Sleep is much more than just simply shutting off the mind and body for a few hours each night and conserving the body’s energy in preparation for the next day. Over the years, as more and more studies have been conducted in this field, it has been found that sleep is an integral part of our lives that serves a lot of objectives. From the restoration of the brain, memory consolidation and metabolic health to appetite regulation and functioning of immune, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, sleep benefits us in many ways.
Despite the importance of sleep, up to 70 million people in the US and nearly 45 million people in Europe have a chronic sleep disorder that impacts daily functioning and health. For example, 20% of the serious injuries that result from car accidents are associated with driver sleepiness, independent of the effects of alcohol.
Reduced sleep duration or poor-quality sleep lowers our concentration and productivity in addition to affecting glucose metabolism and the immune system. Poor sleep has also been linked to increased inflammation, greater risk of heart diseases and stroke.
Even though behavioral and lifestyle changes can help address this issue, for some that isn’t enough. You can try the following 15 natural sleep-promoting supplements to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the “sleep-wake cycle”. It is primarily released by the pineal gland. During the day, the pineal gland is inactive and is turned on as the sun goes down i.e., with the advent of darkness. Usually, this occurs at around 9 pm. As a result, the blood melatonin level increases to quite an extent and stays elevated for about 12 hours, which is all through the night. By around 9 am, the next morning, the melatonin level falls back.
Low melatonin level in the blood is directly associated with insomnia or sleeplessness.
For some people, a melatonin supplement is an ideal solution for insomnia. Research indicates improved sleep when melatonin is taken at an appropriate time for jet lag and shift work. Melatonin is frequently taken to alleviate characteristic symptoms of insomnia like difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. There is a strong body of evidence that supports its use as a sleep aid in several populations including children and the elderly.
In an analysis of 19 studies on people with sleep disorders, scientists found that melatonin helped reduce the time it took to fall asleep by an average of 7 minutes. People also reported significantly better quality of sleep.
Numerous studies have shown that melatonin is a safe and effective sleep aid. Side effects of melatonin are uncommon but can include drowsiness, headache, dizziness or nausea. No significant side effects have been reported in children.
Melatonin is available over the counter at many pharmacies and health supplement stores as tablets, lozenges, gummies, tinctures, and other preparations. There is no daily recommended amount for melatonin, but it is typically sold in doses ranging from 1 mg to 10 mg.
Summary: Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in our bodies. It can be taken as a dietary supplement to alleviate characteristic symptoms of insomnia such as difficulty in falling asleep and/or staying asleep.
2. Valerian Roots
Valerian, scientifically known as Valeriana officinalis, is an herb native to Asia and Europe. Other countries like China and the USA have started growing them recently. It is often referred to as “nature’s Valium”. Since ancient times, it has been used to improve sleep and promote tranquility. It appears to be safe and non-habit-forming when consumed at the recommended dosage.
Valerian root contains valerenic acid, isovaleric acid, and numerous antioxidants. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), is a chemical messenger that helps in the regulation of nerve impulses in our brain and nervous system. It has been shown to be positively influenced by Valerian making it effective in improving sleep.
Researchers have directly related low GABA levels to acute and chronic stress. These are linked to anxiety and low quality sleep. Valerenic acid inhibits the breakdown of GABA in the brain, resulting in a sense of peace and tranquility. In addition to the above-mentioned antioxidants that are present in the valerian roots, hesperidin and linarin which have been shown to have sedative and sleep-enhancing properties, have also been found present in valerian.
A 2006 study in healthy adults concluded that a combined administration of valerian and lemon balm reduced anxiety rating. However, a higher dosage increased the anxiety ratings that were less marked. In a 2010 study, rats administered with valerian root before a maze experiment showed a significant reduction in anxious behavior than rats given ethanol or no treatment.
Based on the available research, taking 300 to 600 mg of valerian root, 30 minutes to two hours before bedtime, is most effective. For tea, soak 2 to 3 grams of dried herbal valerian root in 1 cup of hot water for 10 to 15 minutes and drink it in order for it to work best.
Summary: Roots of the herb Valerian is commonly used for sleep disorders such as insomnia. It seems to act as a sedative on the brain and the nervous system.
3. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm or Melissa officinalis, as it is scientifically called, is not related to lemons and instead is a perennial herb from the mint family. The leaves have a mild lemon aroma and are used for making medicine. Lemon balm has been shown to have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, mental disorders including hysteria, melancholia, ADHD, colic pain in infants, indigestion or dyspepsia, cold sores, stress, and insomnia.
Early research shows that taking lemon balm and valerian root once or twice daily may have a positive effect on insomnia as it is associated with a decrease in restlessness in children under the age of 12. In a 2006 study, a combination of lemon balm and valerian when administered have shown to attenuate laboratory-induced stress.
For insomnia, 300 mg of a standardized lemon balm extract (Cyracos by Naturex SA) has been used twice daily for 15 days. Also, a specific combination product containing 80mg of lemon balm leaf extract and 160 mg of valerian root extract has been taken 2-3 times daily for up to 30 days. Tablets containing 170 mg of valerian root, 50 mg of hops, 50 mg of lemon balm with 50 mg of motherwort have been used to address insomnia.
Summary: Lemon balm contains chemicals that have a sedative and calming effect. It is used alone or as part of a multi-herb sleep-aid product.
4. Vitex Agnus Castus
Vitex agnus-castus, also called vitex, chaste tree, chasteberry, Abraham’s balm, Lilac chaste tree or monk’s pepper, is a native of the Mediterranean region. It’s a popular herbal supplement that is used in treating a lot of health problems.
It’s used to treat menstrual disorders, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), infertility, acne, menopause, and nursing difficulties. Studies have shown that vitex stimulates the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
According to the research, 30-40 mg of dried fruit extracts, 3-6 grams of dried herb, or 1 gram of dried fruit per day is safely recommended. The most frequent adverse effects are nausea, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances which are mild and found to be reversible.
Summary: The ethanolic extracts from the fruit Vitex have been used for the treatment of premenstrual syndrome, infertility, etc. Studies have noted its therapeutic effect on depression and insomnia.
5. Chamomile Tea
For centuries, people all around the world have been using herbal teas to calm their nerves and relax. Modern science has also supported the herbal teas’ ability to boost good sleep. Chamomile is a herb that comes from the daisy-like flowers of the Asteraceae plant family. It has been consumed as a natural remedy to treat insomnia and reduce inflammation.
Chamomile flowers contain flavonoids, sesquiterpenes, and antioxidants and once dried, they can be used for natural and herbal remedies. Its calming effect is attributed to the antioxidant called apigenin, which is in abundance in chamomile tea which binds to certain receptors in our brain that help decrease anxiety and initiate sleep.
A 2016 study researching the link between chamomile tea and sleep quality and depression in women found that those who drank chamomile tea every night for two weeks had better sleep quality than those who did not and the effects were reversed. Another study involving 60 nursing home residents found that subjects receiving 400 mg of chamomile extract daily had significantly better sleep quality than those who didn’t receive any.
While evidence to support the benefits of chamomile is inconsistent, a few studies have indeed provided encouraging results. Further studies are needed to understand the relation of chamomile tea and insomnia.
Summary: Antioxidants in Chamomile tea binds to certain receptors in our brain decreasing anxiety, inducing calmness and initiating sleep. It is regarded as a sleep inducer. It works best when taken 30 minutes before bed.
Magnesium is an essential mineral, one of the seven essential macrominerals that the human body needs in large quantities. Since the body doesn’t produce magnesium, the required amount comes from our diet. Magnesium plays a widespread role in the human body, helping regulate and facilitate many essential body functions.
Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Low blood magnesium in the body can cause troubled sleep and insomnia.
Researchers indicate supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality especially in people with poor sleep. Magnesium increases GABA which encourages relaxation and sleep. Magnesium can also help insomnia that’s linked to the sleep disorder “restless-leg-syndrome”. It also plays an important role in regulating the body’s stress response system.
In one study, older adults were given 500 mg of magnesium or a placebo.
Overall, the magnesium group had a better quality of sleep. This group also showed higher levels of renin and melatonin, two hormones that help regulate sleep.
These results were further bolstered by yet another study that gave elderly adults with insomnia a supplement containing 225 mg magnesium, 5 mg melatonin and 11.25 mg zinc. The participants of the second study also had better sleep in comparison to the placebo group. However, since the current research has only studied magnesium supplements among older adults with insomnia, it’s not clear whether younger adults would benefit as well.
Summary: Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Supplemental magnesium can improve the quality of sleep.
7. Lavender Oil
Since ages, lavender is reputed for being a natural alternative to relax the body and mind. It is believed to possess aphrodisiac qualities. Lavender essential oil is one of the most studied topics in terms of its relaxation effects.
A Thai study with 20 participants that looked at the impact of lavender on their health found a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. A positive effect on mood was also observed amongst the participants along with a surge of energy. The research showed that lavender may actually alter brain waves and reduce stress.
A small study done in Indianapolis hospital on women concluded that lavender aromatherapy has been found to reduce anxiety and depression. That is a positive precursor to sleeping better for new moms who are in dire need of the same.
Targeted studies looking at sleep specifically also netted results confirmed lavender’s active properties for combating insomnia.
Researchers at the University of Southampton in Britain tracked the sleep patterns of 10 adults. For a week, half of the participants slept in a room where lavender essential oil was diffused in the air throughout the night. The rest snoozed in a similar room where a placebo ( sweet almond oil) was diffused. The group switched rooms and studied. At the end of the study, volunteers ranked the quality of their sleep with 20% better in the lavender-scented room.
Researchers have monitored the sleep cycle of the brain in a lavender-infused environment and found that lavender increased slow-wave-sleep, instrumental in slowing heartbeat and relaxing muscles.
Essential oils aren’t regulated by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration, so it is very important to seek out the right brand that will be trustworthy. Usually, essential oils are found in holistic health stores and through online providers like Amazon.
Consulting a doctor and performing a patch test before actually using it is a must.
Summary: Lavender oil has been found to possess aphrodisiac qualities and induces sleep by relaxing the muscles and slowing heartbeat.
8. Passion Flowers
500 known species of passion flower exist. This family of plants is known as passiflora. Studies have shown that certain species of this family may have medicinal benefits. Passiflora incarnata is one of them which may help treat anxiety and insomnia.
Native Americans have been using passionflower to treat boils, wounds, ear pains, and liver problems.
Spanish explorers learned about passionflower from native Peruvians. They named these plants for their resemblance to a crucifix. In Christian traditions, “the passion” is a term used to describe the final period of Jesus Christ’s life including his crucifixion.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), more research is needed to assess the potential uses of P.Incarnata. Some studies suggest that it has the potential to relieve anxiety and insomnia. Early studies suggest it might help relieve insomnia and anxiety. It has shown to boost the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in our brain. This lowers brain activity which as a result relaxes the mind and allows better sleep.
In a trial published in Phytotherapy Research, participants had to drink a daily dose of herbal tea with purple passionflower. After 7 days, they reported improvements in sleep quality. The researchers suggest that purple passionflower may help adults manage mild sleep irregularities.
According to the NCCIH, passionflower is generally considered safe but it may cause side effects like sleepiness, dizziness, and confusion in some. Because of this, it should not be taken with sedative medications. More studies need to be conducted on its safety for pregnant women or breastfeeding women. It may induce contractions in pregnant ladies.
Summary: Passion flowers relieve anxiety and insomnia by boosting the level of GABA in our brains. That, in turn, lowers brain activity which relaxes the mind and allows a good sleep.
Glycine is an amino acid which is needed for maintaining strength and support in our muscles and bones and help keep our metabolism functioning right. It is a neurotransmitter with the ability to be both excitatory and inhibitory. In other words, it can function both in stimulating the brain and the nervous system as well as quieten it.
It is synthesized from other natural biochemicals, often serine, but also choline and threonine. Glycine can also be consumed through food. For all its power in maintaining the body’s health and its natural capacity to heal, glycine has strangely gotten little attention as a natural remedy.
Glycine helps lower body temperature and this slight drop in the body temperature is a key part of the body’s physical progression into 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 fall asleep sooner and had more time in REM sleep.
Another research showed that supplemental glycine may help move more quickly into deep, slow waves of sleep. Glycine increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is required to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. In people who have difficulty sleeping or sleep disorders like insomnia, increasing serotonin levels can help restore healthy sleep patterns and encourage deeper and more restful and refreshing sleep.
Research shows oral glycine elevates serotonin and improves sleep quality. Always consult a doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. A range of 3-5 grams of glycine taken orally before bed has been used effectively to help sleep in scientific studies.
Summary: Glycine lowers the body temperature, elevates serotonin and helps the body to smoothly progress towards sleep.
“Drinking a glass of warm milk at night helps sleep better”. We have been hearing this statement since childhood. Is it true? Yes, it is very much so. Amino acid tryptophan in milk induces sleep.
It is a precursor to the sleep-inducing compounds serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and melatonin (a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter). Scientists have long noted that the ingestion of various types of foods has inspired drowsiness, the most common being milk and turkey. That happens because of the presence of tryptophan in these foods.
Dietary supplements of L-Tryptophan are available wherever natural supplements, herbal remedies, and vitamins are sold and are inexpensive. L-Tryptophan is not FDA approved like most natural supplements though.
Summary: Tryptophan is a precursor to the sleep inducing compounds and is found in small amounts in all protein food. Tryptophan supplements provide extra doses of this sleep inducing amino acids that help counter sleep disturbances.
11. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba is an herb that is often praised for its beneficial effects on cognition and memory. Its positive effect on the quality and efficiency of sleep has been known for ages. Ginkgo biloba extract is made from dried leaves of the ancient ginkgo tree. Evidence suggests taking 250 mg of Ginkgo biloba 30-60 minutes before bed may help reduce stress, enhance relaxation and promote sleep.
A 2001 pilot study published in Pharmacopsychiatry found that ginkgo improved sleep in depressed patients. The participants taking the extract showed significant improvement in their sleep patterns and woke up less frequently in the night. The researchers also noted that non REM sleep was enhanced in those who took the ginkgo extracts.
Ginkgo is generally considered safe and only has a few mild side effects such as headaches, dizziness and skin rashes. Such minor side effects usually vanish once your body gets used to the supplement.
Summary: The therapeutic properties of the ginkgo plant are used in a wide variety of treatments ranging from blood disorders to the enhancement of cardiovascular function. It enhances the quality of sleep by reducing anxiety levels.
L-Theanine is an amino acid that is found in tea leaves. It was identified in the tea by Japanese scientists in 1949. L-Theanine in addition to tea is also found in some types of mushrooms. In foods, more so in green tea, L-Theanine is thought to be a source of umami, that gives out the savory, brothy taste.
L-Theanine promotes relaxation and facilitates sleep by contributing to a number of changes in the brain. It boosts levels of GABA and other calming brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. It lowers the level of “excitatory” brain chemicals. It enhances alpha brain waves which are associated with a state of “wakeful relaxation”.
One of the appealing aspects of L-Theanine is that it works to relax without sedating. That makes it a good choice for people who are looking to enhance their “wakeful relaxation” without getting worried about becoming sleepy and fatigued during the day.
For sleep, stress and other uses, 100 mg to 400 mg is recommended. In combination with caffeine, 12-100 mg L-Theanine, 30-100mg of caffeine is recommended. However, children, pregnant ladies, lactating mothers, people with low blood pressure and children shouldn’t consume before consulting a doctor.
Summary: L-Theanine helps people fall asleep quickly and easily by relaxing the mind and lowering anxiety. It boosts the GABA levels and lowers excitatory brain chemicals.
13. California Poppy
California poppy is the state flower of California and the part that grows above the ground is used for medicine. Scientifically termed as Eschscholzia californica Cham, it contains a variety of natural compounds including several alkaloids that are exclusively found in this plant.
Because of the sedative, anxiolytic, and analgesic effects, California poppy is currently sold in pharmacies in many countries. These effects have been due to protopine and allocryptopine, which are alkaloids and have a positive effect on GABA. This, in turn, helps relaxation and sleep.
California poppy is used for treating sleep problems such as insomnia, body aches, nervous agitation, bed-wetting in children, as well as, diseases of the bladder and liver. More studies need to be done in this field to scientifically approve of this age-old plant.
Summary: California poppy works as a natural sedative by decreasing sleep latency and blocking adrenergic receptors. The alkaloids in California poppy work as the stimulator to the neurotransmitter GABA thereby inducing sleep.
14. Kava Kava
Kava, also known as kava-kava, is a member of the nightshade family of plants and native to the South Pacific Islands. Pacific islanders have been using it as a ceremonial drink to promote relaxation for a hundred years.
Its active ingredients are called kavalactones, which account for 3-20 % of the dry weight of the root of the plant. It is largely unknown how kavalactones produce these effects, but they appear to work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain one of which is the GABA. This then decreases the activity of nerves. In a study, on sleep-deprived rats, kava extract did bring a positive effect on the sleep-wake cycle.
Summary: Kava kava induces sleep due to its anxiolytic effects. It is often used as an alternative therapy for sleep disorders.
15. St.John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a perennial flowering plant native to many parts of Europe and the U.S.
Scientifically called Hypericum perforatum it is a long-living, wild-growing plant with yellow flowers. Extracts of this plant have been used for centuries to treat mental disorders as well as nerve pain.
From ancient times, doctors and herbalists have mentioned its use as a sedative and in the treatment for malaria. It’s also been used as a balm for wounds, burns, and insect bites.
Today, St. John’s wort is used for treating mild to moderate depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders. St. John’s wort remains among the top-selling botanical products in the United States and many brands are now available and sold over the counter as dietary supplements.
The mechanism of action in St. John’s Wort, aka Hypericum, remains elusive, but most studies indicate a number of compounds in the plant that can play a significant role as antidepressants as well as sleep aids.
It stimulates the GABA receptor, which is a key gateway for sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain. It also provides stimulus in the brain to produce serotonin or limit serotonin reuptake which works in a similar fashion to some of the anti-depressants that are available in the market. It comes in a variety of supplemental or dietary forms.
Summary: St. John’s Wort acts as a sedative by stimulating the GABA receptor and by producing serotonin or limit serotonin reuptake like some of the common antidepressants.
The Final Note
Sleep is a biological process that is essential for life and optimal health. Normal healthy sleep is characterized by sufficient duration, good quality, appropriate timing and regularity, and the absence of sleep disturbances and disorder
Lifestyle and environmental factors, psychosocial issues, and medical conditions all contribute to sleep problems. Even though the change in lifestyle and a positive environment helps combat sleeping disorder, sometimes it isn’t enough.
There are many natural herbs and foods that you can include in your diet that helps relax your body and mind. Many of them help boost levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin which is the precursor to melatonin. You can consider taking melatonin supplements or any of the above mentioned natural sleep aids to help overcome your sleep trouble.
All of these natural ingredients are available as dietary supplements, individually or as multi-herb sleep aid formulas, on shopping platforms such as Amazon. Please do consult a doctor before using them, especially if you are using any other medications.
Getting better quality sleep and resetting a healthy circadian rhythm ensures a positive effect on your health and in your life. A healthy sleep routine helps you feel rested and relaxed while offering you more energy to do your daily tasks.