Getting a good amount of sleep is incredibly important for your health.
Sleep helps your body and brain function properly. A good night’s sleep can help improve your learning, memory, decision-making, and even your creativity.
What’s more, getting insufficient sleep has been linked to a higher risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Despite this, sleep quality and quantity are at an all-time low, with more and more people experiencing poor sleep.
Keep in mind that good sleep often starts with good sleep practices and habits. However, for some, that’s not enough.
If you require a little extra help to get a good night’s sleep, consider trying the following 9 natural sleep-promoting supplements.
- Valerian root
- Other supplements
- Prescription-free options
- Risks and precautions
Melatonin is a hormone that your body produces naturally, and it signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
Time of day influences this hormone’s cycle of production and release — melatonin levels naturally rise in the evening and fall in the morning.
For this reason, melatonin supplements have become a popular sleeping aid, particularly in instances where the melatonin cycle is disrupted, such as jet lag.
What’s more, several studies report that melatonin improves daytime sleep quality and duration. This is particularly beneficial for individuals whose schedules require them to sleep during the daytime, such as shift workers.
Moreover, melatonin may improve overall sleep quality in individuals with sleep disorders. Specifically, melatonin appears to reduce the time people need to fall asleep (known as sleep latency) and increase the total amount of sleep time.
While there are also studies that did not observe melatonin had a positive effect on sleep, they were generally few in number. Those that did observe beneficial effects generally provided participants 3–10 milligrams (mg) of melatonin before bedtime.
Melatonin supplements appear to be safe for adults when used for short or long periods.
Summary: Melatonin supplements may improve sleep quality. They seem to be especially helpful if you have jet lag or are doing shift work.
2. Valerian root
Valerian is an herb native to Asia and Europe. Its root is commonly used as a natural treatment for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and menopause.
Valerian root is also one of the most commonly used sleep-promoting herbal supplements in the United States and Europe.
However, study results remain inconsistent.
Menopausal and postmenopausal women have seen their sleep quality and sleep disorder symptoms improve after taking valerian, according to randomized controlled trials.
Two older literature reviews also reported that 300–900 mg of valerian, taken right before bedtime, may improve self-rated sleep quality.
Nevertheless, all the observed improvements in these trials and studies were subjective. They relied on participants’ perception of sleep quality rather than on objective measurements taken during sleep, such as brain waves or heart rate.
Other studies have concluded that valerian’s positive effects are negligible at best. For instance, it may lead to a small improvement in sleep latency.
Regardless, short-term intake of valerian root appears to be safe for adults, with minor, infrequent side effects.
Despite the lack of objective measurements behind valerian, adults may consider testing it out for themselves.
However, safety remains uncertain for use long term and in special populations such as pregnant or lactating women.
Summary: Valerian root is a popular supplement that may improve sleep quality and sleep disorder symptoms, at least in some people. More studies are needed on the safety of long-term use.
Magnesium is a mineral involved in hundreds of processes in the human body, and it’s important for brain function and heart health.
Suggested read: The 7 best vitamins and supplements for stress
In addition, magnesium may help quiet the mind and body, making it easier to fall asleep.
Studies show that magnesium’s relaxing effect may be partly due to its ability to regulate the production of melatonin. Magnesium is known to relax muscles and induce sleep.
One study found that a combination of magnesium, melatonin, and vitamin B was effective in treating insomnia regardless of the cause.
Magnesium also appears to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain messenger with calming effects.
Studies report that insufficient levels of magnesium in your body may be linked to troubled sleep and insomnia.
On the other hand, increasing your magnesium intake by taking supplements may help you optimize the quality and quantity of your sleep.
One study gave 46 participants 500 mg of magnesium or a placebo daily for 8 weeks. Those in the magnesium group benefited from overall better sleep quality. This group also had higher blood levels of melatonin and renin, both hormones that regulate sleep.
In another small study, participants given a supplement containing 225 mg of magnesium slept better than those given a placebo. However, the supplement also contained 5 mg of melatonin and 11.25 mg of zinc, making it difficult to attribute the effect to magnesium alone.
It’s worth noting that both studies were performed on older adults, who may have had lower blood magnesium levels to start with. It’s uncertain whether these effects would be as strong in individuals with a good dietary magnesium intake.
Summary: Magnesium has a relaxing effect on the body and brain, which may help improve sleep quality.
The lavender plant can be found on almost all continents. It produces purple flowers that, when dried, have a variety of household uses.
Moreover, lavender’s soothing fragrance is believed to enhance sleep.
Several studies show that simply smelling lavender oil shortly before sleep may be enough to improve sleep quality. This effect appears particularly strong in those with mild insomnia, especially females and young individuals.
Suggested read: How magnesium can help you sleep
A small study in older people with dementia also reports that lavender aromatherapy is effective at improving sleep disturbance symptoms. Total sleep time increased. Fewer people also woke up very early (at 3 a.m.) and found themselves unable to get back to sleep.
Another study gave 221 people with anxiety disorder 80 mg of a lavender oil supplement or a placebo per day.
By the end of the 10-week study, both groups had experienced improvements in the quality and duration of sleep. However, the lavender group experienced 14–24% greater effects without any reported unpleasant side effects.
Though lavender aromatherapy is considered safe, the oral intake of lavender has been linked to nausea and stomach pain in some cases. Essential oils are intended for aromatherapy and not oral ingestion.
It’s also worth noting that only a limited number of studies could be found on the effects of lavender supplements on sleep. Thus, more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary: Lavender aromatherapy may help improve sleep. More studies on lavender supplements are needed to evaluate their efficacy and safety.
Passionflower, also known as Passiflora incarnata or maypop, is a popular herbal remedy for insomnia.
The species of passionflower linked to sleep improvements are native to North America. They’re also currently cultivated in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Passionflower’s sleep-promoting effects have been demonstrated in animal studies. However, its effects in humans appear to depend on the form consumed.
One study in humans compared the effects of a passionflower tea with those of a placebo tea made from parsley leaves.
Participants drank each tea about 1 hour before bed for 1 week, taking a 1-week break between the two teas. Each tea bag was allowed to steep for 10 minutes, and researchers took objective measurements of sleep quality.
At the end of the 3-week study, the objective measurements indicated the participants had not experienced improvements in sleep.
However, when they were asked to rate their sleep quality subjectively, they rated it around 5% higher following the passionflower tea week compared with the parsley tea week.
In a recent study of people with insomnia, those who took passionflower extract over a 2-week-period saw significant improvements in certain sleep parameters when compared with a placebo group.
Those parameters were:
- total sleep time
- sleep efficiency, or the percentage of time spent sleeping as opposed to lying awake in bed
- wake time after sleep onset
On the other hand, a 1998 study compared the effects of a 1.2-gram passionflower supplement, conventional sleeping pills, and a placebo. The researchers found no difference between the passionflower supplements and the placebo.
Suggested read: Melatonin for sleep: Uses, dosage, side effects & more
More studies are needed, but it’s worth noting that passionflower intake is generally safe in adults. For now, it seems that passionflower may provide more benefits when consumed as a tea or extract as opposed to a supplement.
Summary: Passionflower tea or extract may help slightly improve sleep quality in some individuals. However, the evidence is mixed, and some studies have found no effects. Thus, more studies are needed.
Glycine is an amino acid that plays an important role in the nervous system. Studies show it may also help improve sleep.
Exactly how this works is unknown, but glycine is thought to act in part by lowering body temperature at bedtime, signaling that it’s time to sleep.
In one 2006 study, participants experiencing poor sleep consumed 3 grams of glycine or a placebo immediately before bedtime.
Those in the glycine group reported feeling less fatigued the next morning. They also said their liveliness, peppiness, and clearheadedness were higher the next morning.
A 2007 study also investigated the effects of glycine in participants experiencing poor sleep. Researchers took measurements of their brain waves, heart rate, and breathing while they slept.
Participants who took 3 grams of glycine before bedtime showed improved objective measures of sleep quality compared with the placebo group. Glycine supplements also helped participants fall asleep faster.
Glycine also improves daytime performance in individuals who are temporarily sleep-deprived, according to one small study.
Participants had their sleep restricted for 3 consecutive nights. Each night, before bedtime, they took either 3 grams of glycine or 3 grams of placebo. The glycine group reported greater reductions in fatigue and daytime sleepiness.
You can buy glycine in pill form or as a powder that can be diluted in water. Taking up to 0.8 grams/kg of body weight per day appears to be safe, but more studies are needed. Many sleep study participants only took 3 grams a day.
You can also increase your glycine intake by eating foods rich in the nutrient, including:
- animal products such as bone broth, meat, eggs, poultry, and fish
- fruits like bananas and kiwis
Summary: Consuming glycine immediately before bedtime may help you fall asleep faster and improve the overall quality of your sleep.
7–9. Other supplements
There are many additional sleep-promoting supplements on the market. However, not all are supported by strong scientific research.
The list below describes a few additional supplements that may be beneficial to sleep but require more scientific investigation.
- Tryptophan. One study reports that doses as low as 1 gram per day of this essential amino acid may help improve sleep quality. This dosage may also help you fall asleep faster.
- Ginkgo biloba. According to older studies, consuming around 240 mg of this natural herb 30–60 minutes before bed may help reduce stress, enhance relaxation, and promote sleep. Animal studies are also promising.
- L-theanine. Consuming a daily supplement containing up to 400 mg of this amino acid may help improve sleep and relaxation. Animal studies suggest it may be more effective when combined with GABA.
Kava is another plant that’s been linked to sleep-promoting effects in some studies. It originates from the South Pacific islands, and its root is traditionally prepared as tea. It can also be consumed in supplement form.
However, kava use has also been linked to severe liver damage, potentially due to low-quality production or adulteration. Some countries, like Canada and parts of Europe, have even banned its use.
Proceed with extra caution before using kava. Only buy supplements that have been certified by a reputable third-party organization.
Summary: Tryptophan, ginkgo biloba, and L-theanine may also help promote sleep. However, they tend to have fewer studies backing them up, so more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made. Use caution before trying kava for sleep.
Other prescription-free options
Other sleep aids include diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate. They’re both antihistamines.
Suggested read: Side effects of melatonin: What are the risks?
- Diphenhydramine: Diphenhydramine is the active ingredient in popular allergy remedies such as Benadryl. Diphenhydramine’s primary use is not as a sleep drug, but it does cause drowsiness and has been used to promote sleep. Diphenhydramine is also found in ZzzQuil, Unisom SleepGels, and Unisom SleepMelts.
- Doxylamine: Doxylamine succinate is the active ingredient in the sleep aid Unisom SleepTabs. It’s also found in Nyquil. Like diphenhydramine, it’s an antihistamine that also causes drowsiness.
The evidence in favor of either ingredient as a sleep aid is weak. Many experts recommend against diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate, with some saying that they reduce sleep quality.
Other side effects may include dizziness, confusion, and dry mouth.
Long-term use of prescription-free sleep aids can lead to drug tolerance. Over time, the use of anticholinergics, such as antihistamines, can increase your risk for dementia as well.
If you’re interested in trying these sleep aids, occasional use is recommended. They should never be used for more than 2 weeks at a time.
However, people with respiratory conditions, high blood pressure, or heart disease should avoid both of these drugs altogether. They may induce a nervous system reaction that leads to tachycardia, or an elevated heart rate.
Older adults, especially those with liver or kidney issues, should not use diphenhydramine. They’re at an increased risk for its negative side effects.
Summary: The antihistamines diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate may help you sleep, although that is not their primary purpose. Much stronger evidence is needed. Also, be aware of the possible side effects before taking these drugs.
Risks and precautions
You should talk with your doctor before using any herbs or prescription-free medications for sleep, especially since there’s the potential for drug interactions with medications such as blood thinners.
Also, let your doctor know if your sleep troubles last for longer than 2 weeks.
Many prescription-free sleep aids only result in minor side effects. However, it’s important to be cautious, since relatively little is known about the long-term effects of some of them.
Suggested read: 17 proven tips to sleep better at night
Side effects that have been associated with specific sleep aids are listed below. Some of these side effects were only reported anecdotally or in a few studies, or they were only observed in people who received high doses:
- Melatonin: minor side effects, such as headache, nausea, and dizziness
- Valerian root: diarrhea, headache, nausea, and heart palpitations
- Magnesium: diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, when taken in high doses
- Lavender: nausea and indigestion
- Passionflower: dizziness and confusion, on rare occasions
- Glycine: soft stools and abdominal pain, on rare occasions
- Tryptophan: mild nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, and tremor
- Ginkgo biloba: mild and rare side effects, such as diarrhea, headache, nausea, and rash
- L-theanine: no confirmed or direct side effects when taken alone; diarrhea and abdominal pain when combined with L-cystine
In general, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should speak with their doctors before trying these or any other supplements. Most supplements should be avoided since there’s little research to confirm that they’re safe for this population.
Magnesium, glycine, and tryptophan are all important to fetal development and do not have to be avoided if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. However, your doctor will still need to advise you of the proper dosage to avoid potential side effects.
Summary: Many prescription-free sleep aids only result in minor side effects when used short term. You should still talk with your doctor before using any herbs or prescription-free medications for sleep. Avoid most of these products entirely if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
FAQs about natural sleep aids
Here are the most frequently asked questions about natural sleep aids:
Are natural sleep aids effective?
Some research shows that certain natural sleep aids, like melatonin, are effective. Other herbal supplements, such as valerian root and passionflower, show mixed results.
While some studies and anecdotal evidence suggest natural sleep aids may be helpful, more research is needed to say for sure.
Are natural sleep aids safer than prescription sleep aids?
Natural sleep aids like the nine discussed in this article are generally considered safer than prescription sleep aids because they have fewer side effects. Still, it’s important to choose a quality product from a reputable brand. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal supplements in the same way as they do drugs.
Suggested read: 9 popular herbal medicines: Benefits and uses
Additionally, note that even natural sleep aids are intended to be a short-term solution. If you’re regularly experiencing trouble sleeping, it’s best to talk with your doctor to rule out any underlying conditions.
Are prescription-free sleep aids safe?
Diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate are antihistamines that are sold over the counter. While they’re sometimes used as sleep aids, that’s not their primary use. There is not strong evidence that they work well as sleep aids, and they may cause side effects.
Older adults, especially those with kidney or liver issues, should not use diphenhydramine.
It’s best not to take prescription-free sleep aids regularly since doing so can lead to dependence. If you do use them, do so only occasionally and for no more than 2 weeks at a time. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you’re regularly experiencing trouble sleeping.
If you’re interested in trying these out, you can find most of the above online and in various forms.
Keep in mind that high-quality sleep is just as important for overall health as eating well and exercising regularly.
Nevertheless, many people have trouble falling asleep, wake up frequently, or fail to wake up feeling rested. This makes it challenging to maintain optimal health and well-being.
Before taking any medications, try incorporating good sleep practices into your routine, such as keeping electronics out of the bedroom and limiting caffeine intake before bedtime.
The supplements above are one way to increase the likelihood of achieving restful sleep. That said, they’re probably most effective when used in combination with good sleep practices and habits.