Polyphasic Sleep

Natural Sleep Aids: What You Need to Know

If you’re having trouble sleeping but you’re wary of prescription sleep medications, there are several natural sleep aids that might be able to help.

By Megan Griffith

There’s nothing worse than not being able to sleep. You toss and turn, counting the minutes as they go by, and the harder you try to fall asleep, the more awake you feel. For many people, natural sleep aids can help. If you’ve never taken a natural sleep aid before, you might be hesitant. Are they safe? Do they work? What makes a natural sleep aid “natural?” Don’t worry, we’ll answer all those questions in this article, plus we’ll take an in-depth look at eight of the most effective natural sleep aids. If you’re ready to kick insomnia to the curb, keep reading.

What are Natural Sleep Aids?

There are many different kinds of natural sleep aids, from dietary supplements to amino acids to essential oils. Even sleeping on a natural, organic mattress can help you get a better night’s sleep. Basically, a natural sleep aid is a non-prescription sleep solution made from ingredients found in nature or in our own bodies. Each individual sleep aid works a little differently, but the general idea of natural sleep aids is to enhance our body’s natural sleep patterns and cycles so that we fall asleep faster and wake up feeling more well-rested.

The biggest difference between natural sleep aids and prescription sleep aids is that prescription sleep aids are typically a short-term solution. Because they affect brain functioning, they aren’t meant to be taken forever. Instead, they’re meant to force the body to sleep in order to reset our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when to be awake and when to sleep. Once this rhythm is reset, you stop taking the prescription and utilize lifestyle changes to maintain a healthy sleep cycle. Natural sleep aids, on the other hand, can be used continuously because they don’t force the body to sleep, they simply encourage it. This encouragement can be utilized long-term, making it ideal for people with chronic insomnia. The best place to buy natural sleep aids is at your local drugstore. Buying sleep aids online can be dangerous because you may end up receiving a fraudulent product. It’s typically safer to buy them in person.

If you’re trying to decide between a natural or prescription sleep aid, there are definitely benefits to both. But some of the most common reasons people avoid prescription sleep aids include:

  • Cost. Prescriptions are often expensive, especially because you need to schedule (and pay for) a doctor’s visit to get one.
  • Accessibility. Even if you are plagued by terrible insomnia, you might find it difficult to get a prescription sleep aid. Many doctors don’t hand them out lightly because of the possibility of dependence.
  • Safety. Studies show that prescription sleep aids can lead to dependence, may interfere with other medications and aren’t safe for several populations, like people with kidney disease, people who are breastfeeding and people with a history of seizures.

The Most Effective Natural Sleep Aids

If you’re ready to give natural sleep aids a shot, then let’s take a look at eight of the most effective options out there. This list includes sleep aids with several different mechanisms to help promote sleep, so you can find the one that works best for you.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the human body in response to darkness. It helps keep our circadian rhythms on track, but because many of us are exposed to light well into the night, our melatonin production may be delayed. A melatonin supplement, which is typically made from synthetic melatonin, might be able to help.

What forms does it come in? 

Melatonin comes in a wide variety of forms, including pills, gummies, lozenges, sprays, liquids, powders and creams.

How does it work?

Melatonin supplements work by starting the production of melatonin earlier so that by the time we go to bed, the melatonin has us feeling sleepy. According to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, most people produce plenty of melatonin on their own, but they may not produce it at an ideal time. Thanks to our modern lifestyle, we are surrounded by light, especially blue light, at all hours, so melatonin production may not really start until we’re already in bed. It takes a few hours for melatonin to create a sense of sleepiness, so this is not ideal. 

How much do I take?

According to Dr. Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D., C.B.S.M., “less is more.” He recommends taking 1 to 3 milligrams of melatonin two hours before bed, and reducing your light exposure during those two hours to help encourage your own melatonin production as well.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

Nothing is completely risk-free, including melatonin. Generally, it is a very safe supplement, but doctors warn against using it long-term. Dr. Lina Velikova, MD, Ph.D says that melatonin “shouldn’t be used continually, as it tends to build up in the organism and can cause grogginess and confusion.” It’s best to use melatonin to reset your circadian rhythms and then discontinue use.

Is it effective?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), melatonin can help people fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly in certain situations. They have found research supporting melatonin’s effectiveness with jet lag, delayed sleep-wake phase disorder and children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The NCCIH says it’s unclear whether melatonin is effective in treating insomnia or in regulating the sleep schedules of shift workers.

Where can I buy it?

Melatonin supplements can be found at nearly every drugstore in a variety of forms. If you can’t find the kind of melatonin you’re looking for, we recommend checking out the nearest GNC.

Valerian Root

Valerian root is an herb made from the root of a tall, flowering grassland plant native to Asia and Europe, though it now grows in other areas as well. The root is ground up and used to treat insomnia and anxiety.

What forms does it come in? 

Valerian root is available as a supplement in capsule or liquid form, and it can also be consumed as tea.

How does it work?

The main mechanism valerian root uses to help promote sleep is through GABA breakdown. GABA is gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is a chemical in the brain that helps regulate nerve impulses. When broken down, GABA helps inhibit neurons to create a calming effect. Valerian root contains another chemical called valerenic acid, and studies show that this acid can help break down GABA and create a feeling of sedation.

How much do I take?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the recommended dose of valerian root extract is 300 to 600 mg. If you want to drink valerian root tea, the recommended dose of dried herbal valerian root is 2-3 g soaked in one cup of hot water for 10-15 minutes. Regardless of which form you take, you should take valerian root 30 minutes to 2 hours before bed.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

Valerian root has been studied and found to be relatively safe, but there are a few potential side effects, such as headache, dizziness and stomach problems. It may not be safe for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding or under 3 years old.

Is it effective?

More research needs to be done to conclusively say that valerian root can effectively treat insomnia. Right now, a review of the literature reveals a mixed bag of evidence. Some studies demonstrate that valerian root is very effective in treating insomnia, but those studies typically have design flaws or biases. Other studies are less biased, but the results are inconclusive. There is no hard evidence to confirm that valerian root works, but there is also no hard evidence saying it doesn’t work, either.

Where can I buy it?

Valerian root is available at most drug stores or your local GNC. If you’d like your valerian root in tea form, it may be available at some tea shops, as well.

Passion Flower

Passion flower is an exotic vine flower native to South and Central America, though it is often found in the US and Oceania as well. One particular variety, Passiflora incarnata, has been studied extensively and may be able to help relieve stress and aid sleep.

What forms does it come in? 

You can take passion flower several ways, but the most common form is herbal tea. If you prefer, tablets, capsules and liquid extracts are also available.

How does it work?

Like valerian root, passion flower is supposed to help with sleep because of GABA. However, instead of breaking it down, passion flower contains GABA, and some researchers believe this extra GABA can help with relaxation and improved sleep.

How much do I take?

The proper dose of passion flower depends on the form it comes in. For tablets and capsules, 200-400mg is a healthy, safe dose. If you are taking a liquid extract, the recommended dose is 1-3ml. Finally, if you are brewing passion flower tea, you should use 6-10g of dried passion flower in order to improve sleep.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

Passion flower is incredibly safe, with very few potential side effects. Some people report that they are still sleepy or drowsy the morning after taking passion flower, but in that case we would recommend simply reducing your dose or taking it earlier in the evening. However, it is not recommended for use while pregnant because it could induce uterine contractions.

Is it effective?

The research on the effects of passion flower is still in the very early stages, so we can’t say that it’s guaranteed to work. There are some very promising animal studies, and even a few human ones. According to one study done with mice, passion flower significantly increased the mices’ sleep time. Another study done in humans found that passion flower significantly improved participants’ sleep quality as well. More research needs to be done to be certain that passion flower works, but the current research is encouraging.

Where can I buy it?

Passion flower is available at most drugstores, but if you can’t find it there, we recommend checking out the nearest GNC or supplement store.

Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the essential nutrients/minerals that our body needs in order to function. It plays a vital role in blood pressure, heart health, bone strength and more. Magnesium supplements are typically made with magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate or magnesium chloride.

What forms does it come in? 

Magnesium supplements most commonly come in the form of tablets, capsules or chewable supplements.

How does it work?

According to Trista Best, Registered Dietician, magnesium works by “regulating and activating parasympathetic hormones and neurotransmitters that help the brain to enter a state of relaxation which is better prepared for rest. Magnesium also helps to control the symptoms of some conditions that interrupt sleep, like digestive disorders.”

How much do I take?

When taking magnesium to help sleep, the recommended dose is 350mg per day or less. Some people are prescribed higher doses for migraine headaches, but this should always be accompanied by medical supervision, and it’s not necessary or helpful for those who want to use magnesium for insomnia.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

Generally, magnesium supplements are very safe. Even if you take too much magnesium, your kidneys will likely filter it out through your urine. However, the Office of Dietary Supplements does warn that excessive magnesium intake could interfere with healthy zinc intake, and could cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea.

Is it effective?

Studies show that magnesium can be a very effective sleep aid. One study conducted with elderly participants found that magnesium supplements helped improve overall sleep time, sleep quality and time required to fall asleep. Another study looked at the effects of magnesium supplementation in adults over a five year period and found that it significantly decreased daytime sleepiness, especially in women.

Where can I buy it?

Magnesium supplements are available at drugstores, supplement stores and many large chain stores like Walmart or Target.

Lavender

Lavender is a purple flowering plant in the mint family that is native to Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia, though it grows all of the world today. It is frequently used as an herbal supplement for anxiety, pain relief, skincare and sleep.

What forms does it come in? 

Lavender for sleep is typically used in essential oil form through aromatherapy, but it is also sold in capsules you can take orally.

How does it work?

According to studies in mice, lavender works because of how it affects the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is split into two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming us down. The mice studies found that lavender inhibits the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This should help us feel calmer and sleep easier.

How much do I take?

If you want to use lavender aromatherapy for sleep, you can simply add lavender oil to a diffuser and let it run throughout the night, or you can apply 6 to 8 drops on your pillow. If you want to take oral lavender for sleep, then 80mg taken each night before bed is the recommended dose.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

In general, lavender is an incredibly safe natural sleep aid. Unlike many prescription sleep aids, it poses no risk for dependence or abuse, and it seems to be safe in both the long- and short-term. However, it should not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding, and in rare cases, it could have feminizing effects on men because it tends to encourage estrogen production and reduce androgen production.

Is it effective?

Lavender is one of the most effective natural sleep aids on this list, with the most research to support it. One study found that lavender aromatherapy significantly improved sleep quality among healthy Japanese students. Another study found that lavender aromatherapy helped reduce insomnia symptoms, especially for milder insomnia. Yet another study found that oral lavender capsules improved sleep quality and sleep duration in participants with anxiety disorders.

Where can I buy it?

Lavender essential oils are available at drugstores, chain stores, and supplement stores, but if you’re looking for oral lavender, you should check the nearest GNC.

Glycine

Glycine is an amino acid, which is a building block that creates proteins in our bodies. The human body produces its own glycine, but we also need to get extra glycine from our diet. It’s commonly found in foods like meat, fish and dairy, and it’s also available as a supplement.

What forms does it come in? 

Glycine supplements most commonly come in tablet or capsule form, but they are also available as a powder you can add to your drink.

How does it work?

Glycine improves sleep by lowering the body’s core temperature. Our bodies naturally get a little cooler when we sleep, so when you take a glycine supplement before bed and lower your body temperature slightly, it signals to the brain that it’s time for sleep.

How much do I take?

The recommended dosage of glycine to help promote sleep is 3g taken two hours before bed. This should give the glycine enough time to lower your core temperature and induce sleepiness.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

One of the benefits of glycine is that it’s incredibly safe. The recommended daily dose is 3g, but studies have been conducted using up to 90g per day with no side effects. However, it has not been closely studied in young children, people with liver or kidney disease or people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Is it effective?

Glycine is a very effective sleep aid. One study demonstrates that it significantly reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and improves the quality of sleep, and another study found that taking glycine before bed improves fatigue and daytime sleepiness the morning after.

Where can I buy it?

Glycine may be available at your local drugstore, but if you can’t find it there, a supplement shop or GNC are very likely to carry it.

Camomile

Camomile is a flowering, daisy-like plant that has been used in herbal remedies and teas for centuries.

What forms does it come in? 

Camomile is most commonly found in the form of capsules or tea, but it’s also available as a powder, gummies or essential oils.

How does it work?

More research needs to be done to determine exactly how camomile works to improve sleep, but based on preliminary studies, researchers believe camomile has benzodiazepine-like effects. Benzodiazepines help induce sleep by increasing amounts of GABA in the brain. GABA is a brain chemical we mentioned earlier, and it helps with sleep by inhibiting neuron excitement. This keeps you calm and more likely to fall asleep easily.

How much do I take?

The recommended dosage of camomile to help with better sleep is between 200 and 400mg.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

Generally, camomile is very safe, but there are a few concerns you should be aware of. First, camomile is in the same family as ragweed, so if you have a ragweed allergy, you should either avoid camomile, or be on the lookout for an allergic reaction. Second, camomile is known to have blood-thinning effects, so people with blood disorders should talk to their doctor before taking camomile. Finally, camomile may act like estrogen in the body, so if you have uterine fibroids, breast cancer or endometriosis, you should consult your doctor before taking camomile.

Is it effective?

There are several studies that have found camomile to be effective in improving sleep quality, but these studies typically look at very specific groups of people. For instance, one study found that oral camomile extract had sedative properties for hospitalized elderly patients in nursing homes. Another study conducted specifically on participants with insomnia not caused by other illnesses found that camomile significantly improved daytime functioning and showed mild improvements in sleep quality. More research is needed, but based on what we know so far, camomile seems like an effective sleep aid.

Where can I buy it?

Camomile tea is available almost everywhere, from tea shops to chain stores. If you’re looking for camomile in capsule or essential oil form, we recommend checking out your local supplement shop or GNC.

Ginseng

Ginseng is a plant native to Asia and the Americas and its root is traditionally used in herbal remedies, though its leaves and stems have been used as well.

What forms does it come in? 

One way to add more ginseng to your diet is by eating it directly, either raw or steamed. It’s also available as tea or as a capsule supplement.

How does it work?

Like many of the other natural sleep aids on this list, ginseng works by interacting with GABA breakdown in order to inhibit neuron excitement and promote feelings of calmness and sedation.

How much do I take?

Ginseng has been used for sleep in doses ranging from 100mg all the way up to 3000mg. It’s recommended that you start with a small dose and work your way up to whatever amount best helps you sleep.

What are the risks? Is it safe?

There are a few side effects that sometimes come with using ginseng. According to Poison Control, in some people ginseng could lead to itching, nervousness, diarrhea and insomnia. If you have an adverse reaction to ginseng, you should stop taking it right away and consult your doctor.

Is it effective?

More research is needed in order to confirm that ginseng is completely effective. Right now, most articles about ginseng refer to the same study done in 2013. This study found that red ginseng, when administered to healthy male volunteers three times per day for seven days, improved total time asleep, which is good news for insomniacs who spend a lot of time tossing and turning. However, it also reduced total time spent in slow wave sleep, which is an important part of the sleep cycle. Future research could confirm that ginseng is an effective natural sleep aid, but right now it’s impossible to say for sure.

Where can I buy it?

Ginseng tea is available at many drug stores and tea shops, while ginseng capsules and essential oils are more likely to be found at supplement shops. If you’re looking for raw ginseng, you should check supplement shops or your local Asian cuisine market.

Risks, Warnings and Precautions

Natural sleep aids offer a lot of advantages over prescription sleep aids, but they present their own unique risks as well. Unlike prescriptions, they aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they go on the market, which means they may not contain exactly what they say they contain. If a supplement is found to be fraudulent or dangerous, the FDA removes it from the shelves, but only after it was already on the market and sold to customers.

Even if your natural sleep aid is what it says it is, there are other risks to be aware of. Most natural remedies have not been thoroughly tested on people who are pregnant or breastfeeding or on young children. If you fall into one of those categories, you should check with your doctor before using any natural remedy or giving a natural remedy to your young child.

Natural remedies can also interfere with some medications or surgeries. If you are on a different medication or are scheduled to undergo surgery, check with your doctor before trying one of these natural sleep aids.

Finally, many of these natural sleep aids could cause issues for people with liver or kidney disease. Consult with your doctor before taking them.

Final Thoughts

If you’re having trouble sleeping, natural sleep aids could be a helpful, non-habit-forming solution. They come in many varieties, from aromatherapy to tea to dietary supplements, so there’s definitely an option out there that can work for you. Natural sleep aids are generally considered to be safe, but you should always check with your doctor before using them to get a good night’s sleep.


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