The Sleep Doctor’s Guide To Natural Sleep Aids

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The search for the best natural sleep aids has been around nearly as long as the search for a better night of sleep.

According to the United States Centers For Disease Control (CDC), around one-third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night. Many of those sleep-deprived people turn to medicine or natural sleep aids for help.

The list of natural sleep aids is long, from chamomile tea to hormones like melatonin and neurotransmitters like GABA. Fortunately, we’re compiling a much shorter list of the most effective natural sleep aids for you to try.Likely, you’ll find the right sleep aid, or combination of sleep aids, from this list to help you get a great night of sleep

Difference Between Natural Sleep Aids, Prescription Sleeping Pills And Over The Counter Sleep Aids

Natural Sleep Aids

Natural sleep aids are often taken as a form of dietary supplementation. They may include a combination of ingredients derived from naturally occurring plants or substances like Valerian root, Magnesium, Cannabinol, Passionflower, and Chamomile. 

Some sleep inducing substances like Tryptophan act as a sleep aid by helping the body produce melatonin and serotonin for sleep, and are naturally occurring in food like Turkey. Natural sleep aids are generally very effective and non-habit forming when taken in the suggested dosages.

Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills are chemical compounds formulated into, most often, prescription medications designed to treat medically diagnosed insomnia while under the care of a physician. The drugs, commonly known as hypnotic or soporific drugs are psychoactive drugs whose primary purpose is to induce sleep. 

Common brand names of sleeping pills include: 

  • Ambien™
  • Lunestra™
  • Halcion™
  • Restoril

These drugs require a prescription by a physician and many in this class of drug carry a risk of addiction. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a number of FDA safety communications around the use of prescription sleep medication.

Over The Counter (OTC) Sleep Aids

Over the counter sleep aids, also often called sleeping pills are sleep aids found in drug stores and supermarkets around the world. OTC sleep aids are often used by people who experience bouts of sleeplessness. 

OTC sleep aids include: 

  • ZzzQuil
  • Unisom
  • TylenolPM
  • AdvilPM

Many OTC sleep aids contain antihistamines as the active ingredient to induce sleep. Others also contain pain relievers.

A common misconception about over the counter sleep aids is that they are harmless. In fact, taking sleep aids that include pain relievers as a substitute for a natural or doctor prescribed solution may have adverse side effects including liver damage.

If you are taking any other medications, check with your physician before taking any OTC sleep aids to learn about any potential drug interactions. 

If you are experiencing poor sleep, OTC sleep aids should only be considered a short term solution. 

What Is The Best Sleep Aid?

Before I answer that question, it is important to know that if you have difficulty sleeping on a regular basis you should speak to your doctor or seek help from a sleep specialist in determining the root cause of your sleep problems. 

If you have a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or symptoms of sleep apnea, it may require specific treatment and medication to fully address the underlying cause.

I don’t spend a lot of time talking about which sleeping pills you “should take” with clients or here on the website because I believe in a more functional medicine based approach that starts with determining the root cause of the issue and treating that first, not just the symptoms.

Let’s explore the best natural sleep aids a little more deeply before we tackle the question of which is the best natural sleep aid for you.

Natural Sleep Remedy Choices

I created and I’m constantly adding more information to a natural sleep aid supplement library that will help you understand the benefits of each natural remedy. This can help you choose and then test which natural sleep aid is right for you.

I’ve also written extensively about different types of naturally occurring compounds that may help you sleep better. Of course, if you are taking any medication, being treated for an illness, or suspect you may have an illness I recommend you speak with your physician before using any drug, natural supplement or OTC sleep aid. 

The Role of GABA In Sleep And In Natural Sleep Aids

Because many of the natural sleep aids we discuss below impact GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid, I strongly suggest reading my article called Understanding GAbA. It will help you better understand how GABA, a naturally occurring amino acid, acts as a neurotransmitter in your brain. When GABA protein binds with a GABA receptor in your brain it produces a calming effect. That calming mechanism can have a profound effect on how easily or well you sleep.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common natural remedies for sleep.

Melatonin

One of the questions I answer most frequently is: What is melatonin? Melatonin is a hormone produced endogenously by the pineal gland in your brain and it helps regulate sleep and your sleep/wake cycle often referred to as the circadian rhythm. 

Exogenous melatonin is produced synthetically and is most commonly seen in pill or capsule form when used as a sleep aid.  In low doses, melatonin is safe and there are few melatonin side effects.

How much melatonin should you take? Melatonin is often produced in a 5mg and 10mg dose but for most people that is simply too much. I recommend generally 1-3mg for anyone considering using melatonin for short term sleep problems or for treating jet lag. 

I don’t recommend giving children or teenagers melatonin without consultation with your physician or pediatrician.  There are a number of concerns around melatonin use with children including affecting how the ovaries and testes function. 

Magnesium

Many people are just learning that they can use magnesium for sleep

Magnesium is a mineral that is vital for a well functioning body. Many experts believe that Americans do not eat enough magnesium rich foods which may contribute to the need for taking supplemental magnesium for healthy body function and for sleep. In fact, a lack of magnesium can cause insomnia.

Magnesium binds to GABA receptors in the brain. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, blocks impulses between the nerves and the brain and helps calm the nervous system. 

Prescription drugs in the psychoactive drug class like Zolpidem marketed as Ambien and other names work by making GABA work better at its receptors throughout the brain.  The sleep produced by Ambien does not resemble natural sleep as it produces lower power in the brain waves that occur when we sleep.

Magnesium helps you relax through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that helps you feel calm. Current research shows that

magnesium can help regulate sleep and may increase melatonin levels.

For a more detailed discussion, read my blog post called Magnesium: How It Affects Your Sleep. You’ll also find many articles on magnesium and sleep on my blog.

Valerian Root

Valeriana officinalis or Valerian, the name most people are familiar with, is an herb found in Europe and Asia. Valerian is commonly used to help people suffering from sleep issues and anxiety.

Valerian on its own or when combined with hops has been shown in numerous studies to be effective in treating many sleep challenges. In my article Understanding Valerian and Hops, I cover some of the most common reasons people use valerian, including difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep and waking feeling unrested or unrefreshed. 

Many women experiencing menopause find sleeping difficult and often find relief from valerian which also has additional benefits for menopausal women. 

People who experience Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) may experience a reduction in sleeplessness related to RLS when taking valerian.

People regularly ask the difference between valerian and melatonin as a sleep aid. To determine which will be most effective you have to first understand the difference between sleep drive and sleep rhythm.  

Sleep drive refers to our body’s need to manage the sleep and wakefulness states. Sleep rhythm is our circadian rhythm and is driven by light and dark cycles of day and night. Our pineal gland produces melatonin during the darkness portion of our sleep rhythm and turns off production when exposed to light. 

The article linked earlier in this section will give you a very detailed understanding of the difference between valerian and melatonin. You’ll discover how to determine when to use,  and which to use (sometimes you’ll need both), in addition to what melatonin dose or valerian dose to take.

L-Theanine

L-Theanine is an amino acid found in both black and green tea leaves and some mushrooms, that when taken as a sleep supplement helps improve sleep, focus, and calm. L-Theanine  research has demonstrated in humans that doses of 250-400mg improve sleep.

In my article Understanding L-Theanine: Sleep Better At Night – Feel Relaxed And Alert During The Day I explain in detail how L-Theanine works to improve sleep and alertness, I strongly recommend reading it to get a deeper understanding of this very powerful tool in your natural sleep toolkit. 

L-Theanine works by boosting GABA and other calming brain chemicals, it also reduces excitatory brain chemicals and enhances Alpha brain waves. Alpha brain waves are the “wakeful relaxation” brain waves. 

One of the best things about L-Theanine is that there are no direct or confirmed side effects from taking L-Theanine. 

Research shows that L-Theanine also improves focus and attention in as little as thirty minutes.

5-HTP

Another compound occurring naturally in the body is 5-HTP or 5-Hydroxytryptophan. Yet 5-HTP appears to decline as we age. It is also naturally occurring in nature in a West African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia.

5-HTP works to improve sleep by assisting in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the sleep cycle and mood. 5-HTP can help improve and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety which may lead to better sleep. It can also reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep while increasing the amount of sleep you get each night. 

As a side note, it has also been shown to be effective in reducing night terrors in children and symptoms related to fibromyalgia which often make sleep difficult for its sufferers. 

Learn more about how 5-HTP may improve relaxation, improve sleep, and support your biological clock.

Cannabidiol

Cannabidiol or CBD is derived from the cannabis or hemp plant. People are most familiar with THC, the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that gets you “high.” CBD is a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that contains many of the same medicinal properties. It is important to note that CBD is not “weed” or marijuana. 

I explain CBD and its benefits in an article that explores understanding CBD for sleep

CBD has demonstrated in numerous studies that it reduces anxiety, a leading cause of sleeplessness. It has also been shown to reduce insomnia for people who suffer from chronic pain.

For an even more up to date look at the benefits of cannabinoids on sleep read this article for The Newest Science On The Sleep and Health Benefits of CBD

There are other cannabinoids that are beneficial to sleep and they include CBN for sleep and CBG. 

Cannabis For Sleep

Of course as cannabis becomes recreationally legal and medically legal in more states, people are turning to cannabis as a sleep aid as well. 

Using cannabis can be a legitimate tool for sleep, anxiety, stress, and pain but understanding its use and contraindications are important. Just smoking cannabis or consuming a cannabis edible will not guarantee a good night of sleep. There is a big difference between going to sleep and passing out.

If you are thinking of using cannabis for sleep, here are some things to know.

Other Natural Sleep Supplements And Sleep Aids

I have covered the most widely recognized and well-studied sleep aids available, yet there are many other natural supplements that may be beneficial as sleep aids. I’ll be covering more natural sleep substances in the future and will update this guide as I do. So that brings us to the big question …

What Is The Best Natural Sleep Aid?

This will feel a bit like a cop out, but it depends on what your sleep issue is, and for most people it is a combination of constituents not just a single supplement. 

For natural sleep aids I break down sleeplessness, which most people refer to as insomnia,  into two parts. The first part impacts people who want to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. The second part impacts people who wake up in the middle of the night or often and want to fall back to sleep.

Because these two challenges are experienced occasionally by nearly everyone and often by many, I created what I believe to be the best all natural sleep aid for both of those conditions. It is called

Sleep Doctor PM.

Sleep Doctor PM comes in two formulas. The first formula is for the beginning of the night called Nighttime,The second formula is called Middle of the Night and is for people who wake up in the middle of the night but need to go back to sleep and wake up feeling rested and not groggy.

Each formula is uniquely formulated to help you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. The beginning of the night formula also contains melatonin to help support your bio-rhythms. 

While all natural sleep aids support sleep, it is very important to choose something that addresses a broader array of issues but most importantly it should help you get a better night of sleep. 

If you’d like to continue your search for the best natural sleep supplement, read my picks for the

10 Most Effective Natural Sleep Aids or dive deep into all my articles about natural sleep aids.