The number of people suffering from sleep loss has increased over the last year and a half, and there’s even a name for it: coronasomnia. For many people, however, sleep difficulties were a problem long before the pandemic. As we return to work and school and adjust to our “new normal,” it’s likely that 30%-35% of the population will continue to experience short-term insomnia.
Although roughly nine million Americans — many of them older adults — took prescription sleep aids even before COVID-19, there is growing interest in natural sleep aids that offer a better night’s sleep with fewer side effects or dependency concerns than prescription medicines. Natural sleep aids are usually available without a prescription and may be plant- or mineral-based.
The catch? The FDA does not regulate these over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids, and the word “natural” isn’t defined by the government — therefore, it can mean just about anything that a company’s marketing team wants it to mean. Just because something claims to be natural doesn’t mean it is either safe or effective. In this article, we’ll look at a wide range of natural sleep remedies and help you figure out if they’re a good fit for your own sleep needs.
What Are Natural Sleep Aids?
There is no universally accepted clinical definition of a natural sleep aid. Generally, they have the following characteristics:
- They are sold over-the-counter, without the need for a prescription.
- They are made of natural elements such as plants and minerals, rather than being composed in a lab or synthetically derived. They may also be a substance that is already present in our bodies, such as melatonin.
- Some studies show that they offer fewer side effects than prescription remedies.
- They tend to be slower-acting than prescription remedies.
Natural sleeping aids are considered a good option for those who don’t want to take prescription medicine for their sleep problems. There is, in fact, evidence that sleeping pills may not work all that well for everyone, and some are concerned about the possibility of dependency. All this makes natural sleep aids an appealing choice.
However, before you consider any sort of sleeping aid, it pays to think about your sleep hygiene first. Are you giving your body the best support you can so that it is able to rest at night? Be sure your bedroom is set up for sleep: It should be dark, with good ventilation and the best quality mattress, blankets, and pillow you can afford.
Set yourself up for a good night’s sleep by limiting electronic use before bedtime and keeping naps to a minimum during the day. If you don’t already have an exercise program in place, consider adding 30 minutes of physical activity to your day. Aim to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day — even on weekends. All this will help your body to rest peacefully.
Common Natural Sleep Aids
Melatonin is a substance that your body makes naturally. It signals to your brain when it’s time to go to bed or to get up. “In terms of regulating your circadian rhythm or internal clock, it’s hard to beat melatonin,” says Heather Hanks, MS CAM, a medical advisor with Medical Solutions BCN.
Melatonin seems to work best when taken for occasional insomnia. People experiencing jet lag, for example, may find relief by taking one to three milligrams about two hours before bedtime. This helps your body to realign its circadian rhythm to the new time zone and minimize jet lag.
Melatonin can also help you to get to sleep more quickly if you have a history of tossing and turning when you go to bed. “Melatonin seems to shorten the time it takes individuals to fall asleep (known as sleep latency) while also increasing overall sleep duration,” says Zaakir Kayani, a medical writer and nutritionist with healthcreeds.com.
Is Melatonin Right For Your Needs?
Melatonin is best kept for short-term use. Side effects that you may experience include headache, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness. Melatonin may also interact with some prescription medications, including contraceptives and diabetes medications, so it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before taking melatonin.
Valeriana officinalis is a grassland plant that grows wild in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. It is available in capsule form and can also be purchased dried to be made into a tea or as an extract to be mixed with water or juice.
Valerian root has been used to ease insomnia and anxiety since the second century A.D., and it has a long anecdotal history of effectiveness. Only recently have these claims been supported by scientific research, however.
Studies indicate that valerian root is a safe and effective herb for promoting sleep and preventing sleep disorders. Some research shows that its most effective use is by menopausal and post-menopausal women, who may suffer from sleep disorders at a higher rate than the general population.
Valerian root is often used in conjunction with other herbal remedies such as lemon balm and hops to ease the symptoms of insomnia. It’s worth noting, however, that it takes about a month before users see any positive outcomes from its use.
Is Valerian Root Right for Your Needs?
Valerian is considered a fairly safe herbal remedy, with few side effects. Some individuals report dizziness, stomach problems, or, ironically, sleeplessness. It’s best to avoid it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, and there has been little research done on the effects of valerian root on children under three. You should also not take valerian root if you have liver disease.
The soothing scent of lavender has long been used as an aid to relaxation. This common woody perennial is found in countless gardens in the U.S. and across the globe, and its leaves and flowers are believed to induce calmness, boost memory, relieve pain, and act as a protective agent. It’s one of the few sleep aids (along with chamomile) that is easy for individuals to grow and process themselves.
There is some evidence that lavender does have therapeutic efficacy when dealing with diseases of the nervous system, as well as anxiety disorders, depression, and mild insomnia — all with few side effects.
Treatments may include ingesting a lavender preparation or even just exposing yourself to the scent of lavender. “Smelling lavender oil before bedtime may be sufficient to enhance sleep quality,” says Dr. Mubashar Rehman of HealthCreeds.com. “This impact seems to be more significant in those with moderate insomnia, particularly women and young people.”
Is Lavender Right for Your Needs?
Recommendations for the use of lavender oil include installing an essential oil diffuser in your bedroom or placing a few drops of lavender oil on the collar of your nightshirt or edge of your pillow. This should have the same effect as a mild sedative, promoting deep sleep and increased refreshment in the morning, without subjecting the user to the side effects that a sleeping pill might engender.
One of the more controversial natural sleep aids, cannabidiol has only been legal at the federal level since 2018, and it is not legal to purchase for use as a dietary supplement. CBD is a naturally occurring compound in marijuana that is available as an oral solution, spray, oil, topical solutions, or as an edible. CBD is extracted from marijuana or hemp, a plant in the marijuana family that is very high in CBD, but low levels of THC (the psychoactive component that produces a high).
“Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t give you that feeling of being high,” says Elizabeth Crassus of 420expertadviser.com. “It only gives you the relaxation and stress-reducing effects, which is why it works great as a sleeping aid.”
CBD helps you sleep by interacting with receptors in the nervous system that cause you to relax, making it easier for you to get to sleep and stay asleep. It can also help control pain in those with chronic conditions so that they are better able to sleep. Keep in mind, however, that CBD extracted from cannabis may have a small amount of THC that can cause a positive drug test. To avoid the risk, look for CBD extracted from hemp.
Is Cannabidiol (CBD) Right for Your Needs?
There is still much that scientists don’t understand about how CBD interacts with the body, and new studies have begun since its legalization to explore short- and long-term effects on those who take it. Side effects that have been noted to date include dry mouth, diarrhea, reduced appetite, drowsiness, and fatigue. Check with your doctor before using, as it can also interact with other medications.
Chamomile tea is an age-old remedy for sleeplessness — the kind of remedy your grandmother might have given you back when you were young. But is there truth behind the claims? There may be.
Chamomile contains apigenin, which is an antioxidant that can help you maintain a sense of calm. It binds with benzodiazepine brain receptors, which slow the brain down and initiate sleep. While research is ongoing, there is evidence that chamomile is both effective and safe when you are looking for a way to improve the quality of your sleep.
Is Chamomile Right for Your Needs?
If chamomile tea doesn’t sound appealing to you, it is also sold in capsule form, as a bath salt, tincture, and in other forms. If you wish to try a homemade tea that you’ve grown yourself, you’ll want to plant German chamomile, or Matricaria chamomilla. To brew a tea, mix 1 tablespoon of the flowers with a cup of boiling water and allow it to steep for several minutes.
Passionflower boasts a spectacular purple flower that blooms in semi-tropical environments, and may be found in gardens in the southern U.S. Its efficacy as a sleep aid is questioned in some circles, and studies have mostly looked at the plant’s effect on animals, rather than humans.
There is not much evidence available that indicates it helps you fall asleep. One clinical trial, however, indicated that those who consumed a cup of passionflower tea before bedtime experienced an improved quality of sleep, suggesting that the tea might be a good choice for those who sleep lightly or wake up repeatedly at night.
Another study indicated that passionflower might be more effective when used in conjunction with another natural sleep aid, such as valerian root. In addition to its formulation as a tea, passionflower is also available in capsule form and as an essential oil, tincture, or extract.
Is Passionflower Right for Your Needs?
Possible side effects of passionflower use are minimal, and include drowsiness, dizziness, or confusion. It is best to take it in small doses, especially at first, so that you can monitor its effect on you.
Magnesium is a nutrient that serves multiple purposes in the body. It helps maintain your immune system and regulates muscle function, among other tasks. There is also evidence it plays a role in sleep.
“It’s just such a powerful cellular healing mineral,” says Nadia Charif, RD, a registered dietitian and health advisor at Coffeeble who faced insomnia herself. “Taking it at bed sets full-body restoration into motion. It also sets one’s GI tract into motion the next morning, which is a real plus.”
Nutritionist Lisa Richards, author of “The Candida Diet,” agrees. “Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant which can help the body and mind wind down before going to sleep,” she says. If you don’t wish to take magnesium as a supplement, Richards suggests eating foods such as avocados, nuts, and tofu, which are high in the mineral.
Is Magnesium Right for Your Needs?
Magnesium has been studied more than some other natural supplements, and we know more about how it impacts sleep: by regulating and activating parasympathetic hormones and neurotransmitters that help the brain relax and become ready for sleep. Since magnesium is connected to so many bodily functions, it can also help improve other conditions that might impact sleep, such as digestive disorders.
Although most OTC natural sleep aids have few side effects, it’s never a bad idea to ask your doctor before you start taking one. This is especially true if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you take medication for another chronic condition. If you do experience side effects, stop taking the supplement until you can check with a medical professional to see if it’s worth continuing.
Avoid taking any natural supplements if you have been drinking alcohol, as this may exacerbate side effects. Since all our suggested supplements cause you to relax and feel drowsy, you should not take them before driving or operating heavy equipment.
As is true of all natural supplements, it’s best not to expect instant results from natural sleep aids. You may need to take an aid for a month or more before you experience any benefit. Natural sleep aids tend to be slow-acting, unlike prescription medication that has an impact within minutes.
Finally, remember that these are not long-term solutions to sleep problems. If you experience significant, chronic sleep distress, you should consult your doctor before starting any course of medicine, even if it is natural. Taking melatonin or magnesium once in a while to combat jet lag is one thing; but if your insomnia has no obvious cause, there may be a reason for it that will require medical intervention to discover.
Find the Right Solution
Seeking help for sleeping issues isn’t a sign of weakness or admission of failure. If you are having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, or if you don’t feel rested when you wake up, it could be a sign of an underlying illness, or it could just be a reaction to an outside influence — such as an all-night study session or a plane trip through several time zones.
If your sleep challenges seem to have settled in for the long term, it’s time to make an appointment with your primary care physician. Natural sleep aids can help you get over a rough patch, but they aren’t intended to handle a chronic condition. If that’s the case, seeing a doctor is the first step in once again being able to sleep deeply and soundly through the night, and waking up well-rested and ready to face the day.
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