An Inside Look at Nine Popular Sleep Supplements
With at least one in three adults in the U.S. reporting that they don’t get enough sleep, it’s no wonder there’s plenty of demand for remedies to help us rest. Whether you suffer the occasional night of tossing and turning or you’re plagued by chronic insomnia, it’s likely you have experienced the frustration of not being able to sleep.
This could be a big reason why the supplement industry is booming, with nearly two-thirds of adults in the U.S. reporting either occasionally or regularly using a substance to help them sleep. Sleep supplement sales have generated more than $700 million annually over the last couple of years and include herbs and other natural remedies in the form of capsules, tinctures, gummies, chocolates, powders, teas and more. If you’re considering trying a sleep supplement, here’s what you should know about how sleep supplements work and which might be effective for you.
When to Try a Supplement
One thing to consider before reaching for a capsule or tincture: Have you ensured that you’re practicing quality sleep hygiene? That’s the first place to look for improved sleep before investing in a supplement, says Mattress Firm advisor Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist and author of “The Sleep Solution.”
“These substances, at best, supplement a process,” he says. “There’s a reason they’re not referred to as treatments. [With supplements,] you're upgrading; you're enhancing something. You’re starting from a place of, ‘I'm a pretty decent sleeper. Could adding X make me even better?’ You're looking for an edge, not a solution.”
After all, supplements aren’t going to put you to sleep the way a prescription sleeping pill would—the effect of a supplement is often more subtle. “If you're looking to these things to knock you out, you're just going to add to the frustration,” Winter says.
However, notes Kristina Conner, dean of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, there’s another way to think of supplements: as a way to jump-start better sleep to help you improve (or get back to) good sleep habits.
“Some people need that extra boost in the short term. If they're not sleeping very well at all, then that disrupts everything else in their life,” Conner says. “So then they can't do the things that we're going to ask them to do to improve their sleep. Maybe they're too wired and tired at the same time, so they can't get to sleep; they can't exercise because they're too tired; they make poor choices with food. And all of those things we know affect sleep in the long term. So sometimes we just have to use things to break them out of the cycle.”
That more subtle effect can be an advantage, however. “Unlike a medication, which is a very standardized, predictable constituent...[with herbs,] you lose a little bit of the predictability, but you sometimes gain a little bit in safety, because naturally these plants have evolved over millennia to have that balancing effect,” Conner says. “A good example is green tea. Green tea has caffeine, but it also has theanine. The two tend to balance each other out, so you get a different kind of caffeine boost, which is also relaxing at the same time.”
Whether you’re trying to optimize your already-good sleep habits, or you need a boost to help you get into better sleep hygiene, here are some of the most popular sleep supplements, with information on how useful they could be toward reaching your goal.
This hormone, produced in your pineal gland, is an integral part of the sleep-wake cycle. It’s released when you’re exposed to darkness and is suppressed by light (which is why it’s so important to turn off electronic screens an hour before bed). The release of melatonin kicks off processes in the body that promote relaxation. This popular sleep aid is sold as a supplement in pill, powder and gummy form over the counter. Dosages can vary a great deal, and a recent study found that many brands of melatonin gummies are mislabeled, with few brands containing the advertised dosage—some contain less than promised, but many others contain far more than indicated; and one tested supplement in the study included no melatonin at all, only CBD. Extra melatonin can also interact with certain medications, which is why it’s always a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a supplement.
Another thing to note about melatonin: Winters says that it’s important to take it at the right time to help with circadian rhythm, rather than treating it as a sleep aid to be taken at bedtime. “We have a big surge of melatonin just as the sun is going down that's preparing us to sleep many hours later,” he notes. “When you're taking it at bedtime, you're convincing your brain the sun's going down now, even though it's 11:30 at night. So over time, with chronic use, you start to convince the brain that 11:30 is sundown,” meaning you likely won’t feel ready for sleep for several hours after that.”
Magnesium is a mineral that’s important to many processes in the body, potentially including benefits such as helping with falling asleep, improving sleep quality and making it easier to sleep through the night. It’s available in many foods, including nuts and seeds; legumes (such as black beans and edamame); green vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach); and animal proteins (such as chicken and beef). Though magnesium is present in many foods, researchers estimate that around half of the U.S. population may be magnesium-deficient, in part because of the mineral’s depletion in the soil, as well as its being stripped (along with other minerals) from foods during processing.
“Magnesium is so helpful for many other conditions that it's one of the most common nutrients I would recommend for most people…it's great for headaches and muscle cramps, as well as muscle relaxation and recovery from exercise,” Conner says. It’s also helpful for sleep.
Magnesium is available as a supplement over the counter in pill, powder and other forms. There are different types of magnesium, and what they’re used for varies; magnesium glycinate is the form that is recommended for sleep.
Best known as a flavor of herbal tea, chamomile is made from delicate yellow and white flowers that resemble daisies. Though it’s been used traditionally to soothe a variety of ailments, chamomile is best known for calming anxiety as well as promoting relaxation and sleep. You can buy it as tea or a tincture, or in pill or gummy form. Chamomile is also added to salves and used topically to ease skin irritation.
Because it’s on the gentler side, chamomile is a good choice for kids, Conner notes. Though if you’re using chamomile tea to help you wind down for sleep, be careful not to drink so much before bed that you have to get up in the middle of the night to pee, she adds.
Turkey is often credited (blamed?) for the sleepiness we experience after Thanksgiving dinner, and though that’s a myth—it’s more likely due to eating more than we’re used to—there is a kernel of science behind its association with drowsiness. Turkey and other lean white meats, like chicken, are good sources of tryptophan, an amino acid that aids the body’s production of serotonin. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, has several functions; among these are helping to bring about a sense of calm, boosting sleep quality and duration, and helping in the body’s production of melatonin. Though turkey is the food most commonly associated with tryptophan, whole milk contains more. Egg whites, oats, nuts and seeds are all also good sources. It’s also available as a supplement in pill or powder form.
CBD and THC
The two main active compounds in the cannabis plant, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have gotten a ton of press in the last few years as cannabis has become legal in several states and science has begun to emerge about the plant’s potential effects on health. CBD seems to confer a calming effect in the central nervous system without causing the intoxicated feeling or “high” usually associated with cannabis, which comes from THC. Some research has suggested that short-term use of both CBD and THC may benefit sleep, but far more study is needed to make any real determinations.
“I have used CBD a lot for chronic pain issues,” Conner says. “I find that if pain causes the sleep issues, CBD can be really helpful. In and of itself, cannabis is just another tool for naturopathic doctors. It's not a panacea for everything, but it definitely has benefits for particular people.”
Long-term use is not recommended, though; according to the National Sleep Foundation, people who use cannabis long-term for sleep can develop a tolerance, requiring larger and larger doses. There also may be an efficacy threshold, after which cannabis may have a negative effect on sleep or pose other health implications.
An important herb in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments, including stress, anxiety, male infertility and sleep issues. It’s an adaptogen; as the name suggests, it’s part of a group of plants and mushrooms that help the body adapt to stressors. There is some research that shows ashwagandha may help with falling asleep and improving sleep quality, as well as easing anxiety and assisting with overall performance; plus, its traditional use over centuries speaks to its efficacy. It’s available in pill, powder and gummy forms, and as a tea and tincture.
“Ashwagandha can help when sleep quality issues are related to stress or feelings of anxiety,” Conner says. “It also has separate effects where it reduces cortisol, which can be high in people with chronic stress issues. So, it treats the root as well, as it can help quickly with sleep.”
If you’ve ever felt calm after drinking tea, this amino acid may be part of the reason why. L-theanine is water soluble and occurs naturally in green, black, white and oolong teas. Research suggests it’s helpful for sleep because it promotes relaxation on a number of fronts. L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier and interacts with different neurotransmitters. Those interactions may lead to reduced anxiety, a calmer mind, more positive feelings and an increase in alpha brain waves, which are associated with relaxation and drowsiness. Though L-theanine naturally occurs in tea, those same teas may also contain caffeine, which it’s best to avoid later in the day. You can also get L-theanine in pill, gummy or tincture form.
“I often call L-theanine ‘the chill-out pill,’ because it's not really sedating,” Conner says. “So it has more indirect effects on sleep, I would say, because it really just helps people relax.”
A flowering plant that grows in several parts of the world, valerian has been used for more than 1,000 years to treat insomnia, anxiety and other ailments. Though more research is needed, some studies seem to show that valerian can help people fall asleep faster, as well as boosting sleep quality and time spent in deep sleep.
“Out of the most common herbal remedies used for sleep, [valerian is] the one that is the most likely to be somewhat sedative…to be closest to a sedative,” Conner says.
Valerian may be more effective when taken over time, as opposed to being used sporadically for intermittent bouts of insomnia. It’s available in capsules, powders, tinctures and teas. For those considering trying valerian, Conner adds one warning: For some people, it has the opposite of the intended effect, boosting energy. Trial and error are the only way to know its effect on you as an individual, so if you’re going to try it, start on a weekend.