At some point in their lives, an estimated 50 percent of Americans will deal with a sleep disorder of some kind. This helps explain why by 2020, the United States is expected to spend a whopping $52 billion annually on sleep aids and remedies. That number includes both prescription sleep medication and over-the-counter sleep supplements. While prescription sleep aids are still holding their own, more and more people are pursuing natural sleep supplements in their quest for more and better sleep.
If you hit the interwebs to research sleep supplements, reddit and other community forums will be rife with suggestions about all kinds of “miracle” supplements. But it’s important to remember that there are no miracle cures for poor quality sleep. What’s more, there are potential downsides to utilizing even the most natural supplements.
So before you rush to the local vitamin shop in search of melatonin or kava kava, get the science-backed lowdown on sleep supplements first. Here’s an overview of the history of sleep supplements along with the uses and dosages of the most popular natural sleep aids—plus the pros and cons of using these supplements to promote better sleep.
Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning any new supplementation regimen.
The History of Sleep Supplements
While sleep supplements may have skyrocketed to popularity in recent years, they’re far from a new fad. In fact, people have utilized a variety of substances for the purposes of inducing sleep since ancient times. For example, smoked opium, a wide variety of herbs, and even alcohol were long thought to be natural cures for insomnia.
Once chemistry became a formal discipline, the science of sleep supplements rapidly advanced. Early chemical supplements included chloral hydrate, morphine, potassium bromide, and sodium bromide, all of which were utilized as sleep aids during the early days of chemistry.
By the first half of the 20th century, barbiturates had become the medical profession’s sedative drug of choice. They were frequently over-prescribed as sleep aids and anti-anxiety medications. These drugs came with a host of nasty side effects, including the potential for addiction and overdose. Today, barbiturates are primarily used by anesthesiologists.
The next sleep drug du jour was a class of drugs called benzodiazepines (which includes the anti-anxiety medication Valium). So-called “benzos” rapidly gained popularity in the 1960s. Because of their anti-anxiety effects, doctors frequently prescribed these drugs for insomnia.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first over-the-counter insomnia aids in the form of antihistamines. In the 1990s, new prescription drugs (colloquially dubbed “Z-drugs”) were released onto the market. They functioned much like benzodiazepines but had a different chemical structure. This class of sleep aids includes well-known brands such as Ambien and Sonata, which still dominate the sleep aids market.
The 2000s have witnessed the rise of still more prescription sleep aids as well as growing consumer interest in natural sleep supplements. Natural options such as melatonin, valerian root, and kava kava now taking up the bulk of shelving at vitamin shops and pharmacies across the country.
In fact, the introduction of natural options has tipped the scales in favor of over-the-counter sleep aids. More and more people are drawn to the accessibility, lower cost, and more limited side effects of over-the-counter, natural sleep supplements (as opposed to prescription sleep aids). The rate of melatonin use alone more than doubled in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012—a testament to the major role that natural sleep supplements now play in Americans’ lives.
The Most Common Sleep Supplements
If you’re looking to obtain better sleep via sleep supplements, natural options may be the way to go. These supplements tend to come with fewer side effects than prescription sleeping pills and are less likely to provoke dependency. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re safe to be used willy-nilly, and it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before changing your sleep and sleep supplementation routine. Here’s an inside look at some of the most popular sleep supplements around.
Otherwise known as 5 Hydroxy-Tryptophan, 5-HTP enjoyed a major surge in popularity about a decade ago. While it may not be the biggest name in the world of natural sleep supplements these days, 5-HTP is still pretty popular as a potential treatment for insomnia. (That being said, the research into HTP’s efficacy in this regard is mixed.) It also may assist in alleviating headaches, migraines, pain (such as fibromyalgia), and symptoms of anxiety and depression, all of which can further increase the likelihood of someone obtaining high-quality sleep.
How might 5-HTP supply these benefits? Research suggests it stimulates the production of serotonin, a chemical that has a major effect on the brain and central nervous system. In particular, serotonin is thought to affect sleep and relieve depression and pain sensations.
Source: 5-HTP is produced naturally in the body as a chemical byproduct of L-Tryptophan, a substance that helps build proteins. The 5-HTP used in supplements is often sourced from the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia, an African plant.
Dosage: Research has found that 5-HTP may be taken by mouth in daily doses of up to 400 mg for a duration of up to one year. Several studies have started the dosage at anywhere from 150 to 300 mg daily and then gradually increased those dosages up to 400 mg. Some sources recommend taking 100 to 300 mg approximately 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime in order to utilize 5-HTP as a sleep aid.
Some side effects have been observed with 5-HTP usage. Potential side effects include diarrhea, drowsiness, heartburn, muscle tenderness, nausea, stomach pain, sexual issues, and vomiting. These problems may become more severe when 5-HTP is taken in large doses; for example, doses of 6 to 10 grams daily have been associated with muscle spasms and severe stomach issues.
Common pairings: Some people choose to pair 5-HTP with GABA in order to increase its effectiveness. Several pairings should be avoided: 5-HTP has been shown to have negative interactions with antidepressants, Demerol, Lodosyn, MAOIs, Robitussin DM and other antihistamines, Talwin, and Ultram.
Chamomile is one of the most long-standing supplements in the history of sleep aids and has been in use for thousands of years. For this reason, it may be surprising to learn there are very few controlled trials that examine the efficacy of chamomile as a sleep aid.
The clinical research that does exist has not definitively proved chamomile’s effectiveness in this area. Some case studies do suggest chamomile may help induce sleep, but these studies are severely limited in scope. Other research suggests chamomile may help reduce anxiety and have a sedative effect, which could support better sleep. And one 2016 study found that new mothers who drank chamomile tea reported lower levels of depression and better sleep quality overall.
Source: Chamomile compounds are sourced from a number of plants, all of which are in the Asteraceae family. These plants are native to various parts of Europe.
Dosage: Chamomile may be used in the form of gelcaps, powders, tablets, or teas, and dosages very from product to product. One study utilized 270 mg of chamomile extract (which is much higher than what you’d find in a tea); that study didn’t find much evidence to suggest that chamomile was an effective sleep aid, even at such a high dose.
Common pairings: Some people choose to pair chamomile with other herbal or plant-based sleep aids, such as kava kava or valerian.
Like chamomile, kava kava extract has been utilized for its sedative, anti-anxiety, and antidepressant effects for thousands of years. The substance is thought to have some psychoactive effects that play off the body’s receptors for GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
These effects help explain why modern-day research suggests kava kava may indeed have anti-anxiety, stress-relieving, and antidepressant effects, all of which may help promote better sleep. Some research has also found that kava kava may help combat insomnia and have a sedative (read: sleep-inducing) effect, although clinically valid research in this area is sparse.
Source: Kava kava is derived from a plant (Piper methysticum) that is native to the Western Pacific.
Dosage: There’s some evidence that the daily ingestion of up to 300 mg of kava kava may be effective.
It should be noted that kava kava extract is restricted in the European Union because of concerns about a possible link to liver damage. There is also some evidence that it may negatively affect the central nervous system.
Common pairings: Some people choose to combine kava kava with other sedative herbs or plants (such as chamomile, lavender, passionflower, and valerian) for a heightened sedative effect. Kava kava may have negative interactions with some pharmaceutical drugs.
L-Theanine is an increasingly popular natural sleep supplement that is similar in structure to several neurotransmitters. It’s been shown to have relaxing, anti-anxiety, and stress-relieving effects, which may help explain why it’s commonly used as a sleep aid. However, research suggests it does not have an active sedative effect—but it does have a weak association with better sleep, especially among folks with ADHD.
Source: L-Theanine is a non-essential, non-dietary amino acid. It occurs naturally in tea leaves as well as some mushrooms and other foods. It can also be purchased in supplement form.
Dosage: It’s most commonly taken in a dosage of 100 to 200 mg.
Common pairings: Because it’s been shown to promote attention, L-Theanine is commonly paired with caffeine. Of course, this is not a smart pairing for better sleep!
Of all the popular sleep supplements on the market today, melatonin probably has the best name recognition. It’s a hormone that occurs naturally in the body and is largely responsible for maintaining the body’s sleep-wake cycles (a major component of the body’s circadian rhythms).
It’s also used in supplement form to facilitate falling asleep, alleviate symptoms of insomnia, help with normalizing sleep patterns, and improve sleep quality overall. Because it promotes better sleep, melatonin has also been linked to improvements in mood.
Source: As noted above, melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in the body. As a supplement, it’s typically derived from plant sources, animal sources, or via chemical synthesis.
Dosage: Common dosing recommendations suggest taking between 500 mcg and 5 mg approximately 30 minutes before bedtime. It’s a good idea to start with a lower dose and work your way up if needed. (Note that taking a larger dose will not induce sleep any faster.)
Be aware that taking melatonin during the day may provoke drowsiness. Additionally, melatonin may negatively interact with antidepressants and ADHD medication.
Common pairings: For the purposes of promoting better sleep, melatonin isn’t typically paired up with other supplements. It does have complementary relationships with other substances in other contexts; for example, it’s been shown to pair well with alpha-lipoic acid (for antioxidant effects), vitamin C (also for antioxidant effects), and galantamine (for neuronal protection). It does not pair well with caffeine, because caffeine is a stimulant and melatonin is a sleep promoter.
Valerian has long enjoyed recognition as another popular natural sleep supplement—even though research into its efficacy is mixed. Historically, valerian roots were brewed into a tea or consumed directly for the purposes of relaxation and sleep. It’s still popular as a sedative tea and in capsule form.
Clinical research into valerian’s use as a sleep supplement has been contradictory. Some studies have suggested that supplementing with valerian may not be any more effective at inducing sleep than a placebo, while others have found that the supplement may cause mild improvements in sleep quality (but is unlikely to speed up sleep onset).
Research does show that it can stimulate signaling from GABA, a primary sedative neurotransmitter. There’s also some evidence to back up the idea that valerian can have a relaxing effect, which may help explain anecdotal reports of improved sleep quality.
Source: Valerian is most commonly sourced from the Valeriana officinalis herb plant. It’s typically extracted from the root.
Dosage: The standard dose for valerian is 450 mg, which should be consumed approximately one hour prior to bedtime.
Note that taking valerian during the day may provoke drowsiness. Additionally, taking excessive doses may cause a “hangover” feeling in the morning. Side effects are generally mild and may include abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, and nausea.
Common pairings: Valerian is often paired with licorice in order to promote greater absorption. It is also frequently prepared with hops or lemon balm.
Among the most common sleep supplements, ZMA is a relative newcomer on the block. It’s a mineral supplement comprised of zinc, magnesium aspartate, and vitamin B6. Proponents of ZMA claim that the combination of these three nutrients can improve sleep quality (among other benefits). It’s also a popular sleep supplement for athletes due to the idea that it may support muscle growth.
There is some evidence that zinc may help regulate sleep and that magnesium can improve sleep quality. There’s also evidence that a deficiency of vitamin B6 might impair sleep quality, which suggests that obtaining adequate amounts of the vitamin might improve sleep. That being said, there’s not much definitive research into the specific effects of ZMA as it relates to sleep.
Source: These natural vitamins and minerals can all be found in foods. For example, zinc is found in red meat and poultry; magnesium is found in nuts, beans, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables; and vitamin B6 is present in fish and starchy vegetables. These nutrients may also be manufactured in a lab.
Dosage: In general, the recommended dose for men is 30 mg of zinc, 450 mg of magnesium, and 10.5 mg of vitamin B6; women are typically encouraged to take two-thirds of those dosages.
Taking excessive doses of this supplement can have adverse effects. For example, excess zinc or magnesium can cause cramping, diarrhea, and nausea and may interfere with the body’s absorption of certain medications. Consuming high levels of zinc over time can impair immune system function, while consuming high levels of vitamin B6 over time may result in nerve damage.
Common pairings: Because ZMA is already made up of multiple supplement pairings, for the most part it’s not commonly combined with other supplements (at least for the purposes of obtaining better sleep).
The Pros and Cons of Sleep Supplements
As you can see from the research above, natural sleep supplements come with both benefits and drawbacks.
The primary benefits of natural sleep supplements include the following:
- They may help improve sleep quality among people who are struggling to enjoy more and/or better sleep. This may help people overcome sleep deprivation and the sleep debt it causes.
- They tend not to be habit-forming (in contrast to prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pills) and are generally considered to be safer than non-natural options.
- By promoting better sleep, they may improve overall quality of life. Good sleep is linked to improvements in physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
That being said, these supplements are not without their downsides. For instance:
- Federal law does not require that supplements be proven safe before going to market. What’s more, there’s little (read: almost zero) regulation of what actually goes into those supplements.
- Even natural sleep supplements may come with negative side effects. Depending on the supplement, the dosage, and the length of time over which the supplement is used, these side effects can range from headaches or upset stomach to nerve damage, muscle spasms, or impaired immunity.
- Some sleep supplements may induce a “hangover” or daytime grogginess that can interfere with a person’s daily activities.
- Some supplements may negatively interact with prescription medications.
- In some cases, sleep supplements may function more like a band-aid than an actual solution to insomnia. If a person’s insomnia is the result of physical or psychological conditions, it’s important to seek treatment for those root causes.
- Different supplements may prove more or less effective at inducing sleep for a given individual. Some supplements may not prove effective, which can result in a waste of money and emotional energy.
Bottom line? Sleep supplements may be useful in helping to break an unhealthy sleep cycle or make up for a sleep deficit. But they should never take the place of the behavioral or psychological changes that are required for sustaining adequate sleep on a regular basis.
The Bottom Line on Sleep Supplements
Sleep supplements can take several forms, from herbs or root extracts to chemically synthesized products. The most popular supplements on the market today all operate in slightly different ways, but at a minimum, they tend to promote relaxation that may facilitate better sleep.
The clinical validity of each of these supplements varies, so it’s essential to do your research before entrusting your sleep to any supplement. In addition, it’s important be aware of the potential downsides and limitations of these supplements. While sleep supplements may prove useful once in a while, they’re not a substitute for good sleep hygiene and other lifestyle factors that promote sound sleep.
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