're not entirely sure how. After all, the brain is fantastically complex, with thousands of different chemicals interacting with it (and with each other) in a huge array of different ways it's very difficult to study properly.
Valerian root has been shown to inhibit the breakdown of GABA in the brain. Higher levels of GABA result in a feeling of tranquility and relaxation, which helps aid sleep, similar to how drugs like Xanax work.
Additionally, other compounds found in valerian root seem to have sedative and sleep-enhancing effects. In essence, instead of just one drug, valerian root has a whole bunch of different drugs at low doses, all of which might have some beneficial effects. It's hard to say, though, and needs a more dedicated study.
The Costs of Each
Luckily, neither melatonin nor valerian root is very expensive. Both are commonly produced and neither is trademarked, so they are broadly available without a prescription and without worrying about insurance.
Valerian root supplements, in capsule or tablet form, can be found for around $10-$15 for 250 or so capsules. Exact pricing per unit varies based on brand, quality, additional ingredients, packaging, and more. Valerian can also be found as a tea ingredient, which can run a wide array of prices depending on blend and number of ounces.
Melatonin, meanwhile, comes in limited forms. You can get pills and you can get gummies, but not much else. These also range in price depending on branding and production, and whether it's natural or synthetic, but most commonly you'll see it for around five cents per pill, which works out to be about $10 for a 180-200 pill bottle. Gummies are slightly more expensive.
A Comparison of Side Effects
So, what kind of side effects can you expect from these two different drugs? First and foremost, drowsiness is going to be listed, which is fine; it's an intended effect, but it's often considered a medical side effect.
Melatonin is generally considered safe for both short and long-term use. It has been used for two or more years in some people with no escalation in effects and no long-term damage.
There's a risk that melatonin can be damaging to pregnant women, and can have negative side effects for those trying to become pregnant. This typically just applies to high doses, however.
Additionally, melatonin has been observed to make depression symptoms worse, can escalate blood sugar in people with diabetes, can raise blood pressure, and can increase the risk of seizures in those who have a seizure disorder.
Valerian is also considered safe in general, though very few long-term studies have been performed, so it's only listed as safe for short-term use.
Symptoms of valerian are more numerous but also less dangerous. Rather than affecting pregnancy or blood pressure, people who take valerian have reported side effects including headache, stomach aches, mental dullness, uneasiness, heart disturbances, sluggishness in the mornings, dry mouth, vivid dreams, and potential insomnia as a withdrawal symptom.
In general, you can consider valerian to be more potent than melatonin, and thus less safe to use long-term. Since it's a plant with a wide range of active ingredients, it can do a lot of different things to a lot of different bodily systems, compared to the much more well-understood melatonin. If you want something you can use long-term, look for melatonin. If you want something for an occasional stressful day or a short-term use after a stressful event, look to valerian.
Can You Take Both?
There should be no real reason not to take melatonin and valerian at the same time, so long as you're still following dosage instructions. If you take too much, the sedative effects can be dangerous, but unlikely to be deadly. Melatonin is generally safe enough and has a minor enough effect that taking another sleep aid with it won't hurt.
If you want to take both together, try to only do it occasionally. Our recommendation is to take melatonin on an ongoing basis for a few weeks or a few months, to regulate your sleep cycle. While doing this, try to maintain healthy sleep habits, like going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, getting plenty of sunlight when you wake up, avoiding electronics for at least an hour before going to bed, and addressing other sleep hygiene issues.
While doing this, take valerian tea on days and evenings where you're wide awake and having trouble sleeping, or if you've had a stressful day and need something to take the edge off. Valerian will have a more potent effect on putting you to sleep, while melatonin will help train your body to sleep at the appropriate times.
When to See a Doctor
There are two possible times you might want to see a doctor, related to melatonin, valerian, and insomnia.
The first is for general insomnia in the first place. We all have occasional insomnia, days, or several-day-long stretches where we have trouble falling asleep. Occasional issues sleeping are more or less normal and can be addressed either with supplements or by addressing the stresses in your life that are causing sleep issues.
On the other hand, if you regularly experience difficulty sleeping, for a month or longer at a time, you may want to see a doctor to see if there are any underlying problems.
Likewise, if you are often tired during the day, despite sleeping for a long time – at least seven hours – or if you have impaired facilities during the day, you should consider seeing a doctor.
Another issue worth seeing a doctor about is if you frequently snore or seem to temporarily stop breathing during the night. This can be a sign of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, which can be dangerous if not treated. Taking valerian or melatonin will not help with this disorder; you'll need something like a CPAP machine instead.
The other reason you might see a doctor is if you take melatonin or valerian and experience dramatic side effects. This is much more likely to happen with valerian – after all, you have melatonin in your body already – but it can happen. Since valerian is a plant, it's entirely possible to experience allergic reactions or other adverse side effects. If you do, make sure to note them and talk to a doctor, while discontinuing using valerian for the duration.