We all know how important sleep is to our overall health and well-being. Even after one night of tossing and turning, we feel noticeably less alert, have trouble concentrating, are hungrier than usual, and become considerably more irritable. Over time, insufficient sleep contributes to any number of chronic health issues.
Myriad factors mess with our sleep, but they often include stress and anxiety. “Busy work schedules, the need to be constantly connected, and societal pressures can create a sense of mental alertness that interferes with relaxing and sleeping well,” says Sunjya Schweig, M.D., integrative family physician and Founder at California Center for Functional Medicine. “Our modern work culture, too, which often includes irregular hours or shift work, conflicts with our natural sleep-wake cycles, leading to inconsistent sleep patterns and less ideal sleeping environments.”
When you can’t drift off or find yourself staring at the ceiling after waking up in the middle of the night, it’s easy to turn to an over-the-counter or prescription medication. Thing is, many of these drugs come with potential side effects and risks (including potential withdrawal from dropping them cold turkey), says Canada-based naturopathic doctor Sarah Connors, N.D.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep (or back to sleep), a natural supplement can work wonders on your body and mind—without the baggage. Here, sleep experts share the fast-acting supplements they recommend to patients having trouble with getting shut-eye.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Sunjya Schweig, M.D., is an integrative family physician and founder of the California Center for Functional Medicine. Sarah Connors, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor based in Canada. Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., is a board-certified internist.
Perhaps the most well-known supplement in the sleep category, melatonin is most certainly effective at helping people fall asleep, says Schweig. (FYI: Melatonin is a hormone that our body produces naturally in response to darkness, helping to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.) “Supplementing with melatonin can be especially helpful for people who have disrupted circadian rhythms, like shift workers or those experiencing jet lag,” he says. So if you can’t fall asleep when you’re supposed to because of one of these factors, make melatonin your go-to.
Melatonin supplements are available in various forms, including pills, liquids, and chewables. Best taken about 30 to 60 minutes before you want to fall sleep, supplements come in a range of dosages, from 0.3 to three milligrams, says Schweig. “Some people use high doses, but lower doses (think 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams) are often effective with fewer side effects, such as daytime sleepiness, headaches, and dizziness,” he notes.
He recommends starting with a dose of 0.5 milligrams for a few nights and then ramping up by 0.5 milligrams every couple of nights until you find a dose that helps you sleep but does not lead to morning grogginess.
This fragrant flower is incredibly relaxing, hence why it’s used so often in aromatherapy—and why it’s a staple fragrance for so many skin- and hair-care products. There’s more to lavender’s magic than meets the eye (er, nose), too. Research, including one study published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice, found that smelling lavender can decrease heart rate and blood pressure, increase relaxation, ease feelings of anxiety, and even make you feel sleepy. “By interacting with the neurotransmitter GABA, lavender quiets brain and nervous system activity, reducing agitation, anger, aggression, and restlessness,” explains Schweig.
When you need help with sleep, aromatherapy is an efficient way to work with this herb. “Inhaling lavender essential oil can provide almost immediate effects, as the scent molecules travel directly to the brain and impact the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and memories,” says Schweig. “This method can reduce anxiousness, calm the mind, and make it easier to fall asleep.”
This pleasant lemon-scented herb is both an effective calming agent and mild sedative, according to board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. Research, including one study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, has found that lemon balm optimizes the function of GABA receptors in the brain, thereby helping to calm our nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety and low mood. Another study published in the journal Nutrients also showed that lemon balm significantly improved calmness in participants while promoting cognitive function.
Lemon balm is most frequently taken in tincture form (just follow the dosing instructions on your particular product), but can also be found in a variety of combo supplements formulated to support sleep, as well as in teas.
This popular herbal supplement has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years and has been well-researched in recent years for its sedative and sleep-inducing qualities. “Valerian root works by increasing the levels of GABA in the brain, which makes it easier for you to fall asleep by helping to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation,” explains Schweig. Noticing a trend with the GABA here?
Valerian is typically taken as a capsule, tincture, or tea (you probably know it from all manner of sleepytime teas). To help you drift off swiftly, Schweig recommends taking between 300 and 600 milligrams of dried valerian root in capsule form or two to three grams (about your standard tea bag) for tea, about 30 minutes to an hour before you want to be asleep. “Some people are more sensitive than others and will experience greater sedation at lower doses, so It is important to start small and see how your body reacts,” he adds.
Passion flower is another herb known for its calming and anxiety-easing effects. In fact, research published Phytotherapy Research found it to be effective in lowering the anxiety of patients prior to surgery—and its effect can also help put your mind at ease before going to sleep, notes Schweig. Unsurprisingly, passion flower is also believed to work by boosting brain levels of GABA.
Passion flower can be consumed as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form. For sleep, Schweig recommends drinking a cup of passion flower tea or taking 400 to 800 milligrams of an extract just before bed. Since high amounts of passion flower can contribute to drowsiness the next day (ah, the ol’ “too much of a good thing” situation), start with a smaller amount and gradually work your way up to your sweet spot.
Best known as a mildly-flavored, cozy herbal tea, chamomile is an herb that belongs to the Asteraceae (daisy or sunflower) family. It contains an antioxidant called apigenin, which binds to certain receptors in the brain that may promote sleepiness, explains Schweig. Research, including one study published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion, found chamomile to be effective in increasing the sleep quality of elderly patients.
Perhaps one of the gentler options on this list, “chamomile tea can be made by steeping dried chamomile flowers in hot water for about 10 minutes,” Schweig says. “Drinking a cup of chamomile tea about 30 minutes before bed can help calm your mind and body.” Chamomile is also available in tincture and capsule form, with dosages varying by product.