Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/2/2021
Who doesn’t love sleep? There’s nothing better than climbing into a freshly made bed, cozying up with your favorite pillow, then drifting off into a quiet and restful night of sleep.
Unfortunately, sleep doesn’t come easy for many.
Research suggests that more than one-third of American adults get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, and 30 percent experience short-term insomnia — an additional 10 percent experience chronic insomnia.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for your mental health, physical health and quality of life. In fact, some argue it’s just as important as regular exercise and following a balanced diet.
And when you don’t get enough sleep, it can wreak havoc on your daily life.
While many people turn to over-the-counter and even prescription sleep medications to help them achieve a restful night’s sleep, others opt for natural sleep aids in the form of herbs and supplements.
But how do natural sleep aids work? Do they work at all? Are there any potential side effects associated with them? Which are the most popular ones out there, and are any of them backed by hard science?
We’re here to answer these important questions about some of the popular natural sleep aids.
The human body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. It is a 24-hour cycle that alternates between periods of sleepiness and wakefulness. It is also known as the sleep/wake cycle.
The body’s master clock, also known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), controls your circadian rhythm by regulating the production of a hormone called melatonin.
Melatonin is also known as the sleep hormone because it is what makes you drowsy as production increases at night.
Overnight, melatonin production tapers off, which eventually leads you to wake up. This cycle tends to coincide with the natural cycle of day and night since the SCN is very sensitive to light, and it is best regulated by keeping to regular sleep habits like going to bed at the same time and following a nightly routine.
As you get older, your circadian rhythm is subject to change — your risk for developing certain sleep disorders increases with age, as well.
This being the case, you might find yourself considering sleep aids to smooth the transition from wakefulness into sleep and to improve your sleep quality.
But how do sleep aids work, and are they safe?
Sleep medications are hypnotics that work on the brain to promote drowsiness and help you fall asleep. They are also known as sedatives, some of which are designed to help you stay asleep, as well.
Some of the most commonly used over-the-counter sleep medications include diphenhydramine (Nytol® and Sominex®) and doxylamine (Unisom®). Other OTC medications used for sleep include brand names like Tylenol® PM and NyQuil®.
Prescription sleep medications fall primarily into a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. Other prescription sleep medications include Ambien®, Lunesta®, Sonata® and Belsomra®.
All sleep medications have the potential to cause side effects — both over-the-counter and prescription — and some even come with a risk of dependence.
Some common potential side effects of sleeping pills include drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, muscle aches, constipation, dizziness, unsteadiness, difficulty concentrating and continued drowsiness the following day.
There’s also a risk that insomnia will come back even worse than before after you stop taking them.
But again, it’s important to remember that each sleep aid comes with its own varying array of potential side effects and disadvantages. These are just some of the most common.
Taking sleep aids for an extended period of time can also make it difficult to fall asleep without them, which can result in a dependency.
Some people prefer to use sleep supplements or other natural sleep aids as an alternative to over the counter and prescription drugs.
Though it’s generally recommended that over-the-counter sleep medications not be considered a miracle cure or a long-term form of treatment, they can help relieve short-term insomnia.
If you’re experiencing a temporary bout of sleeplessness and prefer not to use a sleep medication, a natural sleep aid could be an option for you.
Some of the most commonly used natural sleep aids include the following:
If you’re looking for a natural sleep aid, you’ll find plenty of options like these at your local pharmacy or drug store.
Unlike FDA-approved over-the-counter and prescription drugs, natural sleep supplements typically haven’t undergone extensive clinical trials to study their safety and efficacy, so it’s up to you to do your own due diligence before choosing a sleep supplement.
You should also make sure to keep your healthcare provider in the loop about any supplements you’re taking or plan to take.
Read on to learn more about some of the options discussed above in greater detail.
Melatonin is easily one of the most popular natural sleep aids on the market, with over 3 million Americans using melatonin supplements, according to a 2012 NIH survey.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the human body that plays a key role in regulating the natural sleep-wake cycle.
As a natural sleep aid, melatonin is a potential option for short-term use.
While there hasn’t been substantial clinical research on the possible side effects of melatonin use, it’s generally believed that sporadic use of melatonin can help with jet lag or the odd sleepless night without the experience of a “hangover” the next day.
More research needs to be done to understand the risk of side effects of both occasional and long-term use of melatonin.
Melatonin is not recommended for long-term use and, like any sleep aid, is not a cure for chronic insomnia.
Studies show that it is particularly effective for treating jet lag. While some have hypothesized melatonin may be effective in treating what's called "Shift Work Disorder," studies have been relatively small and inconclusive.
Melatonin is not recommended for people with autoimmune disorders, seizure disorders or depression. Nor is it recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
You should consult with a healthcare professional before taking melatonin if you take any medications, as melatonin may interact with your regular medications.
Valeriana officinalis, or valerian, is an herb native to parts of Asia and Europe.
In modern times, this herb is known for its sleep-promoting benefits, but valerian root has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years — dating all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome.
It has been used to treat conditions such as nervousness, headaches, heart palpitations and insomnia (among other things) for at least hundreds of years.
The sleep-promoting effects of valerian root may be attributed to two primary compounds — valerenic acid and iridoids.
Some researchers hypothesize that the sedative effects of valerian root are due to its binding effect on GABA-A receptors, similar to the mechanism of action of benzodiazepines.
Many studies have been conducted to determine whether taking valerian root can help with insomnia, including reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and improving sleep quality.
In a study of valerian’s effect on subjective sleep measures, 128 participants alternated between taking one of two types of valerian supplement and a placebo and then filled out a sleep questionnaire the next morning.
The supplement containing valerian extract appeared to result in subjectively better sleep as compared to placebo, especially in a subgroup of 61 participants who considered themselves poor sleepers.
As is true for any supplement or drug, valerian root does come with a risk for side effects.
According to clinical studies, however, these side effects are rare and generally mild. The most commonly reported side effects are headaches, dizziness, itchiness and gastrointestinal disturbance.
There’s no definitive recommended dose of valerian root, and the actual amount to consume to help promote sleep will depend on the product you choose.
Serving sizes of valerian root supplements currently on the market vary greatly, which is why you should pay attention to what each supplement’s label says, and find what works for you.
Valerian root is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding because the effects are not widely studied.
Additionally, be mindful of potential interactions with alcohol, other supplements, medications and other sedatives.
Talk to your healthcare provider before taking valerian, especially if you take medication or other supplements or have a medical condition.
Melatonin and valerian root are two of the most popular natural sleep aids, but there are other options to consider. Read on to learn more about the other natural sleep aids on the list.
When you think of natural ways to promote sleep, chamomile tea probably comes to mind. Chamomile is a medicinal herb that primarily comes in two varieties — Chamomilla recutita (German Chamomile) and Chamaemelum nobile (Roman Chamomile).
Though widely used as an herbal tea, chamomile can also be purchased in an extract form in products such as supplement pills or essential oils.
As a medicinal herb, chamomile has been used for centuries to treat conditions such as hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, ulcers and rheumatic pain. But perhaps its most popular use (at least in modern times) is as a mild sedative and relaxation tea.
The calming effects of chamomile are attributed to an antioxidant called apigenin which binds to certain receptors in the brain, which is thought to result in increased calm and promotion of sleep.
In one study of 60 nursing home residents, participants who took a dose of 200mg chamomile extract twice a day reported improved sleep quality as compared to the participants who received placebo.
In another study, chamomile tea consumed for two weeks resulted in improved sleep quality in post-partum women who had depression and poor quality sleep.
Though there is some scientific evidence in support of the benefits of chamomile for sleep, much of it is inconsistent or weak. Further study is required to determine the science-backed benefits of this natural sleep aid.
Known for its reputed soothing qualities, lavender is a flowering herb in the mint family that produces small purple flowers.
Many of the health benefits associated with lavender are linked to the essential oil it contains.
Some research has shown that just smelling lavender oil for 30 minutes before sleep can improve sleep quality.
In another study, the sleep-promoting benefits of lavender oil capsules were compared to a placebo in patients suffering from mild anxiety disorder.
Both groups experienced improvements in sleep quality and duration after 10 weeks, but the treatment group experienced greater benefits without any adverse side effects.
Magnesium is an abundant natural mineral in the body, acting as an essential component for more than 300 biochemical reactions.
It plays a role in protein synthesis, nerve and muscle function, blood sugar control and blood pressure regulation.
Magnesium is an important component of a healthful diet, but there hasn’t been a lot of clinical research into whether supplementing with magnesium can help sleep.
Data from a study of mice indicate that benzodiazepine receptors are involved in the calming effect of magnesium.
More research needs to be done on whether magnesium supplements can treat insomnia in humans to determine what, if any, effects magnesium could have on sleep.
That said, since magnesium plays a role in important functions of the body, it’s good to make sure you’re getting enough — whether through your food or magnesium supplementation.
The recommended intake of magnesium, according to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board, is 320mg per day for females over 30, and 420mg per day for men of the same age.
Magnesium supplements come in several forms, but small studies have shown that magnesium citrate, magnesium chloride, magnesium aspartate and magnesium lactate are more bioavailable than magnesium oxide and sulfate.
Also known as maypop, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a flower native to North, Central, and South America and has been traditionally used as a sedative.”
Typically consumed as a tea, the sleep-promoting benefits of this herbal supplement are not as widely studied as some natural sleep aids.
However, some research suggests that this substance does indeed have a sedative effect, but many studies feature inadequate methodologies. Even then, some studies show little to no benefit.
In one study comparing the effects of passionflower tea to a placebo tea made from parsley leaves, participants drank the tea nightly before bed for one week.
At the end of the study, subjective measurements based on the participants’ rating of their sleep quality indicated an improvement overall as compared to placebo.
Passionflower is generally regarded as safe, but there is not enough scientific evidence as of yet to support it as an effective natural sleep aid or to determine what risks may be associated with it.
You’ve probably heard of tryptophan and its association with sleep in the context of Thanksgiving. Turkey is rich in this sleep-promoting supplement, but the way it actually promotes sleep is a little more complicated than you might imagine.
Tryptophan is an amino acid (full name L-tryptophan) found in foods like turkey, cheese, yogurt and eggs.
When you consume this nutrient, your body converts it into niacin, a B vitamin that plays a role in producing serotonin.
Serotonin’s job as a neurotransmitter is associated with regulating melatonin levels and promoting sleep.
This effect is far from immediate, but can be improved by pairing it with carbohydrates.
Research has found that tryptophan increases both serotonin and melatonin by a significant enough degree that it may improve your quality of sleep.
In a study of middle-aged people (ages 55-75), researchers gave volunteers cereal enriched with 60mg of tryptophan for both breakfast and dinner.
At the end of the three-week study, researchers observed (results via wrist actimeter) that volunteers in the treatment group experienced “increased sleep efficiency, actual sleep time, immobile time and decreased total nocturnal activity, sleep fragmentation index and sleep latency.”
If you’re considering a tryptophan supplement as a natural sleep aid, you could also consider taking 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) or melatonin as both are derived from tryptophan.
But, as mentioned for some of the other supplements mentioned herein, it’s important to note that the research on tryptophan is thin, and more qualitative research is needed before we’ll have a clear-cut answer.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the oldest living tree species in the world and many dietary supplements are made from an extract prepared from its leaves.
The primary benefits of gingko biloba are attributed to its high levels of flavonoid antioxidants and terpenoids.
In one study, eight participants who consumed 240mg gingko biloba extract daily for four weeks had better sleep continuity and fell asleep easier during the short duration of the study.
You can find gingko biloba supplements in tablet or liquid form.
Also known as kava kava, Piper methysticum is a member of the pepper family and native to the Western and South Pacific Islands, where it has been used for hundreds of years as a ceremonial beverage for relaxation.
Kava’s recent popularity comes from the belief that it promotes relaxation and can improve sleep quality.
Dietary supplements of kava are prepared from the ground root. The primary active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones and they account for between three percent to 20 percent of the root’s dry weight.
However, many reports note that it’s linked to serious safety issues.
In 2002, the FDA issued a warning to consumers about the potential risk of severe liver injury associated with supplements containing kava.
Due to reports of liver injury such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver failure, Canada and several countries in Europe have banned the sale of products containing kava.
A naturally occurring compound found in green and black tea, L-theanine is also available in a dietary supplement.
L-theanine is an amino acid that the body doesn’t produce naturally. It affects certain chemicals in the brain, most notably serotonin and dopamine, which influence everything from mood and emotions to sleep.
Though there is some evidence to suggest that L-theanine may provide sleep-promoting benefits, many of these studies have a small sample size.
Other studies were conducted on animal rather than human test subjects, so the results may not be applicable.
If you choose to use L-theanine, do so with your healthcare provider’s approval.
This supplement is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women because its long-term effects are unknown. It may also interact poorly with pharmaceutical drugs for high and low blood pressure, as well as stimulants like caffeine.
Remember, natural sleep aids and other dietary supplements typically don’t undergo extensive clinical trials and are not required to obtain FDA approval before being sold, unlike drug products.
It’s always a good idea to read the product’s label and buy your supplements from a reputable source.
For example, one study found that in over 70 percent of the 31 supplements analyzed by researchers, the true melatonin content didn’t come within 10 percent of the advertised amount.
You also need to keep in mind that sleep aids, natural or pharmaceutical, are not a cure for insomnia.
Taking a natural sleep aid may help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and enjoy a higher quality of sleep, but insomnia symptoms may return as soon as you stop taking the supplement.
You should also know that the long-term effects of natural sleep aids are largely unknown, as scientific data is still lacking.
Here are some additional safety tips for taking sleeping pills:
Always read any information that comes with the pill to ensure that you take the right dosage and follow any other safety precautions.
Only take a sleep aid when you have enough time to get seven to eight hours of sleep.
Never take a second dose in the middle of the night, even if you wake up.
Start with the lowest recommended dose to see how your body responds.
Avoid using sleeping pills every day — use them only as necessary to avoid dependence.
Never drive a car or operate machinery after taking a sleeping pill until you know how the medication affects you.
Be mindful of potential interactions with other medications or supplements you’re taking.
Before you start or stop taking natural sleep aids, consult your healthcare provider to make sure the product won’t interact with other medications you’re taking and to determine the proper dosage.
Even with your healthcare provider’s support, you shouldn’t take sleep aids for more than two weeks, and be mindful of mixing them with alcohol and other substances that have a sedative effect.
Sleep should not be considered a luxury. If you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep several times a week, you could be suffering from insomnia.
Natural sleep aids have the potential to help improve sleep quality, but they should be used with caution.
Just because a substance is natural doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential for side effects or negative interactions. Use your own best judgment and do your research to determine whether melatonin, valerian or other natural sleep aids might be a good fit for your needs.
As always, if you’re suffering from symptoms of insomnia, the best thing to do is consult with a healthcare professional about your symptoms to determine the underlying problem, and then consider your options for treatment.
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