It’s no surprise that 70% of Americans are affected by poor sleep. In fact, some studies suggest that up to 30% of adults in the United States get less than six hours of sleep each night. With our eyes constantly fixated on our phones, computer screens, and tablets, our brain waves are continuously stimulated and deceived into increasing wakefulness. 2 out of every 3 adults also report feelings of stress and anxiety, with 33% reporting extreme or chronic conditions, which is also a leading cause of insomnia and suboptimal sleep quality. Studies have shown natural sleep aids promote a sense of calmness and relaxation, and exhibit anxiolytic effects, helping to induce sleep and improve sleep quality. We’re going to talk about the best sleep aids, that will assist you in getting the sleep you need to improve your well-being.
This article discusses 10 natural sleep remedies. It also explains the evidence to support the claims for natural sleep aids and other ways to get a good night’s sleep.
How Do Sleep Aids Work?
Although the exact mechanisms are not clear, electroencephalograph (EEG) studies and researchers believe that sleep aids work a few different ways, to achieve relaxation and better sleep quality.
Sleep aids such as theanine, magnesium glycinate, valerian root, and ashwagandha produce anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. Your body and mind need to be in a relaxed and calm state in order to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Studies indicate, sleep aids also naturally increase levels of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain as well as serotonin and dopamine. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, blocking signals such as fear, stress, and anxiety experienced from excitatory neurons, contributing to a calming effect in the body. Excessive excitation can lead to, insomnia and anxiety, whereas excessive inhibition can lead to sedation and a calm mood state. GABA essentially pumps the brakes to achieve a state of emotional/mental homeostasis. With increased levels of GABA and serotonin, the body also increases the hormone melatonin, resulting in more efficient sleep cycles.
Increase Alpha Waves
Sleep aids can help attribute to better quality sleep, sleep latency, reducing wakening frequency, and improving sleep duration. The anxiolytic effects of sleep aids, can produce a calming effect, efficiently increasing alpha brain waves and GABA stimulating melatonin and resulting in high quality sleep.
Improve Sleep Cycle
Some sleep aids such as theanine, tryptophan, and GABA increase levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. Melatonin signals the brain when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up, thus improving overall sleep cycle and sleep quality.
What Are The Best Natural Sleep Aids?
You may have heard that melatonin supplements can help you sleep. Evidence suggests they are best for sleep problems caused by shift work or jet lag.12
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone. It helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle in the brain. Your body makes it at night when the light is low.3
Melatonin supplements are good for conditions associated with low levels of melatonin, such as:
- Mood disorders like depression
- Delayed sleep-phase syndrome , which occurs when you fall asleep late at night and wake in the late morning or afternoon
- Jet lag, when your sleep cycle is disrupted by a time zone change
Melatonin supplements may improve sleep quality and morning alertness in older adults with insomnia.
Timed-release melatonin is used to treat insomnia in people over age 55. In most studies, melatonin was taken up to two hours before bedtime for up to 13 weeks.
With melatonin, the timing is important. When taken in the morning, melatonin may disrupt your normal sleep cycle. Taking in the afternoon or early evening can help regulate your sleep cycle.
2. Light Exposure
Light therapy is sometimes used in sleep treatment plans.
Light exposure helps tell the body when to go to sleep and when to wake up. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, try an outdoor walk first in the morning.
A home light therapy unit can also help. Ask your doctor or sleep specialist about these devices.
If you wake too early in the morning or fall asleep very early in the evening, you may need more light in the late afternoon. Take an afternoon walk while it is still sunny outside. You can also try light therapy for two to three hours in the evening.
Ashwagandha is a powerful and potent adaptogen, native to India, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Research shows that ashwagandha may even be powerful enough as a proposed alternative to recommended present treatments for insomnia. Constant exposure to blue light, work deadlines, and stress can keep us up at night, disrupting sleep schedules and patterns, leading to adverse effects, irritability, and sub-optimal productivity.
A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, evaluated the pharmacological effects of ashwagandha on sleep. 80 healthy participants were assessed on sleep parameters, such as sleep efficiency, sleep duration, wakefulness, and sleep onset.
In both healthy and insomnia groups, ashwagandha produced a significant improvement in all studied sleep parameters, proving to help sleep quality and manage insomnia.
L-theanine is a non-protein amino acid naturally found in tea leaves most notably green tea; non-protein meaning it has the same structure as an amino acid yet is not considered a building block of proteins. Research indicates that Theanine has anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects, which is the precursor to high-quality sleep.
Evidence from human electroencephalograph (EEG) studies show that it has a direct effect on brain activity increasing alpha wave frequency which relaxes the mind without inducing drowsiness and typical side effects often found with other sleep aids. Anxiolytic properties are also found to produce a soothing and calm effect, which improves sleep latency and duration.
A study published in the Journal Nutrients, examined the effects of theanine supplementation on stress and cognitive function. 30 healthy participants were administered 200mg per day for four weeks. Study results showed that scores for sleep latency (time to fall asleep), sleep disturbance, and use of sleep medications all reduced after L-theanine administration, compared to the placebo administration [R].
Another study showed that the combination of GABA and l-theanine had an even greater improvement in time taken to fall asleep, fewer sleep disturbances and an increase in sleep duration than with theanine or GABA alone [R].
5. Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
Meditation may help you sleep. Regular meditation can slow breathing and reduce stress hormone levels.8
During meditation, you direct your attention to a point of focus. This could be your breathing, a sound, or a word. Meditation can help:
- Increase awareness of your body
- Relax your body
- Calm your mind
Types of meditation include:
- Guided meditation, where someone else’s voice helps you relax
- Vipassana meditation, a Buddhist mindfulness practice
- Yoga Nidra, a kind of guided meditation
- Body scan, where you focus your attention on the feelings in different parts of your body
You can also try:
- Visualization: This involves imagining a relaxing scene. Try this for 20 minutes while lying in bed. Involve all your senses. For example, picture yourself on a tropical island. Think of the way the warm breeze feels on your skin. Imagine the scent of the flowers. Look at the water and listen to the waves. The more vivid the image and the more senses you involve, the more effective it will be.
- Relaxation response: This is a way to counter daily life’s “fight or flight” stress. It is usually achieved by sitting quietly for a few minutes while concentrating on a single focus word.
- Mindfulness: This type of meditation involves focusing on your mind in the present.
Early evidence suggests meditation may improve sleep.9 The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says there’s good evidence that these techniques can be helpful for insomnia. More research is still needed, though.
6. Valerian Root
Valerian, also known as Valeriana officinalis, is a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia. Researchers believe that valerian root naturally increases levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, blocking signals such as fear, and anxiety experienced from excitatory neurons, contributing to a calming effect in the body.
Valerian root has long been considered one of the best natural sleep aids. A systematic review published in the American Journal of Medicine, investigating the effects of valerian root on sleep quality and sleep duration, identified a total of 370 articles, 16 of those being randomized controlled trials, examining 1093 patients. The most commonly reported outcome reported that, the use of valerian root was found to nearly double sleep latency and sleep quality as compared to placebo groups.
7. Yoga and Tai Chi
Yoga is a system of relaxation, breathing, exercise, and healing. It has origins in Indian philosophy. It has been described as the union of mind, body, and spirit.
A 2017 review cited evidence that yoga can relieve insomnia symptoms. The review also found benefits for mindfulness-based stress management and tai chi. Tai chi is a type of slow-motion exercise.
8. Traditional Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, insomnia is thought to be related to kidney energy weakness. This belief is not shared by Western medicine.
A few signs of kidney energy weakness are:
- Low backache
- Tiredness and fatigue
- A burst of energy at about 11:00 in the evening
People in menopause sometimes have this type of insomnia, including those taking anti-estrogenic drugs such as Soltamox (tamoxife). People taking these drugs should not take herbal combinations such as the herbal formula liu wei di huang. These formulas may increase estrogen levels.
Ayurved is an Indian healing philosophy. It is based on a balance between mind, body, and spirit. In Ayurvedic medicine, insomnia is often associated with a Vata imbalance.29 In Ayurveda, Vata is one of the three energies or life forces.
In Ayurveda, Vata regulates breathing and circulation. People with a Vata imbalance are said to have irritability, anxiety, and fear of insomnia. One Ayurvedic treatment is the application of oil on the head and feet. For Vata imbalance, this is usually warm sesame oil.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, that is necessary in producing several important molecules to signal sleep. Tryptophan can be converted into a molecule called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is used to make serotonin and melatonin [R].
Once serotonin is produced, it can be converted into melatonin, to produce better sleep-wake cycles. Several studies have shown the impact tryptophan has directly improving sleep by increasing melatonin, improving sleep-wake cycle signaling you went to go to sleep and wake up [
Other Natural Remedies
- If you have hot flashes, try a Chillow. This is a thin, flat foam pillow insert. It can help cool your head during the night.30
- Gentle, slow music may also help improve sleep. Music therapy has been found to improve sleep quality. It may also decrease nightly awakenings, lengthen sleep time, and increase satisfaction with sleep.31
- Kava is sometimes recommended for anxiety-related insomnia. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has advised consumers about the potential risk of severe liver injury from using supplements containing kava.32
- Lack of exercise can contribute to poor sleep. Muscle tension and stress build in the body. Exercise can promote deep sleep that night. Avoid exercise too close to bedtime, though. This can increase adrenaline levels, leading to insomnia.
Natural Sleep Aids: Takeaway
Poor sleep can deplete your energy, lower your productivity, increase your irritability, and increase the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. If you are experiencing symptoms of poor sleep, sleep quality, and high anxiety and stress, adding a high quality clinically dosed sleep formula can support and improve quality of life.
You can try many natural remedies if you’re having trouble sleeping. Some have been proven through research. The value of others is mixed or inconclusive.
Ask your doctor before starting any natural remedies. Chronic insomnia can be a symptom of another condition, such as
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
- Lung disease
- Hot flashes
Think of insomnia as a “wake-up call.” Ensure you get early treatment for potentially serious conditions.