The earliest forms of sleeping remedies are found in ancient Greece and Egypt. The most common form of sleep aid used in the ancient world was opium, which despite its many negative side effects and addictive nature actually is quite effective in inducing sleep. In ancient Greek paintings and statues the Greek God of sleep, Hypnos, was usually shown holding a poppy flower. Besides opium, there were other, much stranger sleep aids used during ancient times. Among these sleep aids are lettuce juice, the bark of mandrake, a herb called henbane, and when all else failed wine was an effective way to cure insomnia. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, opium and other herb based sleep aids were all that were available.
In 1805 a chemist by the name of Fredrick Setumer synthesized opium for the first time, though the use of it was barely an advancement or improvement from regular opium, it did start off a lot of new research into synthesized sedatives to be used as sleeping remedies. By the 1850s two new sleep aids had emerged as the most successful and were being commonly used around the world. The first of these was Chloryl hydrate, developed in the early 1830s in Germany. This substance is a very fast acting depressant of the central nervous system, and is extremely effective for inducing sleep quickly; especially so if this sleep aid is mixed with alcohol. For this reason, Chloryl hydrate was known as knock out drops or “Mickeys” as in the phrase “slip a Mickey into his drink”. The problem was that in many cases people overdosed, especially if any amount of alcohol was consumed, and never woke up after using these sleep aids. The other extremely popular sleep aid of the nineteenth century was pills made of a combination of bromides. These were originally not designed as sleep aids, but as a treatment of epilepsy. Though it turned out not to be effective in controlling seizures, it was discovered not long after their creation that they could make someone fall asleep very easily. Unfortunately bromides as a sleep aid come with a wide variety of side effects, and, like Chloryl hydrate can also cause overdose.
The next generation of sleep aids became popular around the beginning of the twentieth century and were known as barbiturates, the most common of these sleep aids was marketed under the name Veronal. In some rare occasions barbiturates are still used today as sleep aids or sedatives. However they are rarely prescribed as sleep aids because they very easily lend themselves to addiction. Other problems surrounding barbiturate sleep aids are the side effects, as well as the risk of overdose. It was not uncommon for people to use barbiturate sleep aids in combination with alcohol to commit suicide.
For quite a long period of time the three substances listed above, along with the home made remedies were the only sleep aids available. In the 1970s the government began taking a much more active interest in regulating both prescription and over the counter phamraceuticals and many sleep aids became either banned or highly controlled. As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The banning of many dangerous substances in sleep aids prompted new research into producing safer and more effective pharmaceutical sleep aids. In the late 70s a new generation of sleep aids became available, benzodiazepines. These include drugs like Valium and more recently Xanax. While benzodiazepines are generally accepted as safer sleep aids and anti anxiety drugs than their predecessors, they still come with issues of dependency, addiction and have a very wide array of harsh side effects. Because of the almost immediate euphoric feeling from taking these drugs, they also lend themselves to recreational use, going by the street name “bennys”. Benzodiazepines also carry with them a risk of overdose, although much less than the other sleep aids mentioned.
This has caused research into sleep aids to come full circle, back to natural ingredients. Today’s natural sleeping remedies are far more advanced than the things like opium and lettuce juice used back in ancient times. Most modern natural sleep aids come in capsule form and use combinations from a variety of herbs and herbal extracts from all over the world. One of the most effective of these herbal extracts is St. Johns Wort, which has passed the tests of time as well as scientific method as an effective sleep aid and anti depressant. Other ingredients used in herbal sleep aids commonly include nardostchya jatamanshi and valeriana wallichi which are mild sedatives. The prime advantage of these sleep aids is there is no risk of addiction or dependency. There is also the fact that when taking a herbal sleep aid side effects are very rare, and in the cases they are reported are very mild.