Can’t sleep? Many natural products promise help but likely don’t deliver, says sleep doc | CBC Radio


London Morning6:50Helpful advice on sleep aids

From herbal tea to melatonin gummies, Canadians looking for non-pharmaceutical ways to help them sleep have plenty of options to choose from. 

While some experts question how well these products work, people who are desperate for a little rest — especially as they prepare to lose an hour when clocks move forward for daylight time this weekend — are willing to try just about anything. 

That was the case for Christine Odunlami of Toronto. 

She’s a technical recruiter in the financial services industry and has been studying part time for a Master’s degree in human Resources Management. 

She found that on nights when she had classes it was difficult to fall asleep.

A woman in a purple floral patterned shirt smiles.
Christine Odunlami has used a combination of melatonin, Zzzquil, and chamomile tea to help her sleep. (Submitted by Christine Odunlami)

“If I’m up past a certain time…. let’s say midnight or 1 a.m., then I probably won’t sleep until 5 or 6 a.m.,” she said. 

“I started noticing there was a pattern so I started to look into some sleep aid options and tried to go the natural route first”

She tried melatonin, a hormone our brains produce naturally to regulate sleep, but which can also be taken in pill form. 

She found that after three or four days of taking it she could sleep more soundly, but it wasn’t always enough. So she’d also take a non-prescription antihistamine, and drink some chamomile tea. 

A growing market for natural sleep aids

While melatonin and chamomile are among the more well known sleep aids, there are plenty of other teas, supplements and drinks to be found in pharmacies, grocery stores and health food shops across Canada.

Dana McCauley, CEO of the Canadian Food Innovation Network said these kinds of products represent  “a huge, huge opportunity” because everyone needs to sleep and so few of us are getting enough.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research says evidence suggests that about a third of Canadians find it hard to get a good night’s sleep, including thousands who experience sleep disorders such as insomnia. 

A woman with glasses and a black and purple plaid blazer poses for a portrait.
Dana McCauley, CEO of the Canadian Food Innovation Network said products that aid with sleep represent  ‘a huge, huge opportunity’ because everyone needs to sleep and so few of us are getting enough. (Lubin Tasevski Photography)

And while some people might enjoy a glass of wine in the evening to help them relax, it’s not something health experts recommend for sleep.

McCauley said with the new alcohol guidelines of just two drinks a week, more people could be looking for something to replace their regular “nightcap.”

“That whole ritual of winding down in the evening I think is fairly ingrained in us. So if we find something that fits into that pattern that we feel is better for us, I think we’re going to gravitate towards it,” she said.   

She said CBD drinks are a big part of this trend, but that there are now also more sodas and herb-infused waters that claim to have calming properties.

And while the manufacturers may not be legally allowed to say their products make you sleepy, their marketing material might have “dream” or another word that “evokes a mood” to make consumers think about sleep or relaxation, she said.

“Cues that are not based on molecular actions in your body,” she said. “A lot of psychological stuff.” 

A stack of canned beverages in lavender colours have the name Daydream Blackberry Chai
Among the products that more explicitly claim to help with sleep there are also sodas and herb-infused waters that claim to have stress-reducing properties. (Antonia Reed/CBC)

Do these products actually work?

Neurologist and sleep expert Dr. Chris Winter is not a fan of melatonin or any kind of supplement to help with sleep. 

“I think to a large extent these things do very little,” he said. 

He advises people to get comfortable with the idea that they won’t fall asleep right away, and eventually they will learn how to go to sleep on their own. 

A man in a blue button-up shirt laughs while sitting on a sofa.
Neurologist and sleep expert Dr. Chris Winter said people are better off without using melatonin or any substances that claim to help you sleep (Jen Fariello Photography)

“If you get in bed at 11:00 and you’re still awake at 11: 30, people feel like ‘I’ve got to do something. Something’s wrong here’  Nothing’s wrong. Our sleep ebbs and flows, and that’s OK.’ 

His recipe for sleep?

“Read a book.”

Dreading daylight time

Odunlami said she would love to be able to drift off unaided by any products, natural or otherwise.

“I’ve been trying to practice better sleep hygiene, you know, turning off my electronics about an hour before I go to sleep, using ambient lighting,” she said.

She’s also had some success sitting in a dark room for half an hour before bedtime.   

“If I’m forcing myself mentally to go to sleep it’s harder. But if I just close my eyes and find ways to relax and just turn on a white noise machine, that’s a lot more helpful.”

Boxes of teas called 'Nighty Night' are seen on a store shelf.
Teas that claim to encourage good sleep are seen on a store shelf. (Antonia Reed/CBC)

But the thought that the clocks will soon go forward an hour is something she might end up losing more sleep over. 

“Oh my gosh! I always have trouble with daylight savings time.”

To help deal with the time shift, Winter recommends going to bed at your normal time and getting up at your new regular wake-up time. It will be difficult at first (more difficult than when the clocks go back) but the most important thing is not to sleep in, he said 

Melatonin not for everyone

Melatonin is something people can take to deal with the symptoms of jetlag, so using it to help your body adjust to the time change might seem like a good idea.

But it’s not for everyone. 

“I’ve tried chamomile tea and other things. Nothing particularly has worked,” said CBC Radio science columnist Torah Kachur, who has spoken to many sleep specialists over the years. 

A busy mom who often struggles to get a solid night of sleep, Kachur said decided to give melatonin a try because — unlike with most sleep supplements — there is some evidence that it works.

A woman smiles in front of a radio studio boom microphone in front of a red banner emblazoned with the logo of CBC Edmonton.
CBC Radio science columnist Torah Kachur, who has interviewed many sleep experts over the years and also struggles with her own sleep issues, had a negative experience with melatonin. (Submitted by Torah Kachur)

And while it did put her to sleep initially, what followed was unpleasant.

“I would wake up at like 5:00 in the morning just bouncing off the walls. And also I would find that I would have wicked nightmares, like really vivid night terror things, so I just stopped taking it. It wasn’t for me,” she said. 

“Melatonin is a really important natural hormone…The reality is, though, the vast majority of people produce plenty of it.” 

And there are better ways to induce sleep, she said.

Put away your phone, because the light tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime. 

“I’ve interviewed sleep experts and a couple of them say they put their phones and their laptops and everything on that blue light filter starting at 4 p.m.”

And avoid food at bedtime.

“The worst thing you could do is get up at midnight and start eating a pizza,” she said.

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