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Does your mind start wandering the moment you hop into bed? Has a late-night workout or anxiety about an upcoming exam made you too agitated and unable to fall asleep? Unless you’re a perfect sleeper, it’s likely you’ve had at least one or two nights where sleep just seems impossible. You’re not alone.

In fact, many people suffer from a lack of quality sleep for several reasons. The good news is, this doesn’t have to be the case. And it shouldn’t, since sleep is vital for peak health.

The Importance of Sleep

There’s no way around it. If you aren’t getting adequate sleep (which the National Sleep Foundation defines as 6 - 9 hours per night for adults), then you aren’t giving your body what it needs.

Mental, physical, and even emotional health are all heavily influenced by sleep—it’s an evolutionary necessity.

In fact, there is no evidence of a species that doesn’t sleep.Cirelli2008 While a lack of sleep can sometimes be attributed to various sleep disorders, it’s often the result of personal neglect.

Staying out past midnight, watching movies late into the night, and living out of sync with our natural sleep cycles is often voluntary. Modern society does not bode well for our sleep habits. Even when we do get enough, about 35% of adults report that their sleep quality is “poor” to “only fair.” Sleeplessness is also a big issue for some; whether due to insomnia, anxiety, or stress.

This has a larger impact than just making us sleepy. Short sleep duration has been shown to increase the risk for various neurological, cardiovascular, and metabolic diseases.Mullington2009 In addition, sleep problems can have adverse cognitive and physiological effects, putting a damper on athletic performance and mental capacity at work or school.Fullagar2015

Sleep deprivation is also a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease.Nagai2010 Given the effects on other body systems, it’s probably linked to many more adverse health outcomes than we currently know.

You might shrug sleep off as “no big deal.” Some people claim they can get by with only a few hours of good sleep per night.

While this may be true (though doubtful) for a select few, there’s no supporting evidence. It’s now known good sleep is necessary for body functions including immune and hormone regulation, metabolism, thermoregulation, and the “regeneration” of cellular and neurological components.Cirelli2008 Sleep literally keeps us in one, working piece. A good night’s sleep is a severely underrated performance booster.

What Causes Poor Sleep?

There are several reasons why we don’t get enough shuteye. Some of these, as stated before, involve actual sleep disorders. Some people suffer from insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and other diseases that impair sleep ability.

On the other hand, poor sleep can also be caused by environmental- and lifestyle-related factors. Misaligned circadian rhythms probably play a role as well.

As a result of a society that operates around the clock, humans have adopted abnormal sleeping and eating habits—munching at odd times of the night or sleeping in later on the weekends than on the regular weekdays (something known as social jet lag). When this happens, the external signals we give our body (food, sleep, light) begin to operate out of sync with the internal cycles for metabolism and other essential functions.Scheer2009

As a result, our body gets “confused,” which can result in the loss of the ability to fall asleep when we want. Shift work (a work schedule outside the typical “9 to 5”) and jet lag are two situations that result in circadian misalignment.

Improper use of stimulants and technology can also impair our sleep.

Having too much caffeine close to bed, doing a late-night workout, and staring at electronics late into the night can all negatively impact sleep quantity and quality. In fact, light might just be the biggest factor—it affects our circadian rhythms more powerfully than any drug or stimulant ever could.

Artificial light that makes contact with our retina at night (when we should be asleep) inhibits sleep-promoting neurons and activates arousal-promoting neurons in the brain. It also inhibits the production of melatonin—better known as the sleep hormone.Czeisler2013

One more factor may relate to the high-stakes environment many of us live in. It is well known that anxiety and anxiety disorders lead to sleep disruption. People with depression are known to have decreased slow-wave sleep and alterations in rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep.Fuller1997 Our mental state can impact our sleep just as much as our physical one can, it seems.

Many causes of poor sleep are avoidable or at least modifiable by lifestyle changes. Sometimes it might even take a bit of help from exogenous “sleep promotion” sources like sleep medications. These can be natural or synthetic. Before digging into some of the more well-known natural ways to promote sleep, let’s talk about sleep medications.

Sleep Medications: Effects and Dangers

Prescription sleep medications, also known as sedatives or sedative hypnotics, are a class of drugs used for the purpose of inducing and maintaining sleep. And yes, they’re effective at their job, providing a quick sleep fix for even the most stubborn set of eyelids.

However, many of these sleeping pills have some nasty side effects, some worse than losing a few hours of shut eye.

Benzodiazepines and sedatives/hypnotics are known for their anti-anxiety and drowsiness-inducing properties. There is also evidence these drugs may be addictive. Use them long enough, and you might start to depend on drugs to sleep or experience withdrawal-like symptoms if you go off of them.Lemmer2007

In addition, sleeping pills have been linked to problems with attention and memory in those who report long-term use. For instance, benzodiazepines have been shown to interfere with sleep and lead to “hangover like” effects the next day—including cognitive dysfunction and daytime sleepiness.Lemmer2007 Sleep issues because of sleeping medications? No thanks.

Along with the side effects, the sleep you get while using sleep medicine might not even be true sleep.

Sleep induced by sleeping drugs like Ambien does not resemble natural sleep because it produces a lower brain wave power during rest—this means suboptimal sleep.Uygun2016 While the quantity of sleep may be improved, the quality of sleep suffers.

If you’d like to try a sleep aid, but worry about the side effects of sleeping pills, you’re in luck.

Nature has provided several compounds with powerful sleep-promoting effects. Some of these may be taken alone, and some combined for their effects. These “natural sleep aids” might be the perfect lifestyle addition to help you get better sleep without the negative side effects you don’t want.

Ditch the over-the-counter sleep aid for something more natural.

What Are Natural Sleep Aids?

“Synthetic” sleeping aids (sleep medications) are often prescribed or purchased over the counter at a pharmacy. “Natural sleep aids” are supplements that contain a natural ingredient—herbal supplement, mineral, or other dietary ingredient—that is known to have a calming effect and help you sleep better.

They’re “designed” to treat short-term sleepiness or trouble sleeping, rather than more chronic sleep conditions like insomnia. However, some have even been studied and shown effective for insomniacs.

Natural sleep aids have little-to-no synthetic or “unnatural” ingredients, they aren’t prescribed, and they have a much lower risk of dependence than sleep meds. There isn’t much downside to trying many of the natural sleep aids at least once.

Interestingly, many of these supplements contain ingredients that act on some of the same brain pathways or neurotransmitters targeted by common prescription sleeping medications. Some contain just one active ingredient or tonic, while others may combine a variety of evidence-based ingredients into a potent sleep cocktail. One common theme—they’re all found “in nature.”

The Top Science-Backed Natural Sleep Aids

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive supplement compendium, just a comprehensive list of some of the most research-backed natural remedies for sleep. For better sleep, look no further.

Melatonin

We had to start here. Melatonin—also known as the “sleep hormone”—is the hormone that fluctuates naturally in our body, and is supposed to rise at nighttime to signal that it’s time to go to sleep.

Natural melatonin production can become delayed or lose its proper rhythm due to anything that messes with circadian rhythms, like late night eating, electronic use, or social jet lag.

In short: melatonin supplements work.

A meta-analysis of melatonin administration in healthy individuals found that it significantly benefits sleep efficiency, sleep duration, and sleep onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep).Brzezinski2005 Furthermore, melatonin is effective in treating “secondary sleep disorders” like insomnia caused by sleep restriction, jet lag, and shift work. In these situations, melatonin has been shown to reduce the time taken to fall asleep and increase total sleep time.Li2019 Additionally, only small side effects are associated with melatonin like dizziness and headaches, and these don’t occur in everyone.Anderson2016

Since it’s a powerful sleep promoter, it is important to take melatonin strategically. Here’s how.

Dose: 0.3mg - 5mg for secondary sleep disorders (insomnia, jet lag). A lower dose of 0.3mg - 1mg may be ideal for someone looking to get some shuteye under “normal” conditions. A larger dose may be warranted if you’re going through a rough patch of sleep deprivation. Bring out the big guns. Take melatonin about an hour before bed.

CBD

CBD, (a.k.a. cannabidiol) is a compound isolated from the cannabis plant. While associated with the drug marijuana, CBD is perfectly legal and is non-psychotic—meaning there is no “high” associated with ingesting it like there is with THC.

CBD is becoming popular for its calming, anxiety-reducing, and anti-psychotic effects.

Athletes are now even using it for recovery purposes. In addition to these purported properties (there isn’t a ton of CBD research just yet), CBD may also be effective at improving sleep because of the aforementioned qualities.

In one study, CBD was shown to reduce outcomes related to anxiety. As a secondary finding, it was found to not interfere with the participants’ sleep-wake cycles or sleep architecture like other anti-anxiety medications do (discussed earlier).Linares2018 In rats, acute administration of CBD (through injection) was shown to improve total sleep time,Chagas2013 suggesting some sedative-like mechanism that might also apply to humans.

CBD may also improve sleep in people with insomnia. Self-reported use of CBD is associated with clinically significant reductions in insomnia symptoms.Vigil2018 One placebo-controlled trial found evidence that insomnia patients who were given CBD improved their sleep significantly compared to the control group.Carlini1981 Interestingly, a reported side effect of several participants was somnolence, which is a term used to describe anyone who has a strong desire to sleep or someone who is sleeping for abnormally long periods of time.

There are so many CBD products on the market that standardization of doses and quantities is difficult. However, if you plan on using CBD for sleep-related purposes, here is our recommendation based on the available literature.

Dose: 160mg - 300mg taken about 30 - 60 minutes before you plan to fall asleep.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a super-important mineral. Found in foods like seeds and nuts, dark leafy greens, avocados, broccoli, dairy, meat, and legumes, magnesium helps regulate several of our body’s essential functions including serving as a cofactor for over 300 enzymatic reactions.Jahnendechent2012

Among those functions is helping us sleep. This is likely because magnesium is involved in regulating our central nervous system.

In fact, magnesium deficiencies have been associated with sleep disturbances, nighttime agitation, and depression.Popoviciu1993 Restricting the amount of magnesium in the diet of rats led to altered sleep patterns, increased nighttime wakefulness, reduced slow-wave sleep, and lowered the total amount of time they were asleep. Adding magnesium back immediately improved their sleep.

But what about actually helping you get to sleep? It appears magnesium can help here too. For one, magnesium supplementation in older adults was shown to reverse the age-related decline in sleep quality.Held2002

Magnesium supplementation can also improve biomarkers of stress, including heart-rate variability and parasympathetic nervous system activity. Lower stress and a calmer demeanor promote restful sleep.Weinecke2016

Finally, magnesium might even help you from that sleep-deprivation hangover. After one night of sleep deprivation, rats with higher levels of magnesium had improved “recovery sleep,” suggesting a protective effect of this mineral.Chollet2000

There aren’t any sleep-specific guidelines for magnesium dosing, so the general recommended daily supplement dose for magnesium in adults is a reasonable suggestion—both to promote sleep and to prevent magnesium deficiencies.

Dose: 300mg - 350mg/day, taken a few hours before bedtime.

Glycine

Glycine is an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) with numerous bodily functions—collagen synthesis, heme production, creatine synthesis, and the function of certain enzymes.

Glycine also has a huge role to play in how we sleep. This is because glycine acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, similar to GABA.

“Inhibitory” neurotransmitters are the opposite of “excitatory ones;” they promote calmness and relaxation versus stimulation and activation. This nervous system inhibition is responsible for the atonia (partial paralysis) we experience during REM sleep.Chase2008

Glycine may also work sleep magic by regulating melatonin levels,Bannai2012,Bannai2011 circadian rhythms,Mordel2011 and reducing body temperature at night,Kawai2015 which is one essential process involved in falling asleep.

The research suggests supplementation works.

There are many studies demonstrating the impact of pre-bed glycine ingestion on sleep parameters.

There are many studies demonstrating the impact of pre-bed glycine ingestion on sleep parameters.

It seems to stabilize sleep, reduce the time taken to fall asleep, and promote faster entry into slow-wave sleep, which is the deepest type of non-REM sleep.BannaiM2012,Inagawa2006,Yamadera2007

Other research shows that glycine improves subjective satisfaction with sleep and improved daytime feelings of “liveliness” and “clearheadedness.”Inagawa2006,Yamadera2007 Even in individuals who were sleep restricted to 25% less of their normal sleep, but given glycine before bed, daytime performance improved even when the past night of sleep was inadequate.BannaiM2012

Many studies have used the same dose of glycine to promote sleep, so here’s our recommendation.

Dose: 3g of glycine taken about 1 - 2 hours before bedtime.

Essential Oils

Apparently, they’re not just for smelling. Inhaling essential oils that are known to have “hypnotic” qualities has been proposed as a safe and effective therapy for treating sleep disturbances and problems initiating sleep.

The mechanisms for this haven’t been totally figured out, but may include the sedative and anti-anxiety properties of certain compounds found in the oils.Lillehei2014

Though few extensive trials have been published to evaluate the effect of essential oils on sleep, one systematic review found evidence of a positive association between the use of essential oils for sleep.Lillehei2014

In particular, sleep quality was improved with lavender oil and jasmine oil. Several studies in the analysis found evidence that lavender oil increased deep sleep and slow-wave sleep along with morning alertness, and promoted relaxation. Jasmine oil was shown to increase sleep efficiency and reduce sleep movement.

One study in cancer patients noted that measures of sleep quality were improved in 64% of patients who used lavender essential oils over a 13-week period. In this case, the essential oil was inhaled using an aroma stick—a personal inhaler device containing essential oils.Dyer2016

Again, there hasn’t been a lot of research in this area but findings so far seem promising.

Dose: Dosing essential oils for sleep isn’t exactly down to a science. What can be recommended based on the studies mentioned above is to place 1 - 3 drops of lavender or jasmine oil on your pillow prior to sleep. You may also go the route of using an oil diffuser in your bedroom.

Valerian Root

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is a flowering plant with a history in being used for sleep disorders in Europe—where the accounts go back decades.

The major constituents of valerian are proposed to promote sleep perhaps by having direct actions on the central nervous system to induce sedation. Furthermore, valerian compounds might inhibit the breakdown of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, and some of them may actually contain small concentrations of GABA.Houghton1999

The effects of valerian on sleep have been confirmed in multiple research studies. A systematic review of 16 studies on valerian for sleep concluded that this plant may improve sleep quality without producing any side effects.Bent2006

Other placebo-controlled trials have found evidence that valerian extract reduces perceived sleep latency and waking up after sleep onset in healthy adultsBalderer1985 and increases slow-wave sleep in elderly poor sleepers after just one dose.Schulz1994 Another study used a chronic 14-day treatment with valerian and observed significant effects for improved sleep structure and sleep perception in patients with insomnia.Donath2000 However, not all trials show a positive effect on sleep.Diaper2004

Dose: 300mg - 900mg of valerian extract taken 30 minutes to one hour before bed.

Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe?

It’s important to point out that sleep aids are considered a natural herbal or dietary supplements and therefore are not regulated by the food and drug administration (FDA) in the same way that many medications and foods are.

This means that wording, safety, and effectiveness of these products may not be critically evaluated; they reside in a supplement “grey area.”

Also, “natural” doesn’t always imply safe or healthy. It’s up to you to do the research on ingredients, potential interactions with other supplements and medications, or potential allergies you may have to certain supplements in natural sleep aids. In addition, natural sleep aids are not designed to treat a medical condition. If you’re interested in using more natural sleep aids in place of over-the-counter sleep medications, consult a health professional first.

Many of the studies cited in this article have found little to no evidence of side effects of any products investigated. Most natural sleep aids are safe even at moderate to large doses, but it’s always important to follow the dosing directions on the bottle or supplement package.

Never take natural sleep aids with alcohol or other sedative medication. It’s also recommended that children and women who are pregnant avoid using natural sleep supplements.

While rate, it is still possible to develop a dependence on natural sleep aids if you use them too often or for a long period of time.

If you constantly rely on these aids to get to sleep, you might not be able to fall asleep without them.

Also, if you are on any type of prescription medications or suffer from a chronic or acute illness, it is important to talk with your physician about any sleep aids before trying any of them.

Rest Easy

Trying to figure out which natural sleep aid might be best for you? We suggest experimenting with a few to see how your body and mind react. Not all natural sleep aids will work the same for everyone. Just like all medications, several factors will contribute to how you respond to a natural sleep aid.

If you want to take back the night (and your sleep schedule) it’s likely that a natural sleep aid can help you get there. Whether it’s attained through an herbal tea or our scientifically formulated sleep nootropic, a good night’s sleep is within everyone’s grasp. Look forward to a strong next morning.

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