Which natural supplements are helpful for sleep?

In a Nutshell

  • There are supplements that have some evidence of helping with sleep
  • Supplements work best if you also adopt behaviors to achieve better sleep
  • Just because it is available over the counter doesn’t mean it is without risk or side effects

Your body goes through a number of chemical changes throughout the day and night to ensure that you get to sleep and stay asleep, based on its circadian clock. You may have heard the term ‘circadian rhythm,’ which encompasses our sleep/wake cycle. Because of our home and family obligations, our professional obligations, our use of technology, rotating work schedules, and our rising stress levels, we tend to work against these natural processes. And occasionally these processes simply fail.

In either case, there are supplements that can help us get back on track and attain adequate, restful sleep. Working with your body’s natural processes is still the first and best step toward your sleep goals, though doing so also creates the best environment for supplements to achieve desired results.

Working with your body includes avoiding stimulants before bed, avoiding exercise before bed, engaging in relaxation rituals, turning off overhead lights, stopping use of electronic devices well before bedtime, limiting television and maintaining more than a 6 foot distance from the screen at night, and creating a dark, cool, comfortable environment for sleeping. Equally as important is exposing yourself to natural daylight during the morning and afternoon, which facilitates appropriate rise and fall of chemicals that regulate your sleep/wake cycle.

The effects of diet on sleep is also well studied and documented. For example, diets high in whole grains, and foods containing tryptophan, melatonin, and phytonutrients (e.g., berries) are linked to improved sleep.

MELATONIN

Melatonin is the most popular and most effective sleep supplement, backed by the most science. Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the body and levels rise in the evenings – about 2 hours before bedtime. Melatonin doesn’t cause you to sleep, but it does initiate calm and quiet that helps promote sleep. The body typically produces adequate melatonin for sleep, though a little boost for occasional sleep difficulties is often effective. Research shows that a melatonin supplement may help people fall asleep slightly faster and can help with delayed sleep phase syndrome – falling asleep very late and waking up late the next day. Research also shows that melatonin improves daytime sleep quality for those who work at night and need to sleep during the day.

  • Dosage: 1-3mg 2 hours before bedtime, anything more does not have a positive effect on sleep
  • Duration: Stop the supplement after 1-2 weeks if it doesn’t appear to be helping; it is safe for use over 1-2 months if it is helping
  • DO NOT USE: Pregnant, breastfeeding, have an autoimmune disorder, seizure disorder, or depression; may also raise blood-sugar levels and blood pressure

VALERIAN ROOT

Valerian is a root that grows in Europe and Asia. It is used for treatment of mood disorders, and is one of the most commonly used sleep aides in the U.S. and Europe. Research findings, however, remain inconsistent and based greatly on subjective (personal) reporting of sleep quality. Valerian root is available in capsule form, though many drink it as a tea.

  • Dosage: 300-900mg right before bed
  • Duration: Short-term use appears to be safe with only minor, infrequent dizziness; safety remains unknown for long-term use
  • DO NOT USE: Pregnant or breastfeeding, or have high or low blood pressure

LAVENDER

Lavender’s soothing fragrance is believed to promote relaxation, calm, and enhance sleep. Studies have shown that smelling lavender essential oil 30 minutes before bedtime may be enough to improve sleep quality, especially in persons suffering from mild insomnia. Smaller studies have shown that lavender aromatherapy may be as effective as conventional sleep supplements, and when taken as an oral supplement may result in 15-25% greater positive sleep effects. Lavender aromatherapy has no side effects, though oral supplements have been linked to nausea and stomach pain. Most research to date is on aromatherapy and relaxation – not as a sleep aide.

  • Dosage: 80mg at bedtime for oral, or 30 minutes of inhalation
  • Duration: Aromatherapy is safe for daily, long-term use; long-term safety for oral supplements has not been studied
  • DO NOT USE: Oral lavender if you have stomach, gut, or digestive issues, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have high or low blood pressure

GLYCINE

Glycine is an amino acid important to the nervous system, and recent studies show it may help improve sleep. Those suffering from poor sleep who took glycine before bed had improved brain wave patterns, lower heart rate, and lower rate of breathing, as well as reported feeling more well-rested and clear-headed. Glycine comes in pill and powder forms and does not appear to have adverse side effects if taken in moderation. Glycine can also be consumed naturally through eggs, dairy products, red meat, poultry, fish, dark leafy vegetables, beans, bananas and kiwi.

  • Dosage: 3 g at bedtime
  • Duration: Up to 9 g daily for 3 days; longer term safety has not been tested or studied
  • DO NOT USE: Pregnant or breastfeeding, liver or kidney disease, history of stroke, or taking the antipsychotic clozapine (Clozaril)

MAGNESIUM

Too little magnesium in the body may contribute to sleep disturbances and insomnia. Taking supplements may help with quantity and quality of sleep. This may be related to magnesium’s ability to regulate the production of melatonin and gamma-amniobutyric acid (GABA), which is a neurotransmitter in the brain with calming effects. Most studies of effect of magnesium on sleep, however, have been conducted in elderly who may have low magnesium levels to begin with. Magnesium supplements in adults with normal magnesium levels may not experience the same benefits. It is also possible to have an overdose of magnesium – called magnesium toxicity – and very high levels can be fatal.

  • Dosage: 225-500mg daily
  • Duration: Magnesium supplements are routinely prescribed for persons with low magnesium levels and appear safe for daily, long-term use in that population; long-term safety as a sleep supplement has not been studied.
  • STOP TAKING: Nausea, diarrhea, muscle weakness, fatigue, or low blood pressure
  • DO NOT TAKE: Diabetes, gut disease, heart or kidney disease

Follow dosage instructions on the supplement labels, or as directed by a doctor.

OTHER SUPPLEMENTS

There are a number of other popular-selling supplements used as sleep aides, though these have little to no testing for effect and safety. These include: tryptophan, passion flower, ginkgo biloba, kava kava, and L-theanine. It should be noted that kava kava has been linked to severe liver damage, which may have been a result of poor production quality or contaminants.

There has been recent interest in Vitamin D as a supplement for promoting sleep. One small study in adults with sleep disorder demonstrated that a Vitamin D supplement improves sleep quality, sleep duration, reduces delay to sleep, and improves subjective reporting of sleep quality.

Cannabidiol or CBD is also being explored.

SAFETY

Before taking any over-the-counter supplements, always check with a physician or pharmacist to ensure that there are no dangerous reactions with any medications you are currently taking and that there are no potential complications with any existing health conditions.

Supplements for sleep should be a short-term solution, as long-term safety has not been well studied.

If natural supplements do not appear to be helping, you can also discuss prescription sleep aides with your doctor.

STRENGTH OF EVIDENCE: B
While melatonin has been well studied, conclusions about most natural supplements for sleep are based on small or limited studies and long-term safety has not been researched.

OUR RULING: Supplements generally appear to be safe for short-term trial in helping to correct temporary sleep disorders, though always consult with a physician or pharmacist before starting them.

OUR SOURCES:

  • Binks, H., Vincent, G.E., Gupta, C., Irwin. C., & Khalesi, S. (2020). Effects of diet on sleep: A narrative review. Nutrients, 12(4), 936.
  • Burrows, T., Fenton, S., & Duncan, M. (2020). Diet and sleep health: A scoping review of intervention studies in adults. Journal of Human Nutrition & Dietetics, 33(3), 308-330.
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Melatonin for sleep: Does it work? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/melatonin-for-sleep-does-it-work.
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Sleep/Wake cycles. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/sleepwake-cycles.
  • Majid, M.S., Ahmad, H.S., Bizhan, H., Hosein, H.Z.M., & Mohammad, A. (2018). The effect of vitamin D supplement on the score and quality of sleep in 20-50 year-old people with sleep disorders compared with control group. Nutritional Neuroscience, 21(7), 511-520.
  • Skinner, G. (2017). ‘Natural’ sleep supplements carry serious safety concerns. Consumer Reports
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