Last Update: May 19, 2023
If you’re the type of person who tosses and turns just about every night, you may be searching for a magic pill to end your nighttime struggle. There are plenty of supplements that promise better sleep, but do they work? And more importantly, are they good for you?
We spoke to Christina Kang, a Health Coach at Parsley Health who takes a special interest in all things sleep health, to find some answers to our most pressing natural sleep aid questions — and get some pointers on improving your nighttime routine.
Likely the most common natural sleep supplement of all is melatonin, a well-known supplement that comes in convenient forms ranging from gummies to powders to capsules. But for some, melatonin has some pretty unpleasant side effects, which include things like nausea, headaches, and next-day brain fog.
Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the human body that is connected to sleep. The brain releases melatonin in increasing amounts as the day turns to night, signaling to your body that it’s time to sleep.
Melatonin supplements are typically produced in a lab and supplement the amount of melatonin that occurs naturally in your body, which decreases as you age. These supplements can also be used to treat sleep disorders like insomnia. While many sleep aids actually cause you to feel drowsy or prolong sleep, melatonin “dims or shuts down the body’s ‘day’ functions, like decreasing cortisol and slowing respiration,” Kang explains. “Melatonin is kind of like the official holding the gun at the starting line of a race,” Kang says, “It organizes and starts the race, but isn’t a runner in the race,” [She credits this analogy to Dr. Matthew Walker, best-selling author of Why We Sleep]
“We don’t have concrete data regarding long-term use of melatonin, but short-term use has generally been deemed safe,” she explains. Habituation or dependency is not typically a concern with short-term melatonin use (as it often is with things like prescription sleep aids), but Kang says there are still the occasional side effects, like headaches, dizziness, or even extremely vivid dreams. According to Kang, it’s all about what’s right for your body.
If you’re going to take melatonin, Kang suggests choosing a high-quality, trusted brand. “Since supplements are poorly regulated, you often don’t know what you’re getting,” she says. She cites a study stating that the content of more than 70% of melatonin supplements varied widely from their label claims, ranging from 83% less than the amount listed to 478% more. Kang also says that there have been “cases of variability within the same brand across batches”, which is why it’s so important to buy your melatonin from a trusted source.
When it comes to melatonin dosage, “Less is more,” Kang advises. “Start as low as 0.3 mg, though that amount is hard to find. If you have a 1 mg lozenge, you can quarter it. Some studies say a microdose [of melatonin] should be taken several hours before bed, but most recommendations say 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.” She also recommends starting out under the supervision of a clinician.
For some people, melatonin just doesn’t work — maybe it’s not effective, or maybe it causes too many unpleasant side effects. If you’d like to incorporate a natural sleep supplement that isn’t melatonin into your routine, Kang shared some insight into five common alternatives.
What is it? Cannabidiol (or CBD) is a phytocannabinoid in cannabis plants. “There’s not enough data yet on CBD as a sleep aid,” Kang explains, “But the data is more promising than THC.” She says this is because of a few differences between the two, such as fewer dependency issues and less impact on your REM state. “CBD may lower your core body temperature and reduce anxiety by pushing a parasympathetic state,” Kang explains, which makes it a good option as a gentle aid to help lull you to sleep.
How can you take it? Nowadays, you can find CBD in nearly every form — though Kang says it’s more about the quality than the delivery method. She also recommends a trial-and-error approach to finding the right dose of CBD for sleep. “[CBD] requires a Goldilocks amount for dosing; too little has no effect, while higher doses could be detrimental to sleep,” she says. “Ask a trusted doctor if you want to incorporate CBD into your sleep routine.”
Try it: Winged CBD Gummies, Sleepy
What is it? Chamomile is a daisy-like plant that, when made into an herbal infusion, acts as a muscle relaxer, calms and soothes the nervous system, provides antioxidants, and may also help support immunity.
How can you take it? Chamomile is most commonly sold as a relaxing, mild-flavored tea. “But watch out — it’s a mild diuretic,” Kang warns. This could cause frequent bathroom breaks in the night, which may fragment sleep even more.
Try it: Thrive Market Chamomile Tea
What is it? Ashwagandha is a respected herb found across India and south Asia that is often used in traditional Indian Ayurveda. Ashwagandha is also an adaptogen, so it helps modulate cortisol levels and could reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to go from fully awake to asleep) and anxiety.
How can you take it? You can find ashwagandha in a variety of forms, including capsules, powders, and tinctures.
Try it: Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root
What is it? An essential mineral that is required by 300+ enzymes, including those involved in producing ATP, what Kang calls our “energy currency”. It plays a paramount role in maintaining healthy bones and cell membranes, and if you’re struggling to fall asleep, magnesium could help by regulating the neurotransmitters related to sleep.
How can you take it? You’ll commonly find magnesium in powder, capsule, and tincture forms, but Kang says that the type of magnesium is more important. “Not all magnesium is created equally!” she explains. There are many different variations of magnesium on the market, and each has its own uses and benefits.
Try it: Natural Vitality Natural Calm Sleep
What is it? Valerian root is an herb used in treating anxiety and insomnia, though more research is needed on its efficacy for both, Kang explains. It acts as a mild sleep aid, but it could cause side effects like nausea and abdominal cramping.
How can you take it? You’ll most commonly find valerian in capsule, tincture, or tea form. “For insomnia, studies have used between 400 mg and 900 mg of valerian up to two hours before bed,” Kang explains. As always, she recommends checking with your doctor if you’re taking other medications or worried about side effects.
Try it: Gaia Herbs Valerian Root
Aside from supplements, here are Kang’s best practices for finding a deep night’s sleep.
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