You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

A financial security blanket when living at home with your parents, the innocence and beauty of childhood love, the relative lack of responsibilities before starting a family; so many things that we can never fully appreciate while we are experiencing them.

It’s only when you lose it that you truly appreciate it.

Now, many of you are asking how this is at all related to an article on natural sleep aids.

*wipes single tear away*

Cherish it, my dear readers. Cherish being able to fall asleep and get a restful sleep each night without even trying. The beauty of being able to fall into a deep, restful sleep in less than 30 minutes every night.

Because one day you will descend into the hell that is micromanaging your sleep quality, sleep habits, and damn near every aspect of your bedroom just so you don’t accidentally scare children into thinking the zombie apocalypse came early with your lethargy.

When that day comes, you’re going to want to know how to navigate the plethora of natural sleep aids on the market. Which work, which don’t, and what to take to get immediate help.

By the end of this article, you’ll know what natural sleep aids are, how they work, the four best and two worst natural sleep aids, and how to take the ones that work. 

Why Do People Take Natural Sleep Aids?

Natural sleep aids are a popular category of supplements simply because of how many of us live our lives these days. While sleep is important we, all too frequently, take actions and make habits which are not helping us get proper sleep.

Reliance on caffeine or pre-workouts as pick-me-ups, spending the entire day and even our evenings looking at computer or television screens, and changing around our sleep habits are all too common and make it harder to get a restful sleep.

Going for a long time without restful sleep may not even be perceived (we may think that we’re still chugging along at 100%) but it’s known to still reduce performance even when we’re not aware of it.

Poor sleep is even associated with numerous health problems and complications; increased risk for cognitive diseases, obesity, heart disease, and even increased muscle loss when dieting.

So in the end, the combination of you potentially not even knowing you’re sleep deprived paired with the performance and health risks thereof make getting optimal sleep something that many people fret about.

While we could change around our sleep habits to get a more restful sleep, which would be ideal, some people would prefer to take a pill or powder to help solve the issue even if it costs a pretty penny.

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How Do Natural Sleep Aids Work?

Natural sleep aids are, overall, simple in how they work. There are many neurotransmitters in the brain which can be broadly labeled as either “stimulating” or “depressing.”

Depressing, in this sense, does not refer to clinical depression but along the lines of tongue depressing—it just means “downwards.” If a neurotransmitter makes a neuron fire more it’s stimulating but if it makes it fire less it’s depressing.

Various depressing neurotransmitters that we know of in the brain that are relevant to natural sleep aids include:

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
  • Melatonin
  • Adenosine
  • Glycine
  • Taurine

While it’s also possible that, rather than increasing the activity of a depressing neurotransmitter, blocking the actions of a stimulating one could also improve sleep. Perhaps you’ve heard of antihistamines being used to aid sleep? Well, histamine is actually a stimulating molecule in the brain and regulates wakefulness, so by reducing it in the body, sleep improves.

Of course, not all of the above neurotransmitters are interchangeable. Some are more potent when successfully influenced (GABA), some only affect one phase of sleep (melatonin), and such.

The 4 Best Natural Sleep Aids

For the best natural sleep aids, I’ll focus on those with scientific support but also try to spread it out between different mechanisms. It wouldn’t be that interesting if the top four were all similar after all.

Best Natural Sleep Aid #1: Melatonin

Melatonin is one of the major hormones in the body involved in sleep. Specifically, it is the molecule that responds to light. When you can see light the brain suppresses melatonin creation but, when light goes away, melatonin gets created from serotonin and helps initiate sleep.

I don’t want to praise melatonin too much but, trust me, it quite deserves praise. It is by far the most well-researched sleep aid of all time (pharmaceutical or supplemental) with a very successful track record of reducing sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) and fighting jet lag.

If we were to rate natural sleep aids on a scale of 1-to-10, melatonin is not only a 9.5 but it also pushes the other options down two points just to make more distance between them.

It isn’t a cure-all for sleep however. It focuses specifically on the aforementioned “sleep latency” as melatonin is the neurotransmitter that primarily causes you to fall asleep. Once you are actually asleep then other neurotransmitters take part in making the sleep restful and deep.

So for those of you who can easily fall asleep, melatonin probably won’t do much for you. For those of you who remain awake for 30 minutes or more before trying to fall asleep though? Melatonin is a godsend.

Even though it only improves the ability to fall asleep, that’s a major problem for many people, and there are other things you can do to increase the quality of your sleep once you’re sacked out.

Best Natural Sleep Aid #2: Chamomile

This one surprised me since I thought it would be useless; normally tea is very overhyped in the “alternative medicine” field. However, chamomile does seem to have some promise.

Chamomile, or more specifically the plant matricaria chamomilla, has a history of being used for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder where it shows promise. It has also at least once shown some anti-depressant effects in anxious people (not necessarily the clinically depressed).

This is largely thought to be related to chamomile containing a chemical called apigenin, which is a general antioxidant that both suppresses glutamate release and acts on the benzodiazepine GABA receptors.

Benzodiazepine, in this sense, refers to a specific receptor of GABA. It’s what many benzodiazepine, or “benzo”, drugs are named after. If this receptor is activated too potently for too long it can cause unavoidable and severe side-effects.

Chamomile only has about 6 mg of apigenin per serving or 1.2% of 220 mg, and the benefit it provides to sleep in insomnia and postpartum women is modest. It may not be potent enough to cause benzo-like problems but still enough to be of minor benefit.

Best Natural Sleep Aid #3: Lemon Balm

Lemon balm (melissa officinalis) is a herb that has minor sedative properties. While definitely not up there with benzodiazepine pharmaceuticals, it’s still something that deserves the whole “do not operate heavy machinery after taking” warning.

While initially studied for generalized anxiety, it was later found that lemon balm helped sleep disturbances associated with anxiety. Later studies also found similar results in menopausal women.

This is largely thought to be due to the rosmarinic acid content. A molecule at high levels at 1.5% of the dry weight of the plant. Rosmarinic acid may have potential to increase GABA levels outright, by inhibiting an enzyme called GABA transaminase, but also seems to help GABA work better at the receptor.

Best Natural Sleep Aid #4: GABA

Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that binds to receptors between neurons and reduces their tendency to “fire” and transmit nerve impulses. 

This, in turn, can reduce stress and excitement and promote calm and restfulness, which is why research shows that supplementation with GABA reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, improves the perceived quality of sleep, and increases “sleep efficiency” (the ratio between the time you spends asleep and the total time you dedicate to sleeping).

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The 2 Worst Natural Sleep Aids

Since it’s a rather big market there are a lot of things out there purported to work, which don’t, but let’s target the popular guys first.

The two worst natural sleep aids are those that are relatively popular, perhaps not the best sellers, but definitely the ones that have little to no reason to be sold for sleep.

Worst Natural Sleep Aid #1: ZMA (Specifically Vitamin B6)

ZMA is a popular supplement formulation using zinc, magnesium aspartate, and vitamin B6. While the blend was initially made as a mineral supplement for athletes, who have higher requirements for zinc due to it being lost in sweat, it’s also used as a sleep supplement due to being a cheap way of getting magnesium. 

Used initially to supplement two minerals that are deficient in the diet, it’s often used as a natural sleep aid and is known for supposedly causing wacky “ZMA Dreams.”

I won’t contest the benefits of ZMA to sleep since replenishing a magnesium deficiency can do wonders, but the idea that vitamin B6 is a stand-alone sleep aid is a rather silly notion.

Firstly, and obviously, there are no clinical studies in humans (or from what I can tell, even rats) that test vitamin B6 for the purpose of improving sleep. The closest we have is a study assessing whether or not it can increase melatonin levels; it failed.

It’s touted as a natural sleep aid because of that as well. Vitamin B6 is vital for the conversion of tryptophan, a dietary amino acid, into 5-HTP and later serotonin; serotonin then being converted into melatonin. There are a few problems here though:

  1. Vitamin B6 doesn’t increase melatonin as evidenced above.
  2. Vitamin B6 deficiency is obscenely rare so there’s no reason taking more would increase melatonin. You can’t just throw vitamins at things all the time.
  3. Why influence a pathway so indirectly when we can just take actual melatonin?

Overall, ZMA only helps sleep to the extent that it corrects a magnesium deficiency. Vitamin B6 doesn’t have any studies on it demonstrating an improvement in sleep quality. The reason why it would work is pretty indirect and silly while the best evidence we have right now shows that it’s also misguided. Zinc is unrelated to sleep for the most part.

Worst Natural Sleep Aid #2: Tryptophan

Speaking of tryptophan, it’s also a sleep aid supplement. Similar to vitamin B6 however, one questions why you would opt for tryptophan when you can simply take melatonin itself?

Thankfully, tryptophan is studied for the purpose of improving sleep and it has, at times, shown benefits to sleep at 1 to 3 grams a day by reducing insomnia and improving overall sleep quality.

That being said, it may not do anything different than melatonin unless you are somewhat deficient in it (sometimes the case in serotonin-based drug abuse) or with unique genetic conditions

For those of us with healthy diets with a decent amount of protein in it (either plant or meat based, which provides tryptophan) then tryptophan loses its niche. Even if it did work secondary to taking melatonin then, well, why not just take melatonin instead? It’s cheaper, safer, and more effective.

For the most part, supplemental tryptophan is sold for the same purposes as melatonin supplementation. When given to people who are not deficient in tryptophan (i.e. normal diets and no drug abuse) it’s simply a weaker and more indirect way of taking melatonin.

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Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe?

To start with the king of sleep aid supplements, melatonin, we can see that it is obscenely safe. Safe to the point pregnant women, lactating women, and even children can take this hormone without any ill effects. Even doses far, far above the recommended dose have no harm aside from a bit of grogginess in the morning if you take too much.

Other natural sleep aids are, for the most part, safe. However, this is a field where there is potential for severe problems that depends on how the supplement in question works.

Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are a group of pharmaceutical sleep aids that are renowned for their amazing potency. They directly, and strongly, increase GABA signaling and can pretty much knock a person out even if they didn’t want to go to sleep.

But what the drug giveth, the drug taketh away, and due to their potency on such a vital signaling pathway they are associated with major withdrawal. If you’ve heard of people getting addicted or reliant on sleep aids, it’s a benzo.

This isn’t due to them being synthetic pharmaceuticals, it is simply because they target receptors in the GABA pathway (benzo receptors) and activate them potently.

Anything that activates GABA benzodiazepine receptors potently enough to induce sleep will, most likely, be associated with withdrawal. The only reason we haven’t heard of this happening with supplements is because we have yet to find one so potent!

Ultimately, natural sleep aids are safe simply because we have yet to come across a very potent GABA-based sleep aid. When we do it is very possible that it will have similar potential for withdrawal as pharmaceuticals.

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