Around one-third of American adults sleep less than seven hours per night, and many of them use medications and sleep aids to try to get the sleep they need.
In recent years, more people have turned their attention to natural sleep aids with an estimated 20% of adults having tried a natural sleep remedy in the last year.
Sold over-the-counter or online, natural sleep aids don’t go through the same testing and review process as prescription medicines, leading many people to wonder whether natural sleep aids are safe and which ones might be worth taking.
In general, there’s a lack of high-quality research about the effectiveness and safety of most natural sleep aids. As a result, and unfortunately for people with sleeping problems, many questions about natural sleep remedies remain unresolved.
Getting the details about the types of natural sleep aids, their potential benefits and downsides, and how they’re regulated can help you make informed decisions about using and purchasing these products.
What Are Natural Sleep Aids?
There is no formal definition of natural sleep aids. Without guidelines or consensus for labeling natural sleep aids, the term can best be understood by breaking down its two parts:
- Natural: There are no rules or regulations that govern the use of the term natural for these products. In some cases, natural refers to a substance derived from plants. In other cases, it is used to describe substances that are created synthetically in a laboratory but which are found in the body (such as melatonin), in foods (such as tryptophan), or in plants.
- Sleep Aid: These products are intended to alleviate sleep problems that can range from insomnia to anxiety about sleep to jet lag and other problems affect a person’s internal clock, known as their circadian rhythm. With the majority of natural sleep aids, though, there is insufficient research to know if or how they affect sleep in most people.
Are Natural Sleep Aids Regulated by the Government?
Natural sleep aids are not closely regulated by the United States government and generally do not need FDA approval
before being sold.
Most natural sleep aids are sold as dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are not overseen in the same way as prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.
Makers of dietary supplements do not have to submit the same detailed documentation about safety and effectiveness that is required for medications. Claims about health benefits are accompanied by a disclaimer that those statements have not been reviewed by the FDA. Supplement makers who violate these terms can be charged with misleading advertising.
Reduced oversight makes it easier to bring dietary supplements to market, which is part of why you can find so many brands and products. Lack of regulation also helps explain why there is no standard definition for “natural sleep aids” and why finding detailed information about these products can at times be difficult.
Are There Side Effects From Natural Sleep Aids?
There can be side effects, including serious side effects, from natural sleep aids. Just because these products are labeled as natural does not mean that they cannot be harmful.
For many natural sleep remedies, a lack of research means that even experts don’t fully understand the possible risks or the best or safest dosage.
As with all drugs or dietary supplements, side effects vary based on the specific compound. However, some types of negative effects that can occur with natural sleep aids include:
- Allergic reaction: Just like some people are allergic to pollen or certain foods, they can be allergic to substances included in natural sleep aids.
- Adverse reactions: Some natural sleep aids can induce issues like gastrointestinal problems and headaches. For some substances, there are concerns about more serious adverse reactions that affect the liver.
- Excess sleepiness: Natural compounds that induce drowsiness, especially if used in high doses, may have a lasting effect that continues into the next morning, causing them to feel groggy, fatigued, or unable to concentrate.
- Drug interactions: Natural products can change how the body metabolizes or processes other drugs, making them more or less potent. These potentially dangerous drug interactions may be tied to both prescription and OTC medications.
- Improper dosage: Limited research about natural sleep aids hinders the ability to identify the right dosage and timing for taking them. Even with natural substances, a dose that is too high may induce unwanted side effects.
Mislabeling is another problem that can be tied to ineffectiveness of natural sleep aids and to a higher risk of side effects:
- Inaccurate dose listing: In one study, a laboratory analyzed 31 melatonin supplements sold in stores and found that 71% of them were not within even 10% of the dosage listed on the bottle. If the listed dosage overshoots the actual dose, a person may not take enough to be effective. If the listed dosage undershoots the actual dose, there is a greater risk of overdose.
- Tainted supplements: The FDA has reported increasing cases of tainted sleep aids that include detectable levels of substances that are not listed on the label. In some cases, supplements are laced with prescription drugs such as anticoagulants and anticonvulsants, which can pose significant health risks for people who ingest them without knowing it.
Because natural sleep aids do not need to be pre-approved by the FDA, mislabeled or tainted products may be used and sold for an extended period of time before problems are identified.
Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe for Adults?
Natural sleep aids are not universally safe or unsafe for adults. Many natural sleep remedies, when taken in the proper dosage by healthy adults, have few side effects. But this does not mean that all-natural sleep aids are safe.
The best bet for adults is to talk with their doctor or pharmacist before taking a natural sleep aid. Adults should also stop taking natural sleep aids if they notice any abnormal health changes or side effects.
Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe for Children?
Some natural sleep aids are safe for use in children; however, in many cases, there is insufficient research in children to confidently evaluate their safety or efficacy.
For certain natural sleep aids, such as melatonin, short-term use is generally considered to be safe for most children, but there is limited data about long-term use.
To make sure that any medication or sleep aid doesn’t affect their child’s health and development, parents should use caution when considering natural sleep aids for their children, including:
- Talking with their pediatrician first
- Ensuring that the dosage is meant for children and not adults
- Paying attention to the label and list of ingredients
- Looking for high-quality products that are tested by third-parties to reduce the risk of tainted or mislabeled supplements
Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe for Pregnant Or Breastfeeding Women?
Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should use caution with natural sleep aids. Many ingredients have not gone through rigorous testing in pregnant or breastfeeding women, so little is known about potential effects on their child.
Although some products may be safe, the safest approach for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding is to consult with their doctor prior to taking natural sleep aids.
Should You Talk to a Doctor Before Taking Natural Sleep Aids?
It is advisable to talk with a doctor before starting to use any natural sleep aid. Even though these products are available without a prescription, your doctor may be able to help in several ways:
- Reviewing your other medications and the potential for interactions between them and a natural sleep aid.
- Addressing your health history and the likelihood of adverse reactions from natural sleep aids.
- Understanding your sleeping problems and evaluating if they may be caused by an underlying sleep disorder that can be resolved with a more specific form of treatment.
- Discussing the potential benefits and risks of specific types of natural sleep aids.
- Offering suggestions about dosage or timing for taking natural sleep aids.
- Providing guidance about how to know whether a natural sleep aid is working or causing side effects.
How Can You Find Safe Natural Sleep Aids?
Finding dependable natural sleep aids can be a challenge given the huge range of brands and products on the market. Being a cautious shopper can reduce the risk of taking mislabeled or tainted supplements.
Start by looking carefully at the product’s ingredient list. Remember that product labels may use terms like “natural,” “verified,” or “certified” in ways that are not strictly defined or regulated.
Customers who want to research specific products can contact the manufacturer of a natural sleep aid and ask for documentation about testing and safety. Information about quality assurance in the manufacturing process can also be illuminating in some cases.
Some third-party organizations provide seals of approval for supplements that have been tested. This is not a guarantee of a product’s safety, but it does indicate that it has been subject to extra scrutiny. Organizations like ConsumerLab.com, US Pharmacopeia (USP), and the NSF International Dietary Supplement program are among the most well-regarded certifications.
Which Natural Sleep Aids Are the Best and Safest?
There is no definitive answer about which natural sleep aids are the best or safest. The majority of natural sleep aids have not been rigorously tested in humans. When available, data about many ingredients in natural sleep aids comes from studies that are very small, poorly designed, or conducted in animals.
Because of the lack of conclusive evidence, it is hard to know which natural sleep aids are the safest, which are most effective, and how and when they are best used. In light of this, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) does not recommend any natural sleep aids for the treatment of chronic insomnia.
The most well-studied and also two of the most widely used natural sleep aids are melatonin and valerian. Studies of these compounds, though, have often had conflicting results.
The following sections review melatonin, valerian, and other ingredients that may be found in natural sleep aids in order to address what is known about their potential benefits and downsides.
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the body in response to darkness. It helps to regulate sleep and facilitate a healthy circadian rhythm.
Melatonin can be produced synthetically and ingested as a supplement. Evidence indicates that this type of melatonin can help with jet lag, which occurs when a person travels rapidly across multiple time zones, and some other circadian rhythm disorders.
Some research shows that melatonin offers benefits for improving sleep more generally. When taken in the evening, it may help some adults more easily fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.
People usually do not have notable side effects when taking melatonin. When side effects do occur, the most common are daytime sleepiness, headaches, and dizziness. Melatonin is not recommended in older adults with dementia.
In children, melatonin is generally considered to be safe when used in the short-term and under the guidance of a doctor. The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) states that limited use of melatonin may be helpful to establish a consistent bedtime, reset sleep routines, or address sleep problems in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Long-term effects of melatonin supplements in children are unknown. Some researchers have theorized that prolonged use may affect the start of puberty, but results from studies so far are not conclusive.
Valerian is derived from a plant and has a history tracing back to the ancient Greeks. In studies, results have been inconsistent in addressing sleeping problems in adults.
For most adults, short-term use of valerian is relatively safe. Some potential side effects include headaches, slowed thinking, stomach problems, cardiovascular dysfunction, and feelings of discomfort or excitability.
Other Natural Sleep Aids
Overall, there is very limited evidence about other natural sleep aids, meaning that there is not conclusive research to demonstrate their safety or effectiveness.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is normally obtained from foods and contributes to numerous bodily processes. Its role as a natural sleep aid is not well-defined, but some research has found that it may help older adults who have insomnia when used alone or in combination with melatonin and zinc.
Many people obtain sufficient magnesium from their diet, making magnesium supplementation unnecessary. High doses of magnesium in supplements can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea. In extremely high doses, magnesium toxicity can cause more severe side effects. Magnesium interacts with various medications including some proton pump inhibitors and antibiotics.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that comes primarily from food. The body uses tryptophan to help produce melatonin, and tryptophan is often associated with sleepiness after eating turkey, which is high in tryptophan, on Thanksgiving.
Despite tryptophan’s reputation for sleepiness, there is only weak evidence that tryptophan supplements improve sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine does not recommend using tryptophan as a treatment for insomnia.
More research is needed to understand the role of tryptophan in sleep. For example, tryptophan’s effects may change based on whether it is consumed with carbohydrates or other types of nutrients.
Kava is a plant that comes from the Pacific islands. Research about kava has shown that it may reduce anxiety, which can contribute to sleeping problems, but no direct benefit on sleep has been demonstrated.
Some people using kava supplements have developed a severe liver injury that can be life-threatening. Kava can also cause stomach problems, headaches, and dizziness. When used for an extended period, it may cause a condition involving yellowed, dry, and flaky skin.
Passionflower is a vine cultivated in both Europe and the Americas. Though this compound has shown some promise for reducing insomnia, studies are conflicting. To date, there is no conclusive evidence that passionflower is an effective sleep aid in people.
Short-term use of passionflower by adults is thought to be safe, but some people experience drowsiness, confusion, or loss of coordination. It can cause uterine contractions, so it is not recommended for pregnant women.
Chamomile is a plant often found in teas and advanced as a natural remedy for various conditions.
No definitive evidence from research studies shows that chamomile works to improve sleep. Studies to date have been small and have had mixed results.
Side effects from chamomile are rare, especially when consumed in quantities normally found in teas. Nausea and dizziness are the most common of these side effects. Some drug interactions are possible with chamomile.
Allergic reactions to chamomile can occur and are more likely if a person has serious allergies to ragweed, daisies, or marigolds.
Ginkgo biloba is a tree and its leaves have been studied for proposed medical benefits. So far, that research has not shown sleep benefits from taking it. Some evidence indicates that it may reduce anxiety, which can interfere with sleep.
Supplements made from ginkgo leaves are usually safe to take, but some people experience stomach problems, dizziness, and heart palpitations. Ginkgo may interact with other drugs, and there are concerns about its safety for pregnant women.
Bark from the magnolia tree has a history of use in Eastern medicine, and basic molecular research indicates that it may help relieve anxiety and encourage sleep. However, more detailed studies in people are necessary to understand magnolia’s possible benefits and side effects.
CBD is a cannabinoid that comes from the Cannabis plant but does not have psychoactive properties associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
For sleep, CBD has primarily been evaluated in people who have other medical problems. In those studies, people who take CBD often report sleep improvements. More research is needed to verify these results and examine the effect of CBD in people with sleeping problems that are not tied to coexisting health issues.
Side effects from CBD are less common than from THC, and with proper dosing, CBD is usually regarded as safe. Some people have daytime drowsiness and diarrhea, and a small number of people may have liver problems when taking CBD.
Lavender is a type of natural sleep aid, but it is used as a form of aromatherapy instead of being ingested. A number of research studies have found that the smell from lavender essential oils can have a calming effect that promotes sleep.
Other types of aromatherapies, such as rose oil, jasmine, or chamomile, may benefit sleep, but these scents have not gone through as much research as lavender.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a compound that functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA can be extracted from some types of plants to be used as a dietary supplement, and early-stage research has shown that it may help improve sleep. Further studies are needed to evaluate GABA supplements for sleep.
In one small study, most people taking GABA had no side effects, but some people reported abdominal pain and headaches.
L-Theanine is a type of naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea. Preliminary research has found potential sleep benefits from L-theanine supplements, but additional studies are required to more clearly establish this compound’s potential benefits and risks.
Glycine is an amino acid that has been found in early-stage research to have sleep-promoting benefits in rats and humans based on how it affects body temperature. Larger-scale, controlled research studies are needed to determine the safety and efficacy of supplemental glycine.
Certain Foods and Drinks
In addition to supplements, some people consume certain foods or drinks that may serve as natural sleep aids. Because diet and nutrient intake are multifaceted, there is a shortcoming of clear evidence showing which foods improve sleep, but tart cherry juice, kiwi, and malted milk are among the most promising foods and drinks in research to date.
Blends of Natural Ingredients
It is common to find natural sleep aids that are a blend of different ingredients. On one hand, including more compounds may have a synergistic effect and enhance sleep benefits. On the other hand, a similar effect may occur for side effects or unanticipated interactions with other medications.
Studies about single-compound natural sleep aids are limited, and this lack of research is even more pronounced for the huge diversity of potential blends.
For these reasons, customers should look carefully at the label to understand exactly what ingredients are present in any dietary supplement and talk with their doctor about whether that supplement is appropriate in their specific situation.
Getting the Best Results From Natural Sleep Aids
It’s rare for any sleep aid to single-handedly resolve all sleeping problems. If you decide to take a natural sleep aid, it’s often helpful to also review and improve upon your sleep hygiene.
This means looking closely at your sleep habits and bedroom environment to ensure that they are conducive to quality sleep. Taking this step can make your sleep schedule more consistent, eliminate barriers to restorative rest, and allow you to make the most of the sleep improvements that can come from a natural sleep aid.
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