Many people turn to natural sleep aids like melatonin, lavender, chamomile, and more to deal with insomnia.
In this article, we’ll explore the most commonly used over-the-counter sleep aids and remedies, as well as the safety and evidence behind them.
We’ll also discuss how to know when it’s time to see a medical provider for insomnia.
Natural Sleep Aids
Getting the right amount of sleep is vital for health.
Sleep helps to promote normal brain function, supports overall health, and is important for good learning, decision making, memory, and problem-solving.
When it’s not easy to fall or stay asleep, there are many natural sleep aids that people turn to.
Melatonin is a hormone that is made in the body. It is an essential part of the body’s circadian rhythm.
As melatonin levels increase in the brain, it signals that it’s time to sleep. In the morning, melatonin levels should be at their lowest.
Melatonin supplements are popular natural sleep remedies since they tend to bring on feelings of drowsiness quickly. They can have beneficial short-term uses, such as correcting jet lag.
Melatonin can help to induce sleep and may increase the duration of non-rapid eye movement stage two sleep. It may also shorten night awakenings.
A systematic review of 23 randomized controlled trials found that melatonin supplementation positively affected sleep quality, including in adults with respiratory, metabolic, and sleep disorders.
However, the meta-analysis noted that melatonin was ineffective at improving sleep for mental health disorders or neurological diseases.
Melatonin is generally considered safe for short-term use but does not have enough research on long-term use.
It should not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding people, since the safety has not been established.
Lavender is frequently used in aromatherapy for stress relief and relaxation, which can support better sleep quality.
Research has found some sleep-related benefits for lavender:
- Inhaling lavender before sleep enhanced sleep quality in both college students who had mild insomnia and people in palliative care.
- In older adults with dementia, lavender aromatherapy increased sleep time and reduced the frequency and duration of night wake-ups.
- Lavender aromatherapy reduced anxiety and increased sleep quality in people who were being treated in the ICU with coronary artery disease.
Some natural sleep products include lavender flowers for oral intake or to be consumed as tea.
This is not the same thing as consuming essential oil, which is never intended for internal use.
While there is research showing that lavender aromatherapy can benefit sleep for some people, there is not enough research to determine whether lavender dietary supplements have the same benefits.
There are also no guarantees that lavender will improve sleep duration or quality.
Chamomile has been used for hundreds of years as a natural sleep remedy. It is most often consumed as a bedtime tea.
There is not a lot of research on chamomile as a sleep aid.
A meta-analysis of studies found that while chamomile could be beneficial for improving sleep quality, there is little evidence that it will help insomnia.
A small trial of 60 older adults found that 200 mg of chamomile taken twice daily helped improve sleep quality.
While it is frequently used, studies do not necessarily confirm its effectiveness.
- In post-menopausal people, 530 mg of valerian taken twice daily improved sleep quality.
- In a placebo-controlled study of 72 adults who had coronary artery bypass graft surgery, 530 mg of valerian taken before bed for 30 days improved sleep quality significantly.
These studies relied on patient-reported sleep benefits versus objective heart rate variability or brain waves measurements.
Other research has found that valerian only leads to little or no improvements in sleep quality.
Valerian root has not been evaluated for long-term use and should not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding people.
Magnesium is a necessary mineral for many body functions and processes.
Nearly half of people in the U.S. do not get enough magnesium from their diets every day.
Magnesium is often recommended for people who have trouble sleeping.
It may also increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain.
Research also shows that people with low magnesium levels may experience more troubled sleep or insomnia.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium is between 300-420 mg, depending on the age and birth sex of the person.
Consuming more than the RDA of magnesium from foods does not cause side effects, but taking too many magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea.
Glycine is an amino acid and neurotransmitter. Glycine may help support better sleep quality by lowering body temperature and acting as an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
This means that it can decrease the effects of neurotransmitters that excite the brain, helping prepare the mind for rest.
A 2007 study measured participants’ breathing, brain waves, and heart rate activity while they slept.
The results found that those who took 3 grams of glycine before bed fell asleep faster and had better sleep quality than those who received a placebo.
Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, is an herb found in many natural sleep aids. Not many human studies evaluate how effective passionflower is for supporting sleep quality.
- While animal studies show benefits for sleep, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study in humans did not find the same results.
- In 110 adults with insomnia, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that passionflower extract improved total sleep time and decreased night-time wakefulness.
Tart Montmorency cherries may help improve sleep quality because they increase the amount of melatonin in the brain.
They also contain a small amount of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin.
While tart cherry does not act as a sedative, it may be able to improve the length of time asleep.
Research that evaluated the effects of cherry juice on sleep found that it has a small benefit for sleep in older adults but did not outperform more evidence-based insomnia treatments.
Ashwagandha is a type of herb known as an adaptogen.
Its benefits stem from helping the body buffer the effects of stress, particularly when it comes to cortisol, the stress hormone.
Some research has found that ashwagandha can reduce anxiety by modulating the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter.
In a randomized controlled study of 400 people, ashwagandha had a significant, but small impact on sleep.
Positive results were more noticeable in adults who had been diagnosed with insomnia and who took 600 or more mg per day for at least 8 weeks.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is gaining popularity as a natural remedy for many things.
When it comes to sleep, the evidence does not favor CBD as a sleep remedy.
THC, a more potently psychoactive component of marijuana, consistently shows a greater ability to support sleep quality.
While CBD is legal in most states, THC-containing compounds are not.
Risks of Natural Sleep Aids
While many natural sleep aids may work or be effective for some, they are not necessarily effective for everyone who tries them.
Natural sleep aids can also come with risks.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the supplement market for efficacy. This means that a supplement you purchase may not contain the exact ingredients or dosage that it claims to. It could also contain unlisted ingredients or contaminants.
- Supplements and home remedies can interact with medications, OTC remedies, and other supplements. Before trying a natural sleep aid, check with your medical provider to make sure it is safe for you to try.
- Some natural sleep aids can still be habit-forming. If you have a long-term sleep condition or begin to rely on sleep aids heavily, speak with your medical provider to rule out underlying conditions.
OTC Sleep Aids
There are a few trusted over-the-counter medications that are used as sleep aids.
- Diphenhydramine: An antihistamine that is popularly sold under the brand name Benadryl, diphenhydramine is not mainly used to induce sleep. But because it causes drowsiness as a primary side effect, some people use it for occasional relief of sleeplessness. Diphenhydramine is also found as an ingredient in sleep aids like Unisom SleepMelts, Unisom SleepGels, and ZzzQuil.
- Doxylamine succinate: Another antihistamine, doxylamine succinate, is found in OTC sleep aids like Unisom SleepTabs and Nyquil. It induces sleep by causing drowsiness.
Neither of these OTC antihistamines is intended to be used as long-term sleep aids. In some cases, they may actually worsen sleep quality.
While using OTC sleep aids occasionally may be fine, long-term use has not been studied for safety, and some research shows that frequent use of antihistamines could increase the risk of dementia.
In some cases, these over-the-counter medicines could cause complications and should be avoided by people who have:
- Respiratory conditions
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver or kidney issues
Older adults should not take either of these drugs unless directed by their medical provider, since they are at an increased risk for negative side effects.
Effectiveness of Natural Sleep Aids
Natural sleep aids vary in their effectiveness. How they work depends on many factors, including:
- Your body’s response to the specific ingredients
- The formulation of the ingredient
- The strength or dosage of the ingredient
- How the ingredient interacts with other remedies or medications that you take
While natural sleep remedies may seem like a safe option, whether or not they are for you depends on many factors.
A healthcare provider can determine whether one may be more effective than another.
When To Seek Medical Attention for Insomnia
If you have ongoing problems falling asleep or staying asleep, it doesn’t have to be up to you to solve on your own.
The need for sleep is a vital aspect of human health—one a medical provider can help troubleshoot.
While there are many causes for sleep disturbances, it’s not always possible to determine the cause on your own.
A medical provider can consider your health history or contributing factors, like other medication side effects, and advise you on the safest and most effective ways to improve your sleep.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
If you experience insomnia, download K to check your symptoms, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes.
K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) herbal tea on subjective sleep quality. (2011).
A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis on the Effect of Herbal Medicine to Manage Sleep Dysfunction in Peri- and Postmenopause. (2018).
Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series. (2019).
Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia: A Prospective Cohort Study. (2015).
Effect of a medicinal plant (Passiflora incarnata L) on sleep. (2017).
Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study. (2010).
Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality and anxiety of patients. (2017).
Effect of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract on sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. (2021).
Effects of Inhalation Aromatherapy on Symptoms of Sleep Disturbance in the Elderly with Dementia. (2017).
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Efficacy of Valerian Extract on Sleep Quality after Coronary Artery bypass Graft Surgery: A Triple-Blind Randomized Controlled Trial. (2021).
GABA-modulating phytomedicines for anxiety: A systematic review of preclinical and clinical evidence. (2018).
Glycine ingestion improves subjective sleep quality in human volunteers, correlating with polysomnographic changes. (2007).
High dose melatonin increases sleep duration during nighttime and daytime sleep episodes in older adults. (2022).
Magnesium Intake and Sleep Disorder Symptoms: Findings from the Jiangsu Nutrition Study of Chinese Adults at Five-Year Follow-Up. (2018).
Over-the-Counter Agents for the Treatment of Occasional Disturbed Sleep or Transient Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Efficacy and Safety. (2015).
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The Effect of Lavender Oil on Sleep Quality and Vital Signs in Palliative Care: A Randomized Clinical Trial. (2020).
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Therapeutic efficacy and safety of chamomile for state anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, and sleep quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials and quasi-randomized trials. (2019).
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