There’s nothing more frustrating than missing out on a good night’s sleep.
Sleep disorders like insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome, etc. keep 50 to 70 million Americans from getting a quality night’s rest[*].
Here’s when over-the-counter sleeping pills, prescription sleep medications, or drowsy-inducing antihistamines (like Unisom or Benadryl) seem like a good idea.
However, the serious side effects, adverse risks, and habit-forming potential make sleep medicines a less-than-ideal option for short- or long-term use.
Natural sleep aids are dietary supplements made from herbs, amino acids, and other organic compounds designed to:
- Increase sleepiness
- Decrease the time it takes to fall asleep (known as sleep latency)
- Help you sleep longer uninterrupted
- Reduce feelings of grogginess when you wake up
Here’s the thing: the FDA does not need to approve or regulate any over-the-counter sleep aids or herbal supplements.
So despite all the natural sleep supplements on the market, not all of them work, are backed by scientific trials, or are even safe.
The 12 natural sleep aids in this guide have been studied on large and small scales but may each carry their own potential side effects and interactions.
Melatonin is one of the most popular and well-researched OTC natural sleep aids so it’s become the first most people try.
Melatonin is a hormone your body produces in your pineal gland (in your brain) to regulate your circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle[*].
Your melatonin levels rise in the evening (to signal sleepiness) and are lowest when you wake in the AM.
But when your sleep pattern gets disrupted (such as changing time zones or working night shift), your melatonin production and release cycle gets thrown off.
In this case, melatonin supplements taken before sleep may be able to boost melatonin levels and promote sleepiness[*].
Studies show melatonin shortens the time it takes to fall asleep and may increase total sleep time[*].
So next time you’re feeling the effects of jet-lag, try a melatonin supplement to restore your sleep cycle back to normal. Or use it to prevent jet-lag in the first place.
You’ll find melatonin online and at vitamin shops, drug stores, and most grocery stores.
But you can get the next natural sleep aid from your diet.
In one study, participants with poor sleep were given three grams of glycine before bed. This improved overall sleep quality, increased sleep time, and helped participants fall asleep sooner[*].
Participants also had less daytime sleepiness and improved their performance on tasks requiring memory recognition.
Another study on glycine supplementation before bedtime confirmed these findings. Participants reported positive feelings such as “liveliness and peppiness” the morning after a night with glycine supplementation[*].
They also significantly improved scores for fatigue and clear-headedness the next day.
Besides natural dietary sources, glycine also comes as a powder you can dilute with water and in supplemental pill form.
The next amino acid has a reputation for relaxation, which may be a precursor for better sleep.
Though not a sedative, L-theanine is considered to have an anxiolytic effect, which means it can lower anxiety and stress[*].
Many experts believe anxiolysis, or the state of being relaxed, is necessary for high-quality sleep to begin[*].
Research reveals L-theanine supplementation may lead to high-quality sleep without the negative side effects of other sleep inducers[*].
Since sleep problems are common with ADHD, researchers in one trial gave 98 children with ADHD chewable tablets of L-theanine or a placebo for six weeks.
The boys who consumed the L-theanine had significantly higher sleep efficiency scores without any major adverse reactions. They also spent less time awake after bedtime than the boys who took the placebo[*].
L-tryptophan may be the most talked-about amino acid — especially around Thanksgiving.
There were already 40 trials confirming L-tryptophan’s ability to spur sleepiness and decrease time to fall asleep way back in the 1980s[*].
And data from close to 30,000 US adults links a higher intake of this essential amino acid with lower levels of depression and longer sleep times[*].
So sleep-deprived patients with chronic insomnia were treated with L-tryptophan in one trial. Out of 25 participants, 19 (or 76%) experienced “a markedly improved sleeping pattern” after four weeks[*].
In a one-night sleep study, 42 participants were given a placebo, 1g of L-tryptophan, or 3g of L-tryptophan at bedtime. Both tryptophan groups fell asleep significantly sooner than the placebo group[*].
Experts say the reason L-tryptophan may work so well is because it raises your serotonin and melatonin levels[*].
See, your body converts tryptophan from your diet into 5-HTP, serotonin, and melatonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects your mood; melatonin you already know affects your sleep/wake cycle[*].
The theory here is that higher L-tryptophan levels may up serotonin and melatonin levels, which could then improve your mood and sleep[*].
Keto foods high in L-tryptophan include[*]:
- Meat (such as elk, goat, and pork)
- Poultry (such as chicken, turkey, and quail)
- Fish and seafood
- Pumpkin seeds
- Seaweed and spirulina
Higher tryptophan levels may also lift your 5-HTP levels (and that’s a big deal).
Your body uses L-tryptophan to produce an amino acid called 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which helps your body create more serotonin.
Serotonin isn’t just a “feel-good” chemical. It too plays a huge role in your sleep/wake cycle[*].
Low serotonin levels correlate with depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders[*].
Yet healthy serotonin levels correspond with better moods, positive outlooks, and more restful sleep. This may be because serotonin creates melatonin (that super crucial sleep hormone)[*].
Because of its ability to raise serotonin levels, 5-HTP supplements have been shown to:
- Encourage relaxation[*]
- Reduce panic attacks[*]
- Lower anxiety[*]
- Help with heartbreak and emotional stress(!)[*]
If 5-HTP can ease anxiety and insomnia — while lifting melatonin levels — it should create the perfect environment for sleep, right?
So far non-human trials show 5-HTP may shorten the time it takes to hit the hay and increase total sleep time[*]. Additional human trials still need to be completed.
You can’t get 5-HTP from your diet. But you can eat more L-tryptophan, which will push your body to naturally produce more 5-HTP[*].
You can also find 5-HTP in supplement form.
Just clear it with your doctor if you’re on medication to increase serotonin production. Supplementing with 5-HTP may raise levels dangerously and cause life-threatening serotonin syndrome[*].
Many people like to pair 5-HTP supplements with magnesium.
Magnesium is a mineral and an electrolyte involved in over 600 different enzymatic reactions in your body[*].
And low magnesium levels have been linked with insomnia[*].
So when 46 adults with insomnia in one trial supplemented with either a placebo or 500mg of magnesium daily for eight weeks, those taking magnesium significantly[*]:
- Increased sleep time
- Raised sleep efficiency
- Reduced waking in the middle of the night
- Upped their melatonin and renin levels (which help regulate sleep) and lowered cortisol levels (i.e., the stress hormone).
Another small study on people with insomnia revealed that a supplement containing magnesium, melatonin, and zinc improved sleep quality and their quality of life[*].
You can supplement with magnesium alone. And since it’s a major electrolyte, you’ll find magnesium alongside sodium, calcium, and potassium as well.
Add more magnesium to your diet with keto foods such as[*]:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Almonds and cashews
- Chicken breast
- Dark chocolate and cocoa powder
Unlike magnesium, you may not find the next sleep-promoting aid at the grocery store.
Valerian is an herb that grows across Asia and Europe. Extracts from the valerian root may ease anxiety and promote restful sleep[*].
In one review of 16 studies and over 1,000 patients, valerian improved sleep quality and decreased sleep latency without side effects[*]. However, the researchers admitted that many of the studies had significant issues.
Because valerian root takes between two and three weeks to produce effects, it’s better for long-term sleep issues rather than short-term use like jet-lag[*]. This may also be why there are so few research trials with conclusive evidence.
Kava is another herb people use to relax and wind down for restful sleep.
Kava kava is an herb native to the South Pacific islands. Locals have been using the roots of the herb to create relaxing ceremonial drinks for hundreds of years[*].
These days kava tea bars have been popping up everywhere for both recreational and medicinal uses[*].
Kava gives people a calming, euphoric feeling which naturally and quickly lowers anxiety. The effect is similar to alcohol but with two major upgrades: no loss of mental clarity and minimal morning-after effects[*][*].
The active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones[*].
Though scientists don’t exactly know how they work, kavalactones have positive interactions with your neurotransmitters (i.e., your brain’s chemical messengers).
Here’s the bad news: there have been reports of severe liver damage after using kava[*].
These can be traced back to low-quality teas or supplements cut with cheaper, unsafe ingredients and potential drug interactions. Despite studies showing the safety of short-term kava use (less than 24 weeks), the causes of adverse reactions with kava are still unknown to scientists[*][*].
Speak with your doctor about using kava if you’re on prescription or OTC medications or have liver issues[*].
And if you’re in the clear, find the highest-quality sources of kava sold as tea, capsules, tinctures, and in other sleep aids or supplements.
Passionflower is another herbal sleep tea you may want to try.
Scientists believe passionflower works by enhancing levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter helps regulate your mood and blocks other neurotransmitters that cause excitement or stress.
And guess what? GABA is a main component in passionflower extract[*].
In one sleep study, researchers gave 41 participants a tea made with passionflower or a placebo each night for seven days. Those consuming passionflower tea achieved significantly better sleep quality[*].
Results with passionflower tend to be higher with teas versus supplements.
The next tea is the king of sleepy time.
Ancient medical writings from Rome, Greece, and Egypt describe the daisy-like chamomile plant as a medicinal herb used for relaxation[*].
These days, researchers believe chamomile may elevate glycine levels for up to two weeks[*]. Since this amino acid is so key for sleep, this is a major win.
Postpartum women had better sleep and fewer symptoms of depression after drinking chamomile tea for two weeks in one study[*].
And elderly participants in another receiving oral chamomile capsules twice daily for four weeks showed significant improvement in sleep quality too[*].
You’ll find chamomile sold as tea, liquid extracts, supplements, and essential oil for aromatherapy.
You may even find it combined with the next herb.
Lemon balm is an herb from the mint family with a reputation for relaxation and insomnia relief that started back in the Middle Ages[*].
Lemon balm helped patients with chronic heart failure (who have a higher rate of sleep problems) take significantly less time to fall asleep. They also clocked significantly more sleep time[*].
There are fewer studies examining lemon balm on its own and several more studying it together with other relaxing herbs like valerian and chamomile.
When participants were given an herbal combo of valerian and lemon balm, 81% of them felt they slept better than those who took the placebo[*].
Women beginning menopause have trouble sleeping through the night when their body temperature gets too high. But supplementing with lemon balm and valerian showed a significant decrease in disturbed sleeping in women between 50- and 60-years old[*].
Look for lemon balm in teas, extracts, tinctures, dietary capsules, and essential oils.
The final natural sleep remedy isn’t something you take but something you have to physically do.
- Lowers stress and anxiety and improves your mood
- Reduces daytime tiredness
- Increases quality, restful sleep
- Decreases sleep complaints and insomnia
- Reduces sleep apnea without weight loss
Working out can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks of routine sweating to help your sleep[*].
But it’s the only option that’s free so it should be the first you try today.
Though helpful, natural sleep aids shouldn’t be the only step you take for a night of good sleep.
It’s essential to create a solid sleep routine and practice proper sleep hygiene to banish sleeplessness and feel your best the next morning.
This includes upgrading your sleep habits and finally sticking to a sleep schedule.
When you eat right, exercise daily, and experiment with these natural remedies, you’ll spend less time counting sheep and more time recharging. And you won’t have to rely on dangerous sleep medications to do so.