Natural sleep aids contain different ingredients, which may or may not be particularly helpful to you if you’re using them to help you sleep. Read through the following buyer’s guide to understand more about how natural sleep aids work.
What are natural sleep aids?
Natural sleep supplements contain natural, dietary and herbal ingredients that have been shown to aid in relaxation or sleep. They are distinct from both over-the-counter sleep aids, which are usually antihistamine medications, and prescription sleeping pills, which are doxepin and zolpidem drugs requiring a prescription.
Natural sleep supplements are similar to OTC sleep aids in that neither has been proven effective as a long-term treatment for insomnia. Both are designed as a temporary solution to treat short-term sleeplessness, such as that experienced during jet lag. Prescription sleep medication, on the other hand, is prescribed for chronic insomnia. It has the strongest—at times dangerous—side effects, which is why these sleeping pills require a prescription.
Many people prefer natural sleep supplements over OTC sleep aids because they have a lower chemical content and a lower risk of overdose or dependence. For example, it’s not possible to overdose on melatonin, although if you take too much you will experience uncomfortable side effects, such as headaches or stomach cramps. Natural sleep aids are also considered safe to use for a wider range of people than OTC sleep aids, simply because they have less chemicals.
In this guide, we’re focusing on natural sleep aids exclusively. To learn more about other options, visit our guides to Prescription Sleep Medications and the Best OTC Sleep Aids.
Natural sleep aid ingredients
Natural sleep supplements contain naturally-sourced ingredients that induce sleep. When you shop for natural sleep aids, you may find the below ingredients available as individual supplements, or combined with others as part of a formula.
Melatonin is the so-called “sleep hormone.” Your brain naturally produces melatonin in the evening, as a signal for your body to start falling asleep.
However, because we spend so much time flooding our brains with artificial light (through indoor lighting and tech devices), exercising late at night, and doing other, non-sleep-promoting activities, our natural melatonin production can become delayed.
This is a particular problem for shift workers, who have to sleep during a time their brain recognizes as daytime. Delayed melatonin production is a common side effect of jet lag, too, as we travel across time zones and our body become out of synch with our external environment.
A melatonin supplement helps correct these circadian disruptions, by giving your melatonin production a boost. A meta-analysis of 35 studies involving melatonin deemed it effective for relieving temporary insomnia, especially related to jet lag. Another meta-analysis of 19 studies found that melatonin is effective for decreasing the amount of time falling asleep (sleep onset latency), increasing the total amount of sleep time, and improving sleep quality.
Melatonin supplements are generally regarded as safe, given that you follow dosage guidelines. Dosage varies between 0.1 to 5 mg depending on the severity of the individual’s sleeplessness, their age, and other health conditions.
Valerian root is an herb that’s been popularly used for decades in the US and Europe to help with sleep.
Despite its popularity, conclusions are mixed as to its effectiveness. A 2006 review of 16 studies and a later 2010 meta-analysis both found that while all studies had participants who rated their sleep onset and quality as improved, these assessments were subjective. Whether this sense of sleep improvement is caused by a placebo effect or the valerian root itself is unknown.
If an individual experiences side effects from valerian root, they are generally minor, like dizziness.
Magnesium has been shown to have calming effects, which make it easier for restless minds and bodies to fall and stay asleep. Like melatonin, the human body naturally produces magnesium (50% of it lives in our bone) and the mineral is present in many of the foods we eat.
Beyond its calming effects, the reason magnesium is effective as a sleep aid is due to its effect on two other elements in the brain. It seems to have a stabilizing effect on melatonin, and it also increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) messengers in the brain, calming the brain.
Studies of individuals with magnesium deficiency have noted the presence of insomnia, while other studies have documented sleep improvements in sleep-troubled older adults by providing them with magnesium supplements.
Plant extracts and herbs
Melatonin, valerian root, and magnesium are the most common ingredients you’ll find in natural sleep aids. Beyond that, many sleep aid formulas include a variety of the below plant extracts to promote calm and relaxation.
- Lavender is commonly used to treat insomnia as an aromatherapy oil. It’s the most effective essential oil for sleep, with multiple studies proving its efficacy to be on par with traditional sleep medications and 14-24% improvements over a placebo. Lavender also helps relieve anxiety, which itself often goes hand in hand with insomnia. However, lavender in supplement form is still being evaluated for both safety and effectiveness. For some, side effects have included nausea and stomach pain, and for boys, prepubertal gynecomastia when the oil was topically applied.
- Passion flower is another plant that’s associated with better sleep. However, like lavender, its supplement form appears to be less effective than other versions (passion flower tea, for example, provides a mild subjective improvement in sleep quality). No adverse side effects have been noted, and it appears safe, although it may have more of a placebo effect on sleep.
- St. John’s Wort is a herb. As lavender helps relieve comorbid anxiety, St. John’s Wort appears to relieve comorbid depression. St. John’s Wort also stimulates GABA receptors in the brain, facilitating calmness and sleep. The side effects of St. John’s Wort include dizziness, dry mouth, and gastrointestinal distress.
- Chamomile is a daisy-like plant that’s often consumed as a bedtime tea. It relieves both anxiety and depression, and varying studies have found it to either improve daytime functioning or hasten sleep onset.
- Ginkgo biloba is a natural herb that relieves stress through a calming effect. While one study didn’t find objective improvements, participants subjectively reported better sleep quality. And another study found objective improvements in sleep among those with depression.
- Lemon balm is a minty plant that may have a positive effect on the GABA receptors in your brain. It tends to perform especially well when combined with valerian root.
- Kava, or kava-kava, is a plant extract from the Pacific islands. While kava has been shown to relieve stress-related insomnia and shorten sleep onset, side effects range from mild dizziness to liver damage, cirrhosis, and hepatitis. Avoid sleep aids that contain kava, unless your doctor has specifically prescribed them.
Amino acids are organic compounds that aid your body’s natural processes, such as sleep. Natural sleep aids include these to help facilitate melatonin production.
- Glycine is an amino acid that may play a role in sleep onset by lowering your body temperature at night. Like melatonin, people may take glycine supplements to begin this process earlier. Studies have shown 3 gram glycine supplements to both improve daytime alertness and quicken sleep onset. To naturally boost your glycine levels, you’ll find it as an ingredient in many sleep-promoting foods.
- Tryptophan is another amino acid. It’s involved in serotonin production, the happiness hormone, as well as melatonin. Small doses of tryptophan have been shown to both boost mood and help people fall asleep faster.
- L-Theanine is an amino acid that relieves anxiety and promotes relaxation conducive to sleep. One study found that a 400mg dose was effective in improving sleep quality among boys with ADHD.
Most commonly, natural sleep aids are available as swallowable pills or tablets. You’ll also find powders or chewable tablet options.
More recently, some sleep aid manufacturers have produced supplements in gummy form. These will have a natural flavor, so they’re sweeter-tasting and fun to chew, but you will get some extra calories and sugars as a result of taking these supplements.
Side effects of natural sleep aids
Besides sleepiness, which is the desired effect, natural sleep aids may cause some mild side effects. Alternately, some people may find that while the sleep aids appears to help them fall asleep faster, they still have trouble staying asleep.
Arguably, one of the largest risks of taking natural sleep aids is the dependence that can develop. Although not as extreme as can happen with over-the-counter sleep aids or prescription sleeping pills, if you fall into a habit of taking natural sleep aids on an everyday basis to help you fall asleep, you may develop a dependence on the sleep aid.
Over time, you may not be able to fall asleep without them. When you try to stop taking natural sleep aids after an extended period, you may experience a rebound insomnia. Natural sleep aids are most effective when used on a short-term basis, such as when you’re coping with jet lag or the discomfort of temporary congestion from an illness.
The effectiveness of certain sleep aids depends on the individual sleep aid as well as the individual. Further, some sleep aids require a significantly higher dosage than others, which is why it’s essential that you always read and follow the dosage guidelines provided by the sleep aid manufacturer.
Because they have fewer side effects than prescription sleeping pills and even over-the-counter sleep aids, it can be safe to take natural sleep aids for a longer period of time. For example, it’s generally considered safe to take valerian for up to 6 weeks at a time, and some believe it’s actually more effective when taken over a longer period of time.
However, natural sleep aids are not designed to be a long-term solution to insomnia. If you have a chronic inability to fall or stay asleep, you may have a sleep disorder. Taking natural sleep aids will prevent you from getting the treatment you need as long as you continue using the sleep aids as a band-aid solution.
You may have additional questions about safely using natural sleep aids. Review the below for answers.
Are natural sleep aids safe?
Fortunately, a large body of research has been conducted regarding both the effectiveness and the minimal side effects of using natural sleep aids to relieve temporary insomnia. However, we don’t yet have evidence on the effects of long-term use of natural sleep aids.
And because natural sleep aids are classified as dietary or herbal supplements, they’re not regulated by the FDA the same way medications are. That means manufacturers are under no obligation to meet safety or effectiveness regulations, or that a word used on one label means the same thing as when it’s used on an another.
Because there is less regulation, and a lot of manufacturers who want to take advantage of a consumer need, it is up to you to research natural sleep aids before purchasing them. Fortunately, you are already doing that by reading this guide.
Many people prefer to use natural sleep aids because they have less artificial ingredients and help one live a clean lifestyle. Generally, natural sleep aids have fewer and less extreme side effects than OTC sleep aids and prescription sleeping pills.
However, just because a sleep aid is natural does not mean it is guaranteed to be safe for you. Some herbal supplements can have adverse side effects for some people, as we outlined above under each natural sleep aid.
In particular, some groups of people need to take extra caution with natural sleep aids, such as pregnant women, children, and anyone taking other medication. For example, melatonin can interfere with the effectiveness of certain antidepressants or blood pressure medications. If you fall into one of these risk groups, you should talk to your doctor first before taking a natural sleep supplement. Based on your medication and health condition, they will advise you on whether or not a particular sleep aid is safe for you, and how you may need to adjust the dosage.
Can you take natural sleep aids while pregnant?
Because a baseline of studies has not yet been performed to determine how melatonin affects a pregnant woman or fetuses, it’s generally not recommended that you take melatonin while you’re pregnant. Instead, try implementing the behavioral techniques we discuss below, and review our guide to sleep tips during pregnancy.
Are natural sleep aids safe for children and babies?
Children under 3 should not take melatonin or other natural sleep supplements. Past age 3, the question of safety varies with each supplement. Certain supplements are developed with lower, safer doses ideal for children. Others will explicitly state on the label whether or not they’re safe for children under 18.
As with adults, older children should start with the lowest recommended dosage and increase it gradually, under a doctor’s guidance.
Regardless of which natural sleep aid you are using for your child, your best bet is to speak with your doctor first, even if you’re planning to use the supplement for temporary relief from jet lag-induced insomnia.
Natural sleep aids like melatonin can help children with certain sleep disorders and issues, but you want to ensure you get the underlying condition diagnosed first—especially if you believe your child has insomnia. Sometimes behavior that parents view asan issue is totally normal. For more guidance about what’s considered “healthy” sleep for kids, review our Parent’s Guide to Healthy Sleep.
And, as we’ve stated above, to date there are no studies proving the efficacy or safety of using natural sleep aids on a long-term basis. For that reason, it’s best to speak to your doctor first before giving your child a natural sleep supplement, and to plan to use it on a temporary basis, unless otherwise prescribed.
What time should I take natural sleep aids?
For the best time to take your particular natural sleep aid, review and follow the instructions on the label. Typically, the recommendation will be to take the dose sometime between 30 minutes to 2 hours before you’d like to fall asleep.
How can I use natural sleep aids safely?
You’re already on your way to safe use by reading this article and educating yourself about the safest natural sleep aids. Below are five more quick tips for using natural sleep supplements safely.
- Start by consulting your doctor. They are equipped to advise you whether you may experience side effects due to another health condition or other medications you’re already taking. They may also have other advice you can follow to naturally improve your sleep.
- Read the label carefully and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. The label will provide you with the best information about the supplement’s active ingredients, any potential side effects, dosage recommendations, and lists of people who should avoid the medication (such as children or pregnant women).
- Start with the lowest dose possible, and take it at the recommended time (usually no earlier than 2 hours before bedtime). You don’t know how a sleep supplement will affect your system. You can always adjust the dosage later if needed.
- Don’t drink, drive, or take other sedative medication when using your sleep aids. You are taking a sleep aid to fall asleep. Combining it with other sedatives, such as drugs or alcohol, can have adverse side effects. Likewise, if you are trying to fall asleep, you should not go out and start driving, especially when you’ve just put yourself in a situation where you plan to be drowsy. Avoid drowsy driving, and you’ll reduce your risk of a drowsy driving accident.
- Plan to use the sleep supplement as a temporary solution. Unless you have underlying sleep disorder or health condition causing your sleep issue, most sleep problems are effectively resolved with behavioral techniques. We’ll cover these in the next section.
How else can I improve my sleep naturally?
Often, the best way to improve your sleep is to implement a variety of behavioral and lifestyle changes. Many of us don’t realize how our daily habits have a negative impact on our sleep.
Try the following tips to naturally relieve your insomnia.
In your bedroom:
Keep things dark, quiet, and cool to create the ideal environment for sleep. A cool temperature somewhere in the low to mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit is best for sleep, as is keeping things as dark and quiet as possible.
Limit the activity in your bedroom to sleep and sex only, to prevent your brain from associating it as a place of stress or overly exciting leisure or work activities.
During the day:
Get plenty of natural sunlight, especially early in the morning, to help regulate your natural sleep-wake cycles. Exercise, too, to physically tire your body, but avoid doing so at night, as it wakes up your nervous system and gives you an ill-timed energy boost.
Drink well and hydrate throughout the day, and take care to avoid heavy meals, alcohol, or caffeine in the early evening.
Stop using electronics at least 1 hour before bed. The blue light in these tech devices physically wakes your brain up, and the stress, intensity, or emotional excitement of your favorite TV show, social media notification, or work email can emotionally wake you up.
Instead, occupy that last hour before bedtime with a calming bedtime routine, where you go through the same set of relaxing activities in the same order each night. Activities may include deep breathing, meditation, or aromatherapy.
Finally, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends, to train your mind and body to a regular sleep schedule.
For even more advice, check out our top tips for improving your sleep hygiene and falling asleep faster.
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