Natural Sleep Aids: Which Ones Really Improve Sleep?
Finding it difficult to fall asleep?
Sleep deprivation can lead to a variety of negative effects, from cognitive issues such as a poor memory and difficulty concentrating to physiological effects such as overly high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and an increased risk of developing heart disease.
There are many different ways to confront sleep issues. If you don’t like the idea of prescription medications and don’t necessarily have the time to start exercising during the day or switch up your night time routine, natural sleep aids may be an alternative worth looking into.
Most natural sleep aids contain certain herbs, while others contain naturally-occuring hormones that are linked to better sleep. They look and sound effective, but do they actually work to make it easier for you to fall asleep?
Below, we’ve dug into the scientific evidence for 10 of the most common natural sleep aids, from well known supplements such as melatonin and valerian root to a variety of herbal products that are commonly marketed as helping to improve sleep.
Read on to see our findings, as well as our thoughts on which natural sleep aids are backed up by real, reputable scientific evidence.
Melatonin is one of the most well known and widely used sleep-promoting supplements on the market. A hormone produced naturally by your body in the pineal gland, melatonin’s role in the body is to regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
Over the course of the day, your body regulates its production of melatonin. As the sun starts to set and it becomes darker, your body’s production of melatonin increases, with melatonin levels typically peaking at around 3 to 4 AM.
As you may already know, this increase in melatonin is one of several factors that causes you to feel tired late at night. Melatonin is also linked to other bodily changes related to sleep, including a decline in your core body temperature.
These functions have led to melatonin earning the nickname of the “sleep hormone.”
In 1958, scientists isolated melatonin from the pineal gland, making it possible to use melatonin on its own.
Due to melatonin’s popularity, it’s been studied quite extensively, with most study data showing that it can, and often does, improve sleep.
In a 2016 study, 50 people with primary insomnia received either a 3mg dose of melatonin or a non-therapeutic placebo nightly at 7 PM for 14 days. The participants were asked to answer an Athens insomnia scale (AIS) questionnaire at one, seven and 14 days into the study.
Over the course of the study, the group that used melatonin showed a “significant improvement” in AIS scores compared to the placebo group. These improvements grew over the course of the study, with patients reporting better sleep after using melatonin for two weeks.
A similar study, also from 2016, looked at melatonin’s effects on sleep in patients with breast cancer. The researchers found that melatonin was associated with significant improvements in sleep quality, quantity and fragmentation, as well as general quality of life.
Analysis of studies of melatonin appears to confirm these findings, with a 2013 meta-analysis noting that melatonin “decreases sleep onset latency, increases total sleep time and improves overall sleep quality.”
Interestingly, a 2019 study of hospital patients with insomnia found that melatonin was equally as effective as zolpidem (the active ingredient in Ambien, a widely-used prescription sedative) for treating insomnia.
Before you replace your prescription sleep medicine with melatonin, it’s important to note that this study was very short (it only involved one night of sleep), with additional research needed before the results can be confirmed.
With this said, not every study of melatonin has shown that it improves sleep. In a 2003 study, the researchers noted that melatonin “did not produce any sleep benefit.” A study of melatonin for people with Alzheimer’s disease also found that it didn’t lead to any sleep-related benefits.
In short, most studies of melatonin show that it appears to work well as a natural treatment for insomnia, albeit with some degree of variation in effectiveness between people.
An herbal treatment for insomnia, valerian root is one of the most popular natural sleep aids on the market. If you check the labels for sleep supplements in your local pharmacy, you’ll likely see valerian listed often as an ingredient.
Recently, valerian essential oil has been promoted online as a natural treatment for everything from insomnia to headaches, nervousness and anxiety.
Valerian itself is an herb native to certain parts of Europe and Asia. While anecdotal evidence for its purported sleep-promoting effects is widespread, the evidence from scientific studies is mixed.
For example, in a 2005 study, researchers compared valerian and kava (a traditional medicine used to treat insomnia in the Pacific islands) to a non-therapeutic placebo to see which offered the best benefits as a natural sleep aid.
After four weeks of use by 391 participants, the researchers concluded that neither valerian nor kava were more effective at relieving anxiety or insomnia than the placebo.
Another study from 2004 found that there was no significant difference in the effects of valerian and a placebo on sleep in sleep-disturbed adults. However, it’s worth noting that this study was very small, with only 16 participants.
On the other hand, a study from 2000 showed that valerian outperformed a placebo as a sleep aid for patients with psychophysiological insomnia. In this study, patients that used valerian fell asleep an average of 15 minutes faster than those who didn’t (45 mins vs. 60 for placebo).
Finally, a 2006 systematic review, which featured all three of the studies above, concluded that valerian may improve sleep quality. However, it noted that methodologic problems of studies of valerian make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions on its effects.
In simple terms, the jury is still out on whether valerian works as a treatment for insomnia. While some studies show that it works, others show little to no improvements in sleep compared to the use of a non-therapeutic placebo.
Chamomile is another extremely popular herbal sleep aid that’s widely used to treat jet lag and difficulty sleeping. Like valerian root, chamomile is very easy to find — just check the tea section of your local health foods and you’ll find countless sleep-promoting chamomile teas.
The sleep promoting properties of chamomile are thought to stem from its high level of apigenin, a bioflavonoid that may bind to the body’s benzodiazepine receptors.
Just like with other herbal remedies for sleep, the scientific evidence to support chamomile tea is promising but mixed.
In a 2017 study, 60 people aged 60 and older were either given 200mg of chamomile extract or a non-therapeutic wheat flour extract capsule twice per day for 28 days.
Their sleep quality was assessed using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index before the study, as well as two weeks after the beginning of the study, immediately after the study period finished, and two weeks after its completion.
At baseline, the two groups showed similar levels of sleep quality. However, after treatment with the chamomile extract for 28 days, the group that received chamomile extract had a significantly higher level of sleep quality than the control group.
The researchers concluded that chamomile extract can “significantly improve sleep quality” for the elderly.
A 2015 study of postnatal women published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing also found that chamomile tea may help to improve sleep quality.
In the study, postnatal women received either regular postnatal care, or regular care in addition to chamomile tea. After two weeks of treatment, the group given chamomile tea showed lower levels of physical-symptoms-related sleep inefficiency.
However, it’s worth noting that the scores were similar four weeks after the test ended, signalling that chamomile tea’s effects on sleep might only occur in the short term.
A 2009 study of chamomile extract found that it may have anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) activity in people with generalised anxiety disorder, which, according to Harvard Health Publishing, can be closely linked with sleep problems.
On the other hand, a 2011 study of 34 people aged 18 to 65 found that there were no significant differences in sleep quality, sleep time, sleep efficiency or nighttime awakenings between those who used chamomile and those who received a non-therapeutic placebo.
Like with valerian, the evidence for chamomile is mixed. While many studies show measurable improvements in sleep quality, others either show small improvements or no change in people’s sleep habits after using chamomile.
Commonly sold as passiflora incarnata, passionflower is another herb that’s used as a natural treatment for sleep and anxiety.
Right now, research into passionflower’s effects on sleep is still in the early stages. However, numerous studies of passionflower have shown an improvement in sleep quality and insomnia symptoms.
In a 2017 study published in Sleep Science, researchers administered passiflora incarnata to a group of adult wistar rats.
After analyzing cerebral, ocular and muscular activity, the researchers concluded that passiflora incarnata induced an increase in total sleep time. However, it also reduced the amount of time spent in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
In a study from 2011, researchers provided 41 patients with a tea containing passionflower or a non-therapeutic placebo for seven days. The study participants were asked to report their sleep habits in a sleep diary and complete a psychological anxiety inventory on the seventh day.
After analyzing the sleep diary data, the researchers found that the patients who consumed the passionflower tea provided higher sleep quality ratings than those who used the placebo.
A study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology even found that passionflower, in combination with valerian and hops, performed as well as a 10mg dosage of zolpidem (Ambien) in improving sleep time, sleep latency and nighttime awakenings in people with insomnia.
In short, while there isn’t a lot of research on passionflower’s benefits for sleep, existing studies appear to show that it may be able to help increase total sleep time and improve some insomnia symptoms.
L-5 hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
L-5 hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a natural chemical that’s produced by the body. Although it’s not an herbal sleep aid, it’s widely sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food stores as an over-the-counter alternative to prescription sleeping pills.
Your body uses 5-HTP as a precursor to serotonin — an important neurotransmitter that helps to regulate everything from your mood and appetite to your desire to sleep.
Like with other natural supplements, data on the link between 5-HTP and sleep conditions such as insomnia is limited. However, there are several animal studies that have looked at its effects on the brain, and particularly on sleep patterns.
Researchers in one study treated sleepless ICR mice and Sprague-Dawley rats with a mix of 5-HTP and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The animals had been kept awake via administration of caffeine, putting them in a state of stimulant-induced sleepless.
The researchers found that the combination of GABA and 5-HTP significantly increased the total sleeping time of the mice. The study concluded that, taken together, GABA and 5-HTP might be an effective treatment for patients with insomnia.
In a 2010 study, a group of 18 human patients with sleep disorders used either a combination of GABA and 5-HTP or a placebo, with their nervous system and heart function monitored over 24 hours using electrocardiography.
The researchers found that the patients who received the combination of GABA and 5-HTP fell asleep faster, slept for longer and demonstrated an improved quality of sleep compared to the patients in the placebo group.
While these studies are small in scope and don’t provide any conclusive evidence that 5-HTP is effective on its own as a sleep aid, they do show that 5-HTP may have potential as an option for people who find it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
It’s also important to know that 5-HTP can cause side effects, including unsafe increases in your serotonin levels when used with certain other medications. If you’re prescribed any medications that could affect your serotonin levels, make sure to talk to your doctor before using 5-HTP.
Lavender, both in capsule form and as an essential oil, is commonly marketed as a treatment for anxiety and insomnia. Many people believe that the scent of lavender alone is enough to make you feel tired and treat certain sleep disorders.
Like most natural sleep aids, the claims commonly made about lavender are supported by some scientific evidence, although the total amount of data is limited.
In one study, people with anxiety disorders were given either an 80mg of a lavender preparation or a non-therapeutic placebo for use daily. The patients were instructed to follow the treatments for 10 weeks, with regular tests using the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAMA) and Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI).
Following the treatment, patients that received the lavender-based preparation showed reduced HAMA scores, indicating a reduction in anxiety. The patients that received the placebo also saw a reduction in HAMA score, although by a smaller amount than the lavender group.
Likewise, the group that received the lavender preparation had a greater change in PSQI score than the placebo group, indicating that lavender may be an effective sleep aid.
Another study, this time from 2005, looked at the effects of lavender aromatherapy on quality of sleep in young men and women. 31 men and women aged from 18 and 30 took part in a series of three sleep sessions — one adaptation, followed by one stimulus and one control night.
During the second two nights of the test, the patients were exposed to either a scent of lavender oil or simple distilled water. Their sleep patterns were analysed using polysomnography, as well as a self-rated survey of their sleepiness and mood.
The researchers found that the patients exposed to lavender had a higher percentage of deep or slow-wave sleep. These patients also reported higher levels of vigor the morning after being exposed to the lavender scent, although the exact effects differed between men and women.
The study concluded that lavender serves as a mild sedative and could be an option for young people interested in improving deep sleep.
Ginkgo biloba is an herb extracted from the maidenhair tree — an ancient plant that’s native to China. It’s marketed as a natural supplement for everything from improving heart function and enhancing cognition to promoting relaxation, treating anxiety and improving sleep.
The science behind ginkgo biloba isn’t extensive, although there are a few studies that look at its potential effects on sleep.
In one study from 2001, researchers analyzed the polysomnogram data of 10 healthy patients after they used a ginkgo biloba extract supplement, then compared it to polysomnogram data gathered from the same people after a night’s sleep using a non-therapeutic placebo.
The researchers found that while there were no significant differences in sleep parameters, the ginkgo biloba supplement was well tolerated based on the participants’ subjective sleep quality reports.
Another study of depressed patients found that ginkgo biloba extract improved sleep efficiency and reduced the total number of nighttime awakenings. However, it’s important to note that the patients in this study also used trimipramine, an antidepressant, which may affect its findings.
In general, while the study data for ginkgo biloba certainly shows that it has potential, there just isn’t enough reliable evidence available to say that it’s effective as a natural sleep aid.
An amino acid found in green and black tea leaves, L-theanine is widely believed to contribute to deeper, more refreshing sleep. It’s commonly sold as an over-the-counter sleep aid, often as part of a combined formula with other herbs linked to faster, deeper sleep.
L-theanine is linked to an increase in your body’s production of GABA, serotonin and dopamine, all of which are believed to contribute to healthy sleep. Like other natural sleep aids, it’s backed up by a small but encouraging amount of scientific evidence.
In a 2019 study, researchers found that a mixture of L-theanine and GABA contributed to longer sleep and a decrease in sleep latency in rats.
A 2011 human study also found that L-theanine improved sleep efficiency and duration in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
On the other hand, a 2019 study found that L-theanine was no more effective than a placebo as a treatment for anxiety or insomnia in people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), although it was linked to improved self-reported sleep satisfaction.
Overall, the scientific evidence in favor of L-theanine is mixed. While some studies show that it improves sleep duration and efficiency, the findings from others are less clear.
The fourth most abundant mineral in the human body, magnesium is an essential component for a diverse range of bodily processes, including sleep.
Magnesium plays an important role in your sleep cycle by modulating the activity of GABA, one of several important neurotransmitters for optimal sleep. In fact, magnesium deficiency is linked directly to insomnia, along with a lengthy list of other health conditions.
Studies appear to show that use of a magnesium supplement is linked to improvements in sleep quality.
For example, a 2012 study looked at the use of magnesium supplements in the elderly — an age group that’s very prone to insomnia. The study involved 46 elderly people who were divided into two groups, with one receiving a 500mg magnesium supplement and the other a placebo.
The study participants were surveyed before and after the intervention period. According to the data provided by the participants, the magnesium group had a statistically significant increase in sleep time and sleep efficiency, as well as a reduction in sleep latency (time to fall asleep).
Blood samples collected from the participants also showed that people in the magnesium group had higher levels of melatonin — an important hormone for regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
A separate study from 2011 also found that use of a combination of melatonin, magnesium and zinc supplement contributed to improved quality of sleep, alertness and ease of getting to sleep in the elderly.
However, as this study involved more than just magnesium, it’s impossible to draw any specific conclusions about magnesium’s effectiveness from its findings.
Overall, magnesium’s effects on sleep appear to be backed up by a modest amount of scientific data. While it hasn’t been studied extensively, existing findings —as well as magnesium’s known role in sleep-related biological processes — mean that it certainly shows potential.
It’s extremely common to experience some level of difficulty falling and staying asleep. As we mentioned above, about a quarter of all Americans experience some level of insomnia every year, ranging from acute insomnia to persistent difficulty falling asleep.
If you find it difficult to fall asleep, the natural sleep aids listed above can often be a convenient, effective and safe alternative to prescription sleep medication.
However, they work best when they’re combined with a healthy lifestyle that promotes deep and restful sleep.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.