Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body, which signals your brain to sleep. The time of day affects the production and release cycle of this hormone-melatonin levels naturally rise in the evening and fall in the morning.
For this reason, melatonin supplements have become a popular sleep aid, especially when the melatonin cycle is interrupted, such as jet lag.
In addition, a number of studies have reported that melatonin can improve the quality and duration of sleep during the day. This is especially beneficial for those whose schedule requires them to sleep during the day, such as shift workers.
In addition, melatonin can improve the overall sleep quality of patients with sleep disorders. Specifically, melatonin seems to reduce the time it takes for people to fall asleep (called sleep latency) and increase total sleep time.
Although some studies have not observed that melatonin has a positive effect on sleep, their quantity is usually very small. Those who do observe beneficial effects usually provide participants with 3-10 milligrams (mg) of melatonin before going to bed.
Melatonin supplements appear to be safe for adults in short-term or long-term use.
Valerian is a herb native to Asia and Europe. Its roots are commonly used as a natural remedy for anxiety, depression, and menopausal symptoms. Valerian root is also one of the most commonly used herbal supplements to promote sleep in the United States and Europe. However, the research results are still inconsistent.
According to randomized controlled trials, menopausal and postmenopausal women improved their sleep quality and symptoms of sleep disorders after taking valerian. Two earlier literature reviews also reported that taking 300-900 mg of valerian before bedtime may improve self-assessed sleep quality.
Nonetheless, all improvements observed in these trials and studies are subjective. They rely on participants’ perception of sleep quality, rather than objective measurements taken during sleep, such as brain waves or heart rate. Other studies have concluded that the positive effects of valerian are negligible at best. For example, it may cause a small improvement in sleep latency. In any case, short-term intake of valerian root seems to be safe for adults, with minor and rare side effects.
Despite the lack of objective measurement behind valerian, adults may consider testing it on their own. However, the safety of long-term use and use in special populations such as pregnant or breastfeeding women is still uncertain.
Magnesium is a mineral that participates in hundreds of processes in the human body. It is important for brain function and heart health. In addition, magnesium may help calm the body and mind, making it easier to fall asleep.
Studies have shown that magnesium’s relaxing effects may be partly due to its ability to regulate the production of melatonin. As we all know, magnesium can relax muscles and induce sleep. A study found that a combination of magnesium, melatonin and vitamin B can effectively treat insomnia for whatever reason.
Magnesium also seems to increase levels of Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), which is a calming brain messenger. Research reports indicate that insufficient magnesium levels in the body may be related to sleep disorders and insomnia.
On the other hand, taking supplements to increase your magnesium intake can help you optimize the quality and quantity of sleep. One study asked 46 participants to take 500 mg of magnesium or a placebo daily for 8 weeks. People in the magnesium group benefit from better overall sleep quality. The blood levels of melatonin and renin in this group are also higher, both of which can regulate sleep.
In another small study, participants who took a supplement containing 225 mg of magnesium slept better than participants who took a placebo. However, the supplement also contains 5 mg of melatonin and 11.25 mg of zinc, so it is difficult to attribute this effect to magnesium alone.
It is worth noting that these two studies were conducted on elderly people, who may have low blood magnesium levels at the beginning. It is uncertain whether these effects will be as strong in individuals with a good dietary magnesium intake.
The lavender plant can be found on almost all continents. It produces purple flowers, which can be used for many household purposes after drying. In addition, the soothing scent of lavender is thought to enhance sleep. In fact, several studies have shown that smelling lavender oil shortly before going to bed may be sufficient to improve sleep quality. This effect is particularly obvious in people with mild insomnia, especially women and young people.
A small study on Alzheimer's disease also reported that lavender aromatherapy can effectively improve the symptoms of sleep disorders. The total sleep time increases. Few people also wake up very early (3am) and find that they cannot fall asleep again.
Another study asked 221 people with anxiety disorders to take 80 mg of lavender oil supplements or placebos every day.
At the end of the 10-week study, sleep quality and duration improved in both groups. However, the effect of the lavender group increased by 14-24% without any unpleasant side effects.
Although lavender aromatherapy is considered safe, in some cases oral lavender can cause nausea and stomach pain. Essential oils are used in aromatherapy, not by mouth.
It is also worth noting that the number of studies on the effects of lavender supplements on sleep is limited. Therefore, more research is needed before a strong conclusion can be drawn.
Passionflower, also known as Passiflora incarnata or maypop, is a popular herb for treating insomnia. The passionflower variety related to improving sleep is native to North America. They are also currently grown in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The sleep-promoting effect of passionflower has been confirmed in animal studies. However, its impact on humans seems to depend on the form of consumption.
A human study compared the effects of passion fruit tea with a placebo tea made from parsley leaves. . Participants drank each tea approximately 1 hour before going to bed for 1 week, and rested for 1 week between the two types of tea. Let each tea bag steep for 10 minutes, and the researchers objectively measured the quality of sleep. At the end of the 3-week study, objective measurements showed that the participants’ sleep had not improved. However, when they were asked to subjectively evaluate their sleep quality, they believed that the quality of sleep after a week of passionflower tea was about 5% higher than that of a week of parsley tea.
In a recent study of patients with insomnia, patients who took passionflower extract for more than 2 weeks had significant improvements in certain sleep parameters compared to the placebo group.
These parameters are:
- Total sleep time
- Sleep efficiency, or the percentage of sleep time to the time spent awake in bed
- Time to wake up after falling asleep
On the other hand, a 1998 study compared the effects of 1.2 grams of passionflower supplements, traditional sleeping pills, and placebos. Researchers found no difference between passionflower supplements and placebo.
More research is needed, but it is worth noting that it is generally safe for adults to consume passionflower. Currently, it seems that passionflower may provide more benefits when consumed as a tea or extract rather than as a supplement.
Glycine is an amino acid that plays an important role in the nervous system. Studies have shown that it may also help improve sleep. How it works is unclear, but glycine is thought to work in part by lowering body temperature at bedtime, indicating it's time to go to bed.
In a 2006 study, participants with poor sleep took 3 grams of glycine or a placebo before going to bed. People in the glycine group reported feeling less tired the next morning. They also said that their vitality, spirit and mind were more sober the next morning.
A 2007 study also investigated the effect of glycine on participants with poor sleep. The researchers measured their brain waves, heart rate and breathing while they were sleeping. Compared with the placebo group, participants who took 3 grams of glycine before going to bed had an improvement in the objective indicators of sleep quality. Glycine supplements also helped participants fall asleep faster.
According to a small study, glycine can also improve daytime performance in people who are temporarily sleep deprived. Participants' sleep was restricted for 3 consecutive nights. Every night, before going to bed, they take 3 grams of glycine or 3 grams of placebo. The glycine group reported a greater reduction in fatigue and daytime sleepiness.
You can buy glycine in pill form or as a powder that can be diluted with water. A daily intake of 0.8 g/kg body weight seems to be safe, but more research is needed. Many sleep study participants only consume 3 grams per day.
You can also increase your glycine intake by eating foods rich in glycine, including:
- Bone broth, meat, eggs, poultry and fish
- Fruits such as bananas and kiwis
There are many additional sleep-promoting supplements on the market. However, not all of them are supported by strong scientific research.
The following list describes some additional supplements that may be beneficial for sleep, but more scientific investigation is needed.
- Tryptophan. A study reported that daily intake of as little as 1 gram of this essential amino acid may help improve sleep quality. This dose can also help you fall asleep faster.
- ginkgo. According to earlier studies, eating about 240 mg of this natural herb 30-60 minutes before bedtime may help reduce stress, enhance relaxation and promote sleep. Animal research is also promising.
- L-theanine. Taking supplements containing up to 400 mg of this amino acid daily may help improve sleep and relaxation. Animal studies have shown that it may be more effective in combination with GABA.
Kava is another plant that has been associated with sleep-promoting effects in some studies. It originated in the South Pacific islands, and its roots are traditionally made into tea. It can also be consumed in supplement form. However, the use of kava is also associated with severe liver damage, which may be caused by low-quality production or adulteration. Some countries, such as Canada and parts of Europe, even ban the use. Be extra careful before using slips. Only buy supplements certified by reputable third-party organizations.
Other over-the-counter sleeping pills include diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate. They are all antihistamines.
Diphenhydramine is the active ingredient in popular allergy drugs (such as diphenhydramine). The main use of diphenhydramine is not as a sleeping pill, but it does cause drowsiness and has been used to promote sleep. Diphenhydramine is also present in ZzzQuil, Unisom SleepGels and Unisom SleepMelts.
Doxylamine succinate is the active ingredient in the sleep aid Unisom SleepTabs. It can also be found in Nyquil. Like diphenhydramine, it is an antihistamine and can also cause drowsiness.
The evidence supporting any ingredient as a sleep aid is weak. Many experts advise against the use of diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate. Some people say they will reduce sleep quality. Other side effects may include dizziness, confusion, and dry mouth.
Long-term use of over-the-counter sleeping pills can lead to drug tolerance. Over time, the use of anticholinergic drugs, such as antihistamines, can also increase the risk of dementia. If you are interested in trying these sleep aids, it is recommended to use them occasionally. They should not be used for more than 2 weeks. However, people with respiratory diseases, high blood pressure or heart disease should avoid these two drugs altogether. They may cause a nervous system response, leading to tachycardia or increased heart rate.
The elderly, especially those with liver or kidney problems, should not use diphenhydramine. They have an increased risk of negative side effects.
Risks and preventive measures
Before using any herbal or over-the-counter medicine for sleep, you should consult your doctor first, especially because the medicine may interact with medications such as blood thinners. Also, if your sleep problem lasts longer than 2 weeks, please tell your doctor.
Many over-the-counter sleeping pills only cause mild side effects. However, caution is important because little is known about the long-term effects of some of them.
The side effects associated with specific sleep aids are listed below. Some of these side effects have only been reported in anecdotal or few studies, or have been observed only in people receiving high doses:
- Melatonin: mild side effects such as headache, nausea and dizziness
- Valerian root: diarrhea, headache, nausea, palpitations
- Magnesium: Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting when taking large doses
- Lavender: nausea and indigestion
- Passionflower: dizziness and confusion, in rare cases
- Glycine: soft stools and abdominal pain, in rare cases
- Tryptophan: mild nausea, dry mouth, dizziness and tremor
- Ginkgo: mild and rare side effects such as diarrhea, headache, nausea and rash
- L-Theanine: There are no confirmed or direct side effects when taken alone; diarrhea and abdominal pain occur when combined with L-cystine
Generally speaking, pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult their doctor before trying these or any other supplements. Most supplements should be avoided because there are few studies confirming that they are safe for this population.
Magnesium, glycine, and tryptophan are all important for fetal development, and you don’t have to avoid them if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. However, your doctor still needs to recommend the appropriate dosage to avoid potential side effects.
Frequently asked questions about natural sleep aids
Are natural sleep aids effective?
Some studies have shown that certain natural sleep aids, such as melatonin, are effective. Other herbal supplements, such as valerian root and passionflower, have had mixed results.
Although some studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that natural sleep aids may be helpful, more research is needed to determine.
Are natural sleep aids safer than prescription sleep aids?
The nine natural sleep aids discussed in this article are generally considered safer than prescription sleep aids because they have fewer side effects. Nevertheless, it is important to choose quality products from reputable brands. Remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal supplements in the same way as drugs.
Also, please note that even natural sleep aids are a short-term solution. If you often experience sleep problems, it is best to talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying diseases.
Are over-the-counter sleeping pills safe?
Diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate are antihistamines sold over the counter. Although they are sometimes used as sleep aids, this is not their main purpose. There is no strong evidence that they work well as sleep aids, and they may cause side effects. The elderly, especially those with kidney or liver problems, should not use diphenhydramine.
It is best not to take over-the-counter sleeping pills regularly, because doing so can lead to dependence. If you do use them, please use them only occasionally, not more than 2 weeks at a time. If you often suffer from insomnia, be sure to consult your doctor.