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Leslie Alexander was suffering from insomnia and, with a mere two to three hours of sleep nightly, her energy and productivity plummeted.

But, as someone concerned about her health and well-being, the Vancouver-based folk singer was reluctant to take prescription sleeping pills, knowing they can be highly addictive.

It was fortuitous then that Ms. Alexander happened upon a booth at a women's conference last fall that was advertising an "all-natural" product called Sleepees.

She took home a sample and tried it.

"I slept beautifully," Ms. Alexander said.

But she also developed a strange rash around her eyes, and other minor ailments, symptoms she would later learn were indicative of an allergic reaction.

But Ms. Alexander continued because she found herself unable to sleep at all without the herbal medication.

When she decided to stop taking Sleepees late last year, troubled by the fact it worked "too well," she plunged into a deep depression.

Near the end of February, just as Ms. Alexander was beginning to feel like herself again, Health Canada issued an advisory warning consumers not to use Sleepees because it contained an addictive prescription drug, estazolam.

Estazolam belongs in the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, which includes the anti-anxiety drugs Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam).

These drugs are dangerous to people suffering from sleep apnea, and should not be used by pregnant women, the elderly or people with a history of substance abuse. A number of people are allergic to benzodiazepines.

Sleepees is one of five "natural sleep products" that have been yanked off the market in the past year because they contain prescription sleeping medication.

David Klein, a Vancouver lawyer who has filed notice that he plans to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian distributor of Sleepees, alleges that hundreds of Canadians may have been harmed by the product and that some may not even be aware of the source of their health problems.

The amount of damages sought in the planned lawsuit has not yet been set, and the allegations have not been proven.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian distributor of Sleepees, Our World Inc., said that the product has been reformulated and that the correct formulation does not contain any prescription drug.

The company says Sleepees consists of a proprietary blend of herbs.

Its ingredients include jujube date, schisandra, hops, reishi mushroom, valerian, helicidum and melatonin, the spokeswoman said.

Health Canada says consumers who want to know if a herbal product is legitimate should look for the natural health product registration number on the package - proof that its ingredients have been reviewed by the federal regulator.

(Neither Sleepees nor any of the other recalled sleep aides was registered with Health Canada.)

Brenda Connell of Calgary said she assumed products that were sold in stores had regulatory approval, and when she learned of the Sleepees recall, she was angry and worried.

"It would have been nice to know that what I was taking, which I thought was a health and wellness product, was laced with [drugs] I felt really upset," she said.

"I felt duped."

After 14 months taking the herbal product, Ms. Connell stopped abruptly and suffered serious withdrawal symptoms, including heart palpitations, panic attacks and depression.

She is also, once again, experiencing insomnia.

Forty-eight per cent of North Americans report that they suffer occasionally from insomnia, while 22 per cent have chronic insomnia.

Women are 30 per cent more likely than men to suffer insomnia, and people over the age of 65 are 50 per cent more likely to complain of insomnia than younger people.