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Natural Sleep Aids: What Does The Science Say?

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld
January 13, 2021

For some, sleep comes easy. These fortunate individuals are out like a light the moment their head hits the pillow. But others aren’t so lucky. They toss and turn all night, and come morning, they’ve only slept a few hours. 

 

These people may be experiencing insomnia, a sleep disorder tens of millions of Americans suffer from. It’s estimated that 30 percent of American adults deal with occasional insomnia, while 10 percent live with chronic insomnia. The condition can have a severe impact on one’s quality of life and interfere with work, relationships, exercise, and just life in general. 

 

If you just can’t manage to fall asleep, what should you do? Enter the world of natural sleep aids: herbs, extracts, and supplements marketed to help you doze off. But not all of them do the job. Let’s find out which ones actually have an effect on your sleep and which ones work the best.

 

Chamomile

Chamomile is a medicinal herb used to treat a wide range of conditions, from inflammation to stomach problems to wounds. It’s a common ingredient in many teas, due to its relaxing effects. And some swear by drinking a cup of chamomile tea before bed, but does this cup of tea actually help them fall asleep?

 

Does chamomile work? Possibly. There is no conclusive evidence that chamomile actually helps you drift off. However, some of its chemical compounds have been shown to be sedative and have even been compared to the effects of benzodiazepines (powerful anti-anxiety medications). 

 

But studies on chamomile have not shown any real sleep benefits of the herb, although some suggest that simply the ritual of preparing a cup of tea can be calming, thus helping you sleep better regardless of what you’re drinking. Either way, it’s completely safe to try a cup of chamomile tea before bed.

 

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the body. It’s generated by the brain when you sleep, but it exists in the form of supplements as well. So it would make sense that taking the “sleep hormone” when you can’t sleep would produce the desired result, right?

 

Does melatonin work? It’s complicated. In children with sleep disorders, melatonin has shown to help them fall asleep more quickly. In adults, though, the evidence isn’t as strong. Studies show that melatonin can help with jet lag, but as far as insomnia goes, the benefits haven’t been proven. It can’t hurt to try taking melatonin capsules before bed, but make sure your dosage is under 3 milligrams.

 

Hops

If you’ve ever wondered what gives beer that unique flavor, you have hops to thank for that. The herb has been used for hundreds of years for this exact purpose, but some claim it has sleep-inducing effects as well. 

 

Does hops work? The evidence is mixed. One study (with a small sample size) found that hops improved sleep quality in female nurses. But another scientific review stated that hops has neither sedative nor hypnotic effects. Then an additional study showed hops to be comparable to melatonin in its ability to lower body temperature (in mice), something that can help induce sleep. Hops is relatively safe to use, but don’t expect it to do much for you.

 

Ginseng

An ancient Chinese herb, ginseng has a wide variety of health benefits. Sometimes referred to the “king of all herbs,” ginseng is used against cancer, to reduce inflammation, and to simply boost your mood. And it may sound too good to be true, but ginseng has reported sleep benefits as well.

 

Does ginseng work? It appears so, but the evidence is scant. A 2013 study found ginseng extract to improve sleep quality in 20 male volunteers. Another study in rats came to a similar conclusion. Aside from these two studies, research is limited, but the existing evidence does seem to point to ginseng being an effective sleep aid.

 

Valerian

Valerian root is one of the most popular sleep remedies. In Europe, it has been used for many years, becoming even more widespread in the United States upon its introduction to the country. As valerian is such a well-known herb, a relatively large quantity of research has been done on it.

 

Does valerian work? Yes. A large systematic review and analysis of the plant found it to improve sleep quality. Other studies also support the reported benefits of valerian. Valerian is known to be physically safe, so there’s no harm in taking it before bed.

 

Passionflower

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is an exotic, vine-like plant with stunning flowers and edible fruit. But many are unaware that it also contains alkaloids that can produce calming, anti-anxiety effects. These effects have given passionflower its reputation as a sleep aid.

 

Does passionflower work? Yes. Research on passionflower has indicated that it may improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. These benefits have been shown both in rats and humans. If you’re having trouble sleeping, pick up a bag of passionflower tea at your local health food store or online and brew yourself a cup before bed.

 

Lavender

Lavender is a fragrant herb native to the Old World. It has uses in cooking and in aromatherapy. Since lavender has been used medicinally for hundreds of years, would it be safe to assume that it also has a benefit for sleep?

 

Does lavender work? It appears so, but evidence is limited. One study examined the effects of lavender oil on college students and found that the students who used the oil slept better and woke up feeling more refreshed than those who didn’t. Another study done in mice indicated that “repeated application of lavender” improved sleep quality. Taking lavender for insomnia, then, could be worth a shot.

 

5-HTP

Despite the technical-sounding name, 5-HTP is a natural compound produced by the body when you eat foods such as chicken, eggs, and cheese. 5-HTP stimulates the production of serotonin, a chemical that regulates mood. Serotonin also plays a role in sleep. 

 

Does 5-HTP work? Possibly, but not much research has been done on it. One study found that 5-HTP was able to induce a quick, deep sleep when compared to a placebo. But subsequent studies on 5-HTP simply haven’t been done. The compound is “possibly safe” under 400 mg, but higher doses can lead to serious adverse effects like vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle spasms. Perhaps not the best choice for insomnia.

 

CBD

CBD is a non-psychoactive chemical found in the cannabis plant, more commonly known as marijuana or “weed.” Unlike THC, the chemical responsible for the “high” induced by smoking the drug, CBD does not produce any intoxicating effects. In recent years, CBD has been touted as somewhat of a panacea. Proponents say it even helps with sleep.

 

Does CBD work? Possibly, but current research doesn’t show a huge benefit to using it for insomnia. Although CBD does have its medical uses, it doesn’t appear to effectively improve sleep quality or duration of sleep. 

 

Nonetheless, one smaller study found that patients who took CBD experienced better sleep and reduced anxiety (which may cause insomnia for some). A much larger study showed that smoking cannabis before bed significantly improved insomnia–but its participants smoked cannabis with both CBD and THC. So if treating insomnia is your goal, CBD probably won’t do much for you, unless you’re complementing it with its psychoactive brother.

 

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral found in seeds, nuts, and some fish that lowers blood pressure, regulates the immune system, and improves muscle function. The human body needs it to function properly. Many people take magnesium supplements, as they don’t get enough of it through their diet. It also has reported benefits for sleep.

 

Does magnesium work? Possibly. A few small studies have been done on magnesium and insomnia, and results have been largely inconclusive, although the mineral has been shown to slightly improve sleep. So it can’t be considered a real solution for insomnia.

 

However, many people have a magnesium deficiency without even knowing it. A key symptom of a magnesium deficiency is insomnia. So if you’ve been suffering from unexplained sleep problems, try picking up some magnesium glycinate supplements.

 

Glycine

A simple amino acid, glycine is found in the body and in various foods. Studies suggest that it may help protect the heart and liver, and even promote muscle health. One additional use of glycine is for sleep troubles. Does the science check out?

 

Does glycine work? Most likely. Studies using both rats and human subjects have shown that glycine improves sleep quality. It also lowers body temperature, an essential factor in sleeping well. Glycine is one of those sleep aids that hasn’t been studied thoroughly, but from what we know, it can in fact help you doze off.

 

Which natural sleep aid is right for me?

After poring over all this information, you’re probably conflicted. Should you go down the list until you find something that works or try a combination of multiple supplements? 

 

Well, it’s best to start with an option that’s backed by scientific evidence. The two most reputable herbs on this list are valerian and passionflower. Both are safe and widely used for inducing sleep. They can be easily purchased at a health food store or from an online vendor. If you’re sick of missing out on sleep, buy some ground-up valerian root and passionflower and make a cup of tea before bed. You may finally get the deep, refreshing sleep that you’ve been needing for so long.

 

If for some reason those two herbs don’t work for you, consider glycine or ginseng. Out of all the above supplements, glycine and ginseng are two of the most promising for curing sleep troubles (besides valerian and passionflower).  But now you have enough evidence to make an informed decision for yourself. 

 

References

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