Debunking Sleep Myths: Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe?


This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

A sleepless night can leave you cranky, lethargic, and feeling out of sorts in the morning. When those wide-awake nights starts happening more and more frequently, the idea of taking a natural sleep aid may seem like a reasonable way to cope. But while these aids are often promoted as safe, effective ways to treat insomnia, they may not be the best choice. Talking to your doctor before taking any natural sleep aid is a must for these four reasons.

1. Natural sleep aids are unregulated.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements (which include natural sleep aids like valerian and melatonin) for safety, quality, effectiveness, or truth in marketing claims. In fact, in 71 percent of melatonin supplements on the market, the melatonin content doesn’t come within 10 percent of its labeled claim.  It’s best to talk with your doctor about the options and how they might affect you.

2. They’re not ok for everyone.

It’s a misconception that because sleep aids are labeled as natural, they’re safe for anyone to take. Certain groups of people need to be cautious. For example, melatonin may have an effect on an adolescent’s developing reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic systems.  Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant are advised to avoid melatonin because there have been no long-term studies on its effects on mothers and developing fetuses. 

A natural sleep aid could also interact negatively with medication you’re currently taking. For instance, in laboratory studies melatonin supplements reduced the effectiveness of antidepressants desipramine and fluoxetine.  Melatonin has also been shown to decrease the effectiveness of certain blood pressure medications.  Talk with your doctor before taking a natural sleep aid to ensure that your medications won’t be compromised. 

3. Natural sleep aids won’t cure insomnia.

Sometimes, sleeplessness is a short-term problem with an identifiable cause, such as jet lag or a physical injury that’s keeping you awake. In those cases, your doctor may feel a natural sleep aid is worth a try. But for those suffering from long-term sleep issues, it’s important to get to the root of the situation. Your doctor may ask you questions about your sleep habits, how many hours you sleep on weeknights and weekends, and what your bedroom environment is like. With this information, a physician can make specific recommendations for improving the quality of your sleep in the long term, rather than relying on short-term relief from natural sleep aids.

4. The lasting effects are unknown.

While a few studies have shown melatonin to be a moderately effective sleep aid, research on the long-term effects of natural sleep aids is sparse.  And since the information is lacking, talking with a medical expert is the best way to ensure your safety. Your doctor can help determine how a natural sleep aid may or may not benefit you, and whether given your lifestyle and sleep issues, trying one makes sense.