Sleep should be relaxing, but 35% of Americans struggle to get the recommended seven or more hours per night of shut-eye. Considering the serious consequences of not sleeping enough — including reduced performance, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and car accidents — it is no surprise that many people turn to sleep aids to help them rest. While prescription and over-the-counter drugs are one option, natural sleep aids are also popular.
Getting the details about the types of natural sleep aids, their potential benefits and downsides, and how they are regulated can help you make informed decisions about using and purchasing these products.
What Are Natural Sleep Aids?
Natural sleep aids are over-the-counter supplements intended to help you fall asleep faster or stay asleep throughout the night. They are usually plant-based, a vitamin or mineral already present in our diets, or supplemental amounts of something produced by the body. There are not strict guidelines surrounding the use of the word “natural” for supplements, and many natural supplements, such as melatonin, tend to be synthetically derived.
Many customers prefer natural sleep supplements because they tend to have fewer side effects than prescription sleep medications. They also appeal to people who prefer natural products, or are concerned about the addictive potential of prescription sleep aids.
What Are the Best Natural Sleep Aids?
There is a staggering array of natural sleep aids available, all of which are rumored to offer the sleep you need. However, since the FDA does not review if supplements are safe or effective, finding the most effective natural sleep aid can be difficult. Learning about the evidence supporting different supplements, as well as their potential effects and side effects, can make it easier to decide which natural sleep aid might be best for you.
However, it is important to consult your doctor before starting any new supplement. Natural does not always mean safe for everyone. Many supplements should not be taken by people who are allergic to the product, have certain conditions, or take certain medications.
Melatonin is a sleep-regulating hormone produced by the pineal gland in our brains. It plays a significant role in organizing our circadian rhythms, the 24-hour sleep-wake cycles that govern when we wake up, feel alert, feel tired, and sleep.
A wide range of factors can suppress melatonin production, particularly night-time exposure to light but also aging and some diseases. Since low melatonin levels can cause sleep disturbances, many people take supplemental melatonin in pill form. It is the fourth most popular natural supplement among American adults.
Melatonin is most often recommended for people with circadian rhythm conditions like delayed sleep-wake phase disorder or whose circadian rhythms are compromised by jet lag. It is also used for some sleep disorders in children. Some people also find melatonin helps with shift work-related sleep disturbances or insomnia, but the research is divided in terms of how effective it is for these problems. While there is also a prescription medication called a melatonin receptor agonist, this is different from supplemental melatonin.
While experts believe that melatonin is likely safe for adults taking standard dosages, there are potential safety concerns for children. Additionally, allergic reactions are possible, and there is insufficient research about its use by pregnant or breastfeeding people. Side effects do not tend to be severe but may include dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Some people, particularly older adults, also report daytime drowsiness.
A popular fragrant garden and kitchen herb, lavender has long been thought to aid relaxation and improve sleep. Modern research seems to validate some of these traditional claims. The use of lavender oil, for example, has been shown to improve sleep quality among postpartum women and increase the effectiveness of good sleep hygiene. Lavender oil also seems to have a soothing effect and reduces anxiety and restlessness.
Most studies on lavender’s efficacy as a sleep aid have focused on lavender essential oil, though some people also use the dried herb as a tea or in their pillow. Essential oils should not be ingested except under a doctor’s supervision, as even lavender oil contains poisonous compounds. Instead, the oil should be diffused into the air or diluted in a neutral cream or oil for use on the skin.
Lavender may be most appealing for people who struggle to sleep due to anxiety or racing thoughts. It is also popular among people who want an external sleep aid rather than something they consume. Short-term use of dried lavender or use of lavender essential oil is thought to be safe, though potential side effects for the external use of lavender oil include skin irritation and allergic reaction.
The pungent valerian plant — its smell has been compared to gym socks — has been used for sleep problems since the 2nd century. Though further research needs to be done, valerian appears to help people fall asleep faster, sleep better, and wake up less often. In some studies, patients taking valerian were 80% more likely to report sleep improvements than those taking a placebo. Because experts have not located a single active compound, they speculate that valerian’s effect may be due to several compounds working together, or the amino acids GABA or glycine.
The roots and stems of the valerian plant are made into teas, tinctures, capsules, extracts, and tablets. While each type of preparation has its fans, the tea can have an unpleasant odor, and researchers generally use liquid extracts or capsules in their research. Valerian is usually recommended for people with insomnia or general problems with sleep quality. Most people report that it is more effective once they have been taking it for several weeks. However, further research is needed to determine how effective valerian is in treating insomnia.
Valerian is generally considered safe for adults. Side effects are rare and tend to be mild but may include headache, dizziness, itching, and stomach upset.
German chamomile has been used to treat sleep problems since ancient Egypt. Despite this long history, there has been little research into its benefits. What we do know from smaller studies and meta-analysis is that German chamomile may soothe anxiety and improve sleep quality, although researchers are not clear on why it might have these effects. On the other hand, it does not appear to benefit people with insomnia.
The most common preparations of German chamomile are capsules, tincture, and tea. Although there is another variety called Roman chamomile, most research has focused on the German type.
Chamomile is generally regarded as safe when used as a tea or taken orally. It does have potential interactions with some drugs, including blood thinners, and there is little information on its safety for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Side effects are usually limited to mild nausea or dizziness, but allergic reactions are possible, particularly for people with allergies to related plants like ragweed and daisies.
The passionflower vine is native to the Americas and has historically been used as a sedative by multiple indigenous cultures. There has been very little research into its benefits, though the existing research is encouraging, if limited. In one study focused on generalized anxiety disorder, passionflower’s calming effects were comparable to a commonly prescribed sedative. Passionflower may also improve sleep quality and make it easier to fall and stay asleep.
Extracts and tea are both common forms of passionflower people use. Both have been used in research settings, so choosing between them is a matter of preference. While research into this supplement shows potential benefits for anxiety and insomnia, there is no conclusive proof of its efficacy.
As with passionflower’s benefits, there is little research into its safety. However, daily doses of up to 800 milligrams have been used safely in studies lasting as long as two months. Side effects are usually mild and may include drowsiness, confusion, and uncoordinated movements. Pregnant women should not use passionflower, as it can induce uterine contractions. There is limited research into its safety while breastfeeding.
In addition to being the main flavoring in beer, the flowers of the hops plant are used by some people as a natural sleep aid. Like most natural supplements, the benefits of hops have not been researched enough to definitively state whether or not it might help people sleep better. However, there is preliminary evidence that hops supplements can help stabilize circadian rhythms and lessen the symptoms of shift work disorder. Dried hops flowers contain the acids humulone and lupulone, and their relationship with the body’s GABA receptors may be part of the reason for hops’ effects.
Hops is often combined with other natural sleep aids such as valerian. It can be taken as non-alcoholic beer or in dried form as a tea or dry extract. Different studies have used all three methods, and there is no evidence in favor of one form over another.
It is likely safe to consume hops in the form of non-alcoholic beer or tea, though supplemental use is only considered possibly safe due to the lack of research. Hops also has more potential side effects than some other natural sleep aids. Because it has weak effects similar to estrogen, hops can cause changes to the menstrual cycle and is not recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or who have hormone-sensitive cancers or other conditions. Hops can also worsen depression. However, for most people, side effects are mild and may include dizziness or sleepiness.
CBD is a chemical known as a cannabinoid that is present in the cannabis plant. Cannabis has over 100 cannabinoids, and CBD is much different than the psychoactive delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabinoid. Most CBD is derived from hemp, which does not contain enough THC to be psychoactive.
Research into CBD has previously been limited due to cannabis regulations, but there are indications that it might help some people sleep better. To begin with, it appears to reduce the anxious symptoms of a broad spectrum of mental health conditions. It also seems that the body’s own cannabinoid system affects how we sleep, making CBD more likely to have benefits. There has been some evidence that CBD can aid some sleep disorders and reduce excessive daytime sleepiness, but research is currently inconclusive.
Although CBD has been legal federally since 2018, it is not supposed to be sold as a dietary supplement. It is, however, widely available in forms such as tinctures, gummies, and oils. Because of this lack of regulatory oversight, one study found that 26% of CBD products had less CBD than they claimed, while 43% had much more. CBD appears to be largely safe with minor side effects such as tiredness, diarrhea, and changes to weight or appetite. However, its safety is unknown for pregnant or breastfeeding people. CBD may interact with medications and adversely impact certain health conditions.
Tart Cherry Juice
Juice from the tart cherry, also known as the sour cherry, appears to raise melatonin levels and increase the availability of tryptophan, an amino acid that may play a role in helping people fall asleep. These are promising findings, and tart cherry juice may improve sleep quality and make it easier to fall asleep. However, some studies indicate that the effect on insomnia is not as strong as established treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Studies on the health benefits of tart cherries have had participants consume the equivalent of up to 270 cherries a day, but there is no specific research into their safety. The juice, which can be very sour, is usually diluted in a small amount of water before drinking.
Magnesium is a mineral naturally present in food and often added to processed foods. It is used throughout the body and is present in bones, soft tissue, and blood. Older adults are more at risk for magnesium deficiency, and one of the mineral’s many roles is sleep regulation. Some research suggests that supplemental magnesium may help reduce insomnia in older adults, either when used alone or with melatonin and zinc. It may also reduce excessive daytime sleepiness in adults.
Since high levels of magnesium are available in foods like pumpkin seeds, it is easy to supplement by eating more magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium supplements are also available in pills and tablets, including multivitamins. Magnesium aspartate, magnesium citrate, magnesium lactate, and magnesium chloride are the easiest for the body to absorb.
While magnesium is usually safe at ordinary dietary levels since the kidneys filter it out, high dosages can cause side effects like diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramping. Magnesium also interacts with some medication and other supplements, and very large dosages can lead to significant heart abnormalities including low blood pressure or hypotension, irregular heartbeat, and cardiac arrest.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid and neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in regulating nervous system activity. In addition to being made by the body and present in food like tea and tomatoes, GABA is available in supplement form. While it was previously believed that GABA taken orally could not pass the blood-brain barrier and was therefore not useful to the body, there is now some evidence to the contrary.
Small trials of supplemental GABA have shown that it can reduce stress and may help people fall asleep more easily. It is not currently known whether GABA’s effects on sleep might be due to stress reduction or another mechanism.
GABA naturally occurs in the body and in food, but there is little research into whether it is safe to take as a supplement. However, most studies have shown no adverse reactions. GABA is available in pills and may be derived from natural or synthetic sources. Research is still ongoing as to whether synthetic GABA is as effective as GABA derived from a natural source.
Like GABA, glycine is an amino acid and neurotransmitter made by the body and available in some foods. Glycine appears to affect sleep and pass the blood-brain barrier. Studies show that glycine appears to improve sleep quality, potentially by lowering body temperature. Taking glycine before bed may also help reduce the performance impact of insufficient sleep, which may be due to improved sleep quality or another mechanism.
Supplemental glycine is available in capsule or powder form, and there is limited knowledge about what form might be most beneficial. While glycine is part of our diet, its safety is unknown when taken in the quantities usually found in supplements.
Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe?
Natural sleep aids are not universally safe or unsafe. Sold over-the-counter or online, natural sleep aids do not go through the same testing and review process as prescription medicines.
In general, there is a lack of high-quality research about the effectiveness and safety of most natural sleep aids. As a result, many questions about natural sleep remedies remain unresolved. There are special considerations to keep in mind when evaluating the safety of natural sleep aids.
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.
As a precaution, adults should 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.
Some natural sleep aids may be safe for use in children, though sleep hygiene should be encouraged before sleep aids are considered. In many cases, there is insufficient research in children to confidently evaluate the safety or efficacy of natural sleep aids.
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 does not affect their child’s health and development, parents should take precautions 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
Pregnant or Breastfeeding People
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should use caution with natural sleep aids. Many ingredients have not gone through rigorous testing in pregnant or breastfeeding people, so little is known about potential effects on their child.
Although some products may be safe, the best approach for those 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 a Natural Sleep Aid?
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 additional scrutiny. Organizations like ConsumerLab.com, US Pharmacopeia (USP), and the NSF International Dietary Supplement program are among the most well-regarded certifications.
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