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8 Natural Sleep Aids: What Works?

Why should I use a natural sleep aid?

Difficulty falling asleep is a common occurrence. For many people, this means trouble sleeping every now and again or for a short duration of time.

In many cases, this can be corrected by improving your sleep hygiene. This includes:

  • limiting daytime napping to 30 minutes or less
  • exercising for at least 10 minutes per day
  • avoiding caffeine and other stimulants before bedtime
  • passing on heavy foods, like fatty or fried meals, before bedtime

If your sleep troubles are infrequent, you may wish to use an over-the-counter (OTC) or home remedy to help you fall asleep. Some people wish to avoid using medication in favor of a more natural alternative.

Nonprescription sleep aids are typically considered natural. They encourage relaxation, ease anxiety, and promote sleep. Many natural sleep aids are also linked to other health-promoting behaviors like improved digestion and pain relief.

Getting enough sleep may be as simple as changing routines, diet, or habits. Always try nonmedicinal, nonherbal approaches first.

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Benefits

Are natural sleep aids more beneficial than traditional sleep aids?

Natural sleep aids are generally considered safer than OTC and prescription medications. This is because they tend to have fewer side effects than their prescription counterparts.

Some people worry that using prescription medication can cause them to become dependent on the medication. If this happens, they may experience withdrawal symptoms if they decide to stop using it. They may also have even more difficulty falling asleep after stopping use.

Using natural sleep aids for a short time typically doesn’t lead to dependence. Natural sleep aids have a low risk of side effects or complications when used for a short time.

Herbs, which are often used as natural sleep aids, aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so you should use them with caution. Consult your doctor about any potential interactions between an herb you’d like to use and any medical conditions you have or medications you’re taking.

Chamomile

Sleep aid #1: Chamomile

chamomile

Chamomile is a gentle herb that has a calming effect. It promotes relaxation and sleep. A 2016 study found chamomile tea to be useful in improving the quality of sleep in postnatal women. It also lessened symptoms of depression.

Although there isn’t a typical dose for chamomile, you can use it a few ways:

  • use dried chamomile flowers to make tea
  • steep prepared tea bags sold at your local grocery store
  • inhale or apply diluted chamomile essential oil to your skin
  • apply as a topical plant tincture
  • take in tablet or capsule form

You may also find that chamomile:

  • aids in digestion
  • soothes and heals skin
  • relaxes muscles
  • relieves headaches

You shouldn’t use chamomile if you’re allergic to rag weed or anything else in the daisy family, as you might also be allergic to chamomile. So consult your doctor or an allergist before use.

If taking capsules or tablets, don’t take more than the recommended dose. Doing so may cause nausea and vomiting. You also shouldn’t use chamomile if you have a hormone-sensitive condition.

You should always dilute chamomile essential oil with water or a carrier oil, such as olive oil. Make sure you do a patch test before applying diluted essential oils to your skin.

To do this, rub a dime-size amount of diluted essential oil into the inside of your forearm. If you don’t experience any irritation within 24 hours, it should be safe to apply elsewhere.

Discontinue use if you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms. If your symptoms continue, consult your doctor.

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Valerian

Sleep aid #2: Valerian

valerian

Valerian is an herbal medicine made from the root of the plant. It’s been noted to act as a sedative, but more research on this herb is still needed. Valerian can interact with some medications, so you should consult your doctor before use.

According to a 2011 study, valerian can be helpful in treating insomnia and improving the quality of sleep in postmenopausal women. Participants in the study took 530 milligrams of valerian extract twice daily for four weeks.

Valerian may be combined with hops, lemon balm, and other herbs. It’s best to gradually increase your dose over a period of time. Once your sleep improves, you should continue using valerian for two to six weeks.

If you drink it as a tea, you may take 1/4 to 1 teaspoon up to three times per day. If you prefer to take it in capsule form, you should follow the dosage recommended on the label. When you wish to discontinue use, you should slowly reduce your dose. Abruptly ending use may cause symptoms of withdrawal or anxiety.

Valerian may also help to ease:

  • menstrual and stomach cramps
  • muscle and joint pain
  • depression
  • headaches

Valerian may cause:

  • headaches
  • impaired thinking
  • upset stomach
  • dizziness
  • irritability

You shouldn’t use valerian if you experience any unusual symptoms. Consult your doctor if your symptoms persist.

Hops

Sleep aid #3: Hops

hops

Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant. They are used to flavor beverages, like beer, and as an herbal medicine.

Hops have been shown to improve sleep. A 2014 study found that university students who drank nonalcoholic beer that contained hops enhanced their quality of sleep.

Hops are sometimes combined with other herbs like valerian. You can take a liquid extract of 0.5 to 2 milliliters daily. You can take up to 1 gram of powdered extract three times daily. You can also drink nonalcoholic beer that contains hops.

Hops may also:

  • lower cholesterol
  • relieve irritability
  • aid in digestive issues
  • have antibacterial properties

Hops may worsen certain types of depression. You shouldn’t take hops if you have a hormone-sensitive condition. You should stop using this remedy if you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms. If these symptoms continue, consult your doctor.

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Melatonin

Sleep aid #4: Melatonin

melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone made in the pineal gland. It controls your circadian rhythms. Supplemental melatonin may help you to fall asleep faster and boost the quality of your sleep.

Results of a 2016 study showed supplemental melatonin to be helpful as a sleep aid. Shift workers who took 3 milligrams of melatonin were able to fall asleep more quickly and spend more time sleeping each cycle.

The recommended dose is 1 to 5 milligrams before bedtime. You should discontinue use after two weeks. If your sleep troubles persist after two weeks of use, you should consult your doctor.

Melatonin may also:

  • help relieve symptoms of jet lag
  • boost immunity
  • fight inflammation

Melatonin may cause:

  • wakefulness in the night
  • depression
  • grogginess
  • irritability
  • stomach cramps

You should discontinue use if you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms. If these symptoms persist, consult your doctor.

Learn more: Can you take melatonin and birth control at the same time? »

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Passionflower

Sleep aid #5: Passionflower

passionflower

Passionflower is a plant containing chemicals that produce a calming effect. It brings about feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, and is sometimes combined with other plants in an herbal blend.

A 2016 study showed that passionflower alleviated sleep disorders when taken for four weeks. Participants in the study also experienced reduced anxiety levels.

You can use the herb to make a tea to drink before bedtime, or take it in capsule form. The recommended liquid dose is 10 to 30 drops of passionflower extract before bedtime. If you prefer to take a capsule, the dose is 90 milligrams. You shouldn’t take passionflower for longer than two months at a time.

Passionflower may also help to relieve:

  • pain
  • anxiety
  • muscle spasms
  • inflammation
  • symptoms of menopause

Passionflower may cause:

  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • irregular muscle action
  • loss of coordination
  • altered consciousness
  • inflamed blood vessels

Do not take passionflower if you are breast-feeding or pregnant. This herb is also known to interact with many medications and can make sedatives and blood thinners too strong. People on some types of antidepressants cannot take passionflower.

Discontinue use if you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms. If your symptoms don’t fade, consult your doctor.

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Lavender

Sleep aid #6: Lavender

lavender

Lavender is a fragrant plant used to make medicine, perfume, and oil. It’s thought to boost health and well-being. Its calming effect can help induce sleep.

A 2015 study found lavender to be effective in improving the quality of sleep in postpartum women. Participants inhaled lavender fragrance before sleeping for a period of eight weeks.

You may use lavender in the following ways:

  • add a few drops of essential oil to a diffuser near your bed
  • rub diluted essential oil onto your forehead and around your nose
  • put a few drops of essential oil on your pillow
  • use dried lavender to make tea or scented bags

Lavender may help to:

  • relieve pain
  • improve blood circulation
  • disinfect scalp and skin
  • ease abdominal discomfort
  • relieve headaches
  • alleviate respiratory problems

Always dilute lavender essential oil with water or a carrier oil, such as olive oil. You should also do a patch test before applying diluted essential oils to your skin.

To do a patch test, rub a dime-size amount of diluted essential oil into the inside of your forearm. If you don’t experience any irritation within 24 hours, it should be safe for you to use.

If you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms, discontinue use. Consult your doctor if your symptoms persist.

Ginseng

Sleep aid #7: Ginseng

ginseng

Ginseng is an herb used in herbal medicine. It’s thought to promote sleep and improve immunity. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor or regulate herbs, so you should use them with caution. Also consult your doctor before use so they can help you assess your risk of side effects or complications.

According to a 2013 study, red ginseng extract had positive effects on people with sleep problems. Participants experienced better sleep quality after taking the extract for a week.

The recommended dose is 800 milligrams to 2 grams of powdered ginseng per day. Or you can take 10 drops of a tincture three times a day.

You can take ginseng for up to three months at a time. Then you should wait at least one week before taking ginseng again.

Ginseng is also said to:

  • raise energy levels
  • fight stress
  • treat impotence

Ginseng may cause:

  • headache
  • agitation
  • upset stomach
  • dizziness
  • heart problems
  • menstrual problems

You should discontinue use if you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms. If you still experience symptoms after discontinuing use, consult your doctor.

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5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)

Sleep aid #8: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)

5-htp

5-HTP is a derivative of tryptophan, which is an amino acid. It’s used to increase serotonin levels.

A 2016 study showed that 5-HTP can promote sleep when taken with another supplement called gamma-aminobutyric acid. The combination is thought to increase the duration of sleep.

5-HTP is available is capsule form. The recommended dose is 150 to 400 milligrams per day, though you should follow any directions on the product label. Don’t take 5-HTP for more than six weeks.

5-HTP may also improve:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • headaches

5-HTP may cause:

  • abdominal discomfort
  • heartburn
  • loss of appetite
  • gas or bloating

If you begin experiencing any unusual symptoms, discontinue use. Consult your doctor if you still experience symptoms after stopping use.

Risks and warnings

Risks and warnings

You shouldn’t use natural sleep aids if:

  • you’re pregnant or breast-feeding
  • you’re taking sedatives, antidepressants, or other prescription drugs
  • you have an upcoming surgery

If you have an existing health condition, consult your doctor before using a natural sleep aid. Natural sleep aids may be dangerous when used by children and older adults.

Your doctor can also confirm the recommended dose for you and advise you on any potential risks.

Next steps

What can I do now?

As you begin to treat your sleep problems, try to find the underlying cause. Be aware of what’s triggering poor sleep, such as stress, noise, or discomfort. Keeping a sleep journal can help you assess your sleeping habits and look at areas for improvement.

Natural sleep aids should only be used as a short-term solution. If your sleep problems continue, they may be a sign of an underlying medical concern. You should consult your doctor if your sleep troubles persist or increase in severity. Be sure to bring your sleep journal. Your doctor can use your observations to help make a diagnosis.

Remember that side effects and risks are possible, even with natural products. Always use a reputable brand. Also speak with your doctor if you have any concerns or questions.

If you aren’t already, allow yourself to get into a habit of winding down and relaxing each night. Taking your chosen sleep aid at a certain time can be a reminder to slow down the pace, unwind, and prepare for a full night’s rest.

Keep reading: Which essential oils promote better sleep? »

Article resources
  • Chang, S. M., & Chen, C. H. (2016, February). Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: A randomized controlled trial [Abstract]. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(2), 306-315. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26483209
  • Franco, L., Bravo, R., Galán, C., Rodríguez, A. B., Barriga, C., & Cubero, J. (2014, September). Effect of non-alcoholic beer on subjective sleep quality in a university stressed population [Abstract]. Acta Physiologica Hungarica, 101(3), 353-361. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25183509
  • Han, H. J., Kim, H. Y., Choi, J. J., Ahn, S. Y., Lee, S. H., Oh, K. W., & Kim, S. Y. (2013, September 16). Effects of red ginseng extract on sleeping behaviors in human volunteers [Abstract]. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 149(2), 597-599. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23872254
  • Hong, K. B., Park, Y., & Suh, H. J. (2016, April 1). Sleep-promoting effects of a GABA/5-HTP mixture: behavioral changes and neuromodulation in an invertebrate model [Abstract]. Life Sciences, 150, 42-49. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26921634
  • Keshavarz Afshar, M., Behboodi Moghadam, Z., Taghizadeh, Z., Bekhradi, R., Montazeri A., & Mokhtari, P. (2015, April 25). Lavender fragrance essential oil and the quality of sleep in postpartum women [Abstract]. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 17(4). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26023343
  • Passionflower. (2014, June 26). Retrieved from http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/passionflower
  • Sadeghniiat-Haghighi, K., Bahrami, H., Aminian, O., Meysami, A., & Khajeh-Mehrizi, A.
  • (2016, September 27). Melatonin therapy in shift workers with difficulty falling asleep: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover field study [Abstract]. Work. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27612057
  • Taavoni, S., Ekbatani, N., Kashaniyan, M., & Haghani, H. (2011, September). Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: A randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial[Abstract]. Menopause, 18(9), 951-955. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21775910
  • Villet, S., Vacher, V., Colas, A., Danno, K., Masson, J. L., Marijnen, P. & Bordet, M. F. (2016, February). Open-label observational study of the homeopathic medicine passiflora compose for anxiety and sleep disorders [Abstract]. Homeopathy, 105(1), 84-91. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26828002
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