If you’re a regular reader here, you know I am deeply interested in how to employ natural therapies to help sleep. I’m not alone in that interest: I’m asked all the time about how to treat sleep with supplements and natural remedies.
Over the years, I’ve written in-depth about some of the best-studied, most effective natural sleep aids. As we head into the new year with a focus on prioritizing sleep, I thought I’d share a quick review of some of my top suggestions for natural sleep therapies. These are the supplements that I most often discuss with my patients, and in some cases use for myself and my family.
Below, I’ve shared highlights and key information about some of the top sleep supplements. You can also find links to more in-depth articles for each supplement, which include information about dosing, side effects and interactions with medications and other supplements.
Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.
CBD: a calming sleep-promoter
People often ask me about whether, and how, to use cannabis for sleep. (I wrote about some dos and don’ts for using cannabis as a sleep tool—you can check it out here.) One of the easiest, most effective ways to harness the relaxing, sleep promoting effects of cannabis? Try using CBD. You’ve probably heard of CBD. It’s showing up everywhere as a therapy to reduce anxiety and improve mental focus. It’s also a natural sleep booster.
How CBD works: CBD, or cannabidiol, is what’s known as a cannabinoid, a group of chemical compounds found in cannabis. CBD is one of the most calming and stress reducing of the cannabinoids—and one of the most helpful to sleep. Unlike THC, another well-known cannabinoid, CBD has no “high” associated with it.
How CBD helps sleep: Research shows CBD can significantly reduce insomnia symptoms. It also can increase overall sleep amounts, according to studies. In particular, CBD has been shown to reduce insomnia in people who suffer from chronic pain. In smaller doses, CBD stimulates alertness and reduces daytime sleepiness, which is important for daytime performance and for the strength and consistency of the sleep-wake cycle. One thing I really like about CBD? New research shows it relieves anxiety without causing changes to healthy sleep-wake cycles.
I’ve been so impressed with the research on the benefits of CBD for sleep, I’ve used it as a key ingredient in my own sleep supplement, the Aktive Sleep Booster.
Other potential health benefits: CBD can be effective in easing symptoms of depression and anxiety. With anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, CBD may offer protection for the brain, and against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Melatonin: a key sleep hormone
You’re probably not surprised to see melatonin make my list. This hormone, produced naturally by the body in response to darkness, is essential for sleep. As a supplement, melatonin is one of the most-used and best-researched sleep supplements.
How melatonin works: It often surprises people to hear it, but melatonin does not work as a sedative. Melatonin production is triggered by exposure to darkness, and is a powerful bio time regulator. It improves sleep by helping to strengthen the body’s sleep-wake cycles. Stronger sleep-wake cycles translate into a more consistent sleep routine. When your bio clock is in sync, it can help improve your mood, daytime performance, energy levels and your overall health, including immune function, and regulation of metabolism, digestion, and appetite.
How melatonin helps sleep: Melatonin can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase overall sleep amounts, according to research. It’s been shown to improve quality of sleep and reduce daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Studies also show melatonin may increase REM sleep. It’s during REM sleep that we consolidate and process memory, and prime the regions of the brain associated with learning.
Melatonin can be helpful in reducing the impact of jet lag. (Before I started using the Aktive Sleep Booster to help with jet lag, I used to take melatonin about 90 minutes before bedtime in my new time zone, and made sure to get a dose of bright light exposure first thing the next morning.)
Other potential health benefits: Melatonin may help to guard against cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease. It’s also being investigated as a therapy for some cancers. Supplemental melatonin may be effective at improving sleep quality and sleep quantity in people with ASD, and also may help improve daytime behavior. Melatonin has shown promise as a natural treatment for a range of conditions, including fibromyalgia, menopause, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Want to know more about melatonin? I wrote about it here.
Magnesium: a deep-sleep mineral
Magnesium is an important macro-mineral for overall health. A lot of us don’t get enough magnesium in our diets: about half of adults in the United States have a magnesium deficiency.
How magnesium works: Magnesium plays a widespread role in the human body, helping regulate and many essential functions. One of magnesium’s most important roles is to enable healthy enzyme function. Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different enzyme-related reactions in the body’s cells. This mineral helps regulate blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and helps to control the body’s stress response. Getting sufficient magnesium helps the body maintain healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, as well as elevating and stabilizing mood.
How magnesium helps sleep: This mineral has a range of scientifically-backed connections to sleep. Magnesium helps to regulate the body’s bio clock and melatonin. Low levels of magnesium are linked to low levels of melatonin. Research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people who sleep poorly. Magnesium can also help insomnia that’s linked to the sleep disorder restless-leg syndrome. This mineral can help with symptoms both mild-to-moderate anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression, which in turn can help you rest better.
Other potential health benefits: Magnesium helps with stress reduction, contributes to bone health, supports cardiovascular function. Maintaining sufficient magnesium can help to reduce pain, and maintain healthy muscle function.
Interested in learning more about magnesium? I wrote about its healthful, sleep-promoting benefits here.
Valerian and hops: a relaxing, sedating herbal pair
This duo are well-studied, well known herbal supplements for sleep and stress relief. The root of the valerian plant has an ancient history as a sleep aid and a natural remedy for nervousness and anxiety. Hops has been used for centuries to treat sleep and anxiety as well.
How valerian and hops work: Both valerian and hops help to boost production of GABA, a calming brain chemical that promotes sleep. Valerian appears to function primarily as an anxiolytic—an anxiety reducer. Hops also has sedative properties—therapeutic doses of this plant lower body temperature, which contributes to drowsiness.
How valerian and hops help sleep: You can use valerian and hops separately to treat sleep problems. Valerian has been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly, reduce restless sleep, increase sleep amounts, and improve symptoms of insomnia. Research also shows valerian is effective in treating sleep problems linked to menopause. Hops itself can increase sleep time. Studies show these herbal supplements pair well together: according to research, hops may be more effective for sleep when in combination with valerian.
Other potential health benefits: Valerian and hops have both been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. A flavonoid in hops has also been found to help reduce weight gain, lower elevated cholesterol and reduce high blood sugar.
Read more about the sleep and health benefits of valerian and hops, here.
Magnolia bark – a gentle sedative
The bark of the magnolia tree has long been used in traditional medicine to treat sleep issues, protect memory, reduce stress, and help with digestive problems and weight loss. Despite its long history, this natural sleep remedy sometimes gets overlooked.
How magnolia bark works: Magnolia bark is packed with potent natural compounds that have been shown to reduce inflammation and lower anxiety, as well as improve symptoms of depression. Improving these conditions can help sleep. Magnolia bark also acts as a sedative, providing direct benefits for sleep.
How magnolia bark helps sleep: Bioactive compounds in magnolia bark appear to help increase time in both slow wave sleep and REM sleep. Other compounds in magnolia bark lower levels of stimulating hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Other potential health benefits: Research indicates that magnolia on its own and in combination with ginger can help with depression. It also can ease stress and anxiety. Bioactive compounds in magnolia bark have been shown to protect health of brain cells and support memory and learning.
Here’s a full rundown on the health and sleep benefits of magnolia bark.
Jujube – a nutrient-rich sleep booster
Remember the candy we used to eat at the movies? It was one of my favorites! The jujube fruit is actually a nutritional and therapeutic powerhouse. It’s packed with vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, and has been used for centuries to treat insomnia, as well as pain, stress, and stomach upset.
How jujube works: Compounds in jujube also relax the body and the mind, boosting levels of calming neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin. It also acts as a sedative.
Other potential health benefits: Jujube contains bioactive compounds that work to reduce inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and lower blood sugar, as well as supporting heart and brain health. Jujube can improve digestive function, and treat constipation.
Wondering if jujube is the right sleep aid for you? Learn more here.
L-theanine – a wakeful relaxer
Are you a tea drinker? If so, you’re getting a dietary dose of L-theanine. This amino acid found in tea leaves.
How L-theanine works: L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills. At the same time, L-theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety. L-theanine boosts production of alpha waves in the brain, which enhance relaxation, focus, and even creativity. That can make L-theanine a good choice for people who are looking to enhance their daytime relaxation without worrying about becoming sleepy and fatigued during the day.
How L-theanine helps sleep: With its ability to increase relaxation and lower stress, L-theanine can help people fall asleep more quickly and easily at bedtime. Research also shows L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep.
There’s evidence that L-theanine may help improve sleep quality in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A study examined the effects of L-theanine on the sleep of boys with ADHD ages 8-12, and found that the supplement worked safely and effectively to help them to sleep more soundly.
Other potential health benefits: L-theanine has been shown to boost cognitive skills, including attention and focus, memory and learning. It also may help protect against obesity.
There’s more to know about L-theanine, here.
5-HTP – a serotonin booster
5-Hydroxytryptophan—commonly known as 5-HTP—is a compound made naturally in the body. 5-HTP is created as a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. Our bodies don’t make L-tryptophan naturally—we absorb this essential amino acid from the foods we eat. 5-HTP is produced as a supplement from the seeds of a plant, Griffonia simplicfolia.
How 5-HTP works: This compound helps the body to produce more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep-wake cycles. Serotonin is required to make melatonin, a hormone that helps the body’s bio clock stay in sync, and regulates daily sleep-wake cycles.
How 5-HTP helps sleep: Research shows 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep amounts. 5-HTP can be effective in improving mood, and easing symptoms of stress and anxiousness, which can in turn interfere with sleep. 5-HTP may also be effective in helping to reduce sleep terrors in children.
Other potential health benefits: 5-HTP can help regulate appetite and may make it easier to lose weight. It’s also been shown effective in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Research indicates that 5-HTP can help improve fibromyalgia symptoms, including pain, tenderness, daytime fatigue, sleep quality, and anxiety.
Find out more about 5-HTP, here.
Glycine – a sleep-stimulating amino acid
Glycine (also known as 2-Aminoacetic Acid) is an amino acid and a neurotransmitter. The body produces glycine on its own, synthesized from other natural biochemicals. We also consume glycine through food. This amino acid is found in high-protein foods including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and legumes. A daily diet typically includes about 2 grams of glycine.
How glycine works: Glycine is considered among the most important amino acids for the body. It exerts widespread influence over our bodies’ systems, structure, and general health, including cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic health. Glycine helps the body make serotonin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that has significant effects on sleep and mood.
How glycine helps sleep: Glycine can improve symptoms of insomnia, and can help you bounce back to healthy sleep cycles after a period of disrupted sleep. A recent study of the effects of glycine as a supplement showed it triggered a drop in body temperature and at the same time helped people both fall asleep more quickly and spend more time in REM sleep. And glycine may help you move more quickly into deep, slow wave sleep.
Other potential health benefits: Glycine has been shown to improve both memory and attention in young adults. Scientists are actively investigating the use of glycine in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Higher levels of glycine have been associated with a lower risk of heart attack, and there’s some evidence that glycine may help protect against high blood pressure. It also may help strengthen bones and joints, and guard against arthritis.
Want to find out more about glycine? I wrote about it, here.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor