According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult needs at least 7 hours of restful sleep every night to maintain optimal health and general wellbeing. A survey from 2014 found that about 35.2 percent of adults got less than 7 hours of sleep per a 24-hour period, a situation known as short sleep duration.1
According to the American Sleep Association, an estimated 50 to 70 million people in the United State have a sleep disorder of some kind. Insomnia, a disorder characterized by difficulties falling or staying asleep, is the most common sleep disorder with chronic forms affecting about 10 percent of adults and short-term insomnia affecting about 30 percent of adults. About 25 million adults in the U.S. have obstructive sleep apnea, which is characterized by a full or partially occluded airway during sleep.2
Aside from leaving you sleepy when you should be having fun (37.9 percent of adults in the United States report unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month), sleep deprivation can be potentially harmful and deadly. Drowsy driving contributes to an estimated 40,000 nonfatal injuries and 1,550 fatalities every year. Medical errors caused by sleep deprivation contribute to about 100,000 deaths in hospitals every year.2
Even putting all that aside, getting a good night’s rest can contribute so much to how you feel, physically and emotionally, but many people struggle to get in enough sleep thanks to the stresses of work and life. Although good sleep often comes down to good sleep habits and practices, for some people, that’s not enough. Let’s take a look at some helpful and effective natural sleep aids that may help promote healthy, more peaceful slumber.
One of the most well-known natural sleep aids, melatonin is actually a hormone created within the pineal gland of the brain. Melatonin receptors are found in the brain, liver, intestine, kidneys, and cardiovascular system, suggesting that works within many systems and has some roles that still require research. So far, it has been found to help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels.3
However, melatonin is best known and studied for its role in maintaining your natural internal clock, or circadian rhythms. In humans, this “clock” is found in an area of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which creates and maintains your daily cycles of sleep, wake, and activity based on the amount of light and darkness that you are exposed to. Your brain takes in these light levels and translates it into information that your suprachiasmatic nucleus can understand. The SCN then sends signals to your pineal gland to release melatonin at night to generate the tiredness and prepare your body for sleep. As the sun rises in the morning and throughout the day, the pineal gland inhibits the release of melatonin, ensuring that you feel active and alert.
Your melatonin production can be affected by a variety of factors, most prominently daylight. During winter, when the days are shorter and darker, you may produce melatonin earlier or later in the day, which can throw off your rhythms and sleep schedule. That can ultimately result in fatigue, mood changes, and a general reduction in energy. 4
People who have trouble sleeping generally have low levels of melatonin, but melatonin supplements have been found to be effective natural sleep aids that can improve overall sleep quality. More specifically, studies have found that melatonin reduces the time it takes for people to fall asleep while increasing the total amount of time sleeping. Melatonin can be particularly helpful for shift workers and those suffering from jet lag.5
Melatonin is naturally found in certain foods, including:
Studies show that melatonin is safe for use in short-term use, though long-term use still requires study. If you are considering using melatonin as a sleep aid, most studies suggest an effective dose of .2 to 10 milligrams, depending on your symptoms.
L-theanine is an amino acid (a building block of proteins) most commonly found in green tea leaves, though it can also be found in certain types of mushrooms.6 In terms of chemical structure, L-theanine is similar to glutamine, which is known to produce the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, which is part of where its effects come into play. L-theanine is mainly known for helping to relax without sedating or inhibiting attention.7
L-theanine can promote relaxation through several means. It can boost levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter for its ability to calm the nerves.8 Serotonin contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness and acts as a precursor to melatonin.9 Dopamine is involved in a variety of functions, including our sense of reward, motivation, and attention, along with basic body movements.10 Increasing levels of these neurotransmitters can contribute to greater relaxation, which can help you get deeper, more restful sleep.
L-theanine has also been shown to promote calmness by reducing chemicals in the brain linked to stress and anxiety. The amino acid may also enhance the production of alpha brain waves. These waves are associated with wakeful relaxation, like when you are meditating, creating, or daydreaming. Alpha waves are also characteristic during REM sleep.
L-theanine does not necessarily induce sleep on its own, but it can help to calm your mind and reduce anxiety to promote greater quality of sleep. Research suggests doses of 100 to 400 milligrams21.
Magnesium is one of the most plentiful minerals in the world and is essential to your overall health. It contributes to strong bones and maintains proper functions in the heart, brain, and muscles. Magnesium may also act as a powerful anti-inflammatory, promote regular bowel movements, and reduce high blood pressure.11
This ubiquitous mineral may also act as an effective sleep aid by promoting greater physical relaxation. In a long-term study, 100 participants were given either a placebo or 400 milligrams of magnesium every day for a 90-day period. Results of this study found that daily intake of magnesium had a statistically significant reduction in mental and physical stress by promoting activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for keeping you calm and relaxed on a physiological level.12
Other studies also suggest that magnesium may help to inhibit hyperexcitable nerves13 and promoting greater overall relaxation.14
The recommended daily intake of magnesium according to the National Institutes of Health is about 400 to 420 milligrams for adult men and 310 to 320 milligrams for adult women. Along with supplements, magnesium can be found naturally in water and in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains—generally, any food that is high in dietary fiber.15
4. Valerian Root
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a perennial plant and member of the Valerianacaeae family that is commonly used to promote restful sleep by reducing the time necessary to fall asleep and improving overall sleep quality.16 In one double-blind study, 44 percent of participants given sesquiterpenes (one of the main substances in valerian root) had perfect sleep, while 89 percent reported generally improved sleep without any side effects.17
The actual mechanisms involved with valerian root’s sleep-promoting effects still require study, though research suggests that valerian’s effects come from multiple constituents working independently or synergistically. Studies have found that valerian root does contain linarin, a flavonoid known to induce sleep and act as a sedative.18 Several studies also suggest that valerian root can promote sleep by increasing your brain’s GABA levels to calm nervous system activity. An in vitro study found that valerian may cause the release of GABA from nerve endings in the brain while blocking the reuptake of GABA into nerve cells. Valerinic acid, a constituent of valerian, was also found to inhibit an enzyme known to degrade GABA.16 Valerian root may therefore act by promoting levels of GABA.
Valerian root is available as a tea, tincture, fluid extract, or dry powder extract. If you choose the latter, you should generally be safe taking 250 to 600 milligrams to induce good quality sleep.
5. Passion flower
A perennial vine, passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) has been linked to improved sleep and reduced insomnia. In one study, subjects were given passion flower tea about an hour before sleep for a one-week period followed by a one-week “washout” period and another week of a placebo tea. Subjects recorded sleep diaries validated by polysomnography during this period. Results suggested a short-term subjective benefit to sleep and sleep quality with consumption of low doses of passion flower tea.19
Studies on passion flower in human subjects is still ongoing, but most early studies agree that passion flower, particularly in tea form, is safe with few known side effects.20
If you need help falling or staying asleep, consider trying DrFormulas™ Natural Herbal Sleep Aid Pills. This supplement contains seven different minerals and herbs to help regulate healthy circadian rhythms and promote restful sleep, including melatonin, l-theanine, GABA, and magnesium.