- Natural sleep aids are herbs and amino acids that either have sedative properties or simply enhance the quality and restfulness of sleep.
- Melatonin is, by far, the best natural sleep aid in regards to potency and safety, but it only helps you initially fall asleep. After that, the other most promising options are chamomile, lemon balm, and potentially magnesium for improving sleep quality.
- While most natural sleep aids are safe, there is the underlying risk of “benzodiazepine-like effects” (ie. high potency that can knock you out) and the inevitable horrible withdrawal and health risks thereof.
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 three best and worst natural sleep aids, and how to take the ones that work.
- Why Do People Take Natural Sleep Aids?
- How Do Natural Sleep Aids Work?
- The Best 3 Natural Sleep Aids
- Best Natural Sleep Aid #1
- Best Natural Sleep Aid #2
- Best Natural Sleep Aid #3
- Lemon Balm
- The Worst 3 Natural Sleep Aids
- Worst Natural Sleep Aid #1
- Worst Natural Sleep Aid #2
- ZMA (Specifically Vitamin B6)
- Worst Natural Sleep Aid #3
- Are Natural Sleep Aids Safe?
- The Bottom Line on Natural Sleep Aids
Table of Contents
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.
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.
Natural sleep aids are used due to how problematic poor sleep habits can be and how, to many people, simply “improving sleep habits” either is too much effort or has just hasn’t worked that well so far.
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)
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.
Overall, sleep supplements work by encouraging the brain to focus a bit less on stimulating neurons and more on suppressing them. The body normally wants to sleep each day, so this simply facilitates what your body would normally want to do.
For the best natural sleep aids, I’ll focus on those with a decent amount of evidence but also trying to spread it out between different mechanisms. It wouldn’t be that interesting if the top three were all similar after all.
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.
Simple, effective, obscenely well researched and oddly safe for a hormone—melatonin supplementation is the gold standard for natural sleep aids, despite only helping people fall asleep faster.
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.
At this moment in time, it’s fairly certain that chamomile has a calming effect, but most of the studies have been done on generalized anxiety disorder. The two studies we have now on sleep show modest benefit, but benefit nonetheless.
Lemon balm (melissa officinalis) is an herb that has generally sedative properties to a minor degree. 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 sleep disturbances associated with anxiety were helped with lemon balm. 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.
Lemon balm seems to be helpful in instances where anxiety and “intrusive/running thoughts” impair sleep. This is due to GABA not only having the potential to increase GABA but also by helping this neurotransmitter work better.
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 three 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.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is perhaps the most important neurotransmitter when it comes to getting proper sleep, arguably even more important than melatonin (even though both are needed, GABA regulates more processes).
However, simply shoving it into your mouth won’t work.
There is a special barrier separating brain fluid from the rest of the body called the blood-brain barrier (BBB), and it’s damn picky as to what it let’s into the brain. And why shouldn’t it be? If the wrong thing gets in there you die.
So while it will happily gobble up as much GABA from the blood as is needed when the brain requires it, putting in higher than normal levels into the blood is met with the BBB rapidly shutting off access like a bouncer at the club. Forcing higher than normal levels is very difficult and, even if you succeed, it can just get thrown back out.
It’s why pharmaceutical companies have opted for synthetic drugs that act on GABA receptors instead; those ones can actually get to the brain.
Despite the importance of the GABA molecule in promoting proper sleep, simply putting it into your mouth won’t work since high levels of it will either not get to the brain or will get ejected from the brain if there is too much.
ZMA is a popular supplement formulation using zinc, magnesium aspartate, and vitamin B6.
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:
- Vitamin B6 doesn’t increase melatonin as evidenced above.
- 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.
- 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…
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?
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.
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.
Natural sleep aids are commonly sold due to the way we work and live our lives in these modern times. High levels of caffeine intake and stress met with an overabundance of glowy screens has left many of us sleep deprived (and often unaware of the problem).
Improving sleep habits does a lot but, at the end of the day, if the habits are either too hard to implement or not enough, then a pill or powder may be able to help.
Since pharmaceutical sleep aids have an ugly history (benzodiazepines) a lot of people opt for “natural” options. There are a few valid options, many worse options, and at the end of the day medical doctors and alternative health practitioners can agree melatonin is awesome.
So, if you want deep, restful sleep to energize tomorrow without relying on habit-forming drugs or stimulants (and getting some of that delicious melatonin to boot) then consider trying out Lunar today.
Lunar is a natural sleep aid that helps you relax and fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, sleep more deeply, and wake up feeling rested, restored, and ready for the day. It includes a clinically effective dose of melatonin, glycine, lemon balm leaf extract, and rutaecarpine to help break down caffeine.
What’s your take on the best and worst natural sleep aids? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- JH, van D., & CR, M. (2015). Interaction between 5-HTTLPR genotype and cognitive stress vulnerability on sleep quality: effects of sub-chronic tryptophan administration. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 18(3). https://doi.org/10.1093/IJNP/PYU057
- D, W., W, L., Y, X., W, H., W, W., L, Y., J, Y., F, S., & Z, W. (2016). Tryptophan for the sleeping disorder and mental symptom of new-type drug dependence: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Medicine, 95(28). https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000004135
- C, H., SP, H., T, H., & J, M. (2005). Protein source tryptophan versus pharmaceutical grade tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for chronic insomnia. Nutritional Neuroscience, 8(2), 121–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/10284150500069561
- Mary J. Brown, Muhammad Atif Ameer, & Kevin Beier. (n.d.). Vitamin B6 Deficiency - PubMed. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29261855/
- Rafael Luboshitzky, U Ophir, Rachel Nave, Rachel Epstein, Zila Shen-Orr, & Paula Herer. (n.d.). The effect of pyridoxine administration on melatonin secretion in normal men - PubMed. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12080281/
- A, K., H, T., T, T., M, N., T, T., & Y, S. (2001). Efflux of a suppressive neurotransmitter, GABA, across the blood-brain barrier. Journal of Neurochemistry, 79(1), 110–118. https://doi.org/10.1046/J.1471-4159.2001.00540.X
- Löscher, W., & Frey, H.-H. (1982). Transport of GABA at the Blood-CSF Interface. Journal of Neurochemistry, 38(4), 1072–1079. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1471-4159.1982.TB05350.X
- YO, K., JT, H., & KW, O. (2017). Rosmarinic Acid Potentiates Pentobarbital-Induced Sleep Behaviors and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep through the Activation of GABA A-ergic Systems. Biomolecules & Therapeutics, 25(2), 105–111. https://doi.org/10.4062/BIOMOLTHER.2016.035
- R, A., A, M., T, D., VL, T., & JT, A. (2009). Bioassay-guided fractionation of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) using an in vitro measure of GABA transaminase activity. Phytotherapy Research : PTR, 23(8), 1075–1081. https://doi.org/10.1002/PTR.2712
- S, T., N, N. E., & H, H. (2013). Valerian/lemon balm use for sleep disorders during menopause. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 19(4), 193–196. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.CTCP.2013.07.002
- J, C., A, I., N, F., M, R., & SG, S. (2011). Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Mediterranean Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 4(3), 211–218. https://doi.org/10.1007/S12349-010-0045-4
- DO, K., G, W., S, S., NT, T., EK, P., KA, W., & AB, S. (2003). Modulation of mood and cognitive performance following acute administration of single doses of Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm) with human CNS nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-binding properties. Neuropsychopharmacology : Official Publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(10), 1871–1881. https://doi.org/10.1038/SJ.NPP.1300230
- SM, C., & CH, C. (2016). Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(2), 306–315. https://doi.org/10.1111/JAN.12836
- SM, Z., BD, W., A, S., & JT, A. (2011). Preliminary examination of the efficacy and safety of a standardized chamomile extract for chronic primary insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled pilot study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11, 78. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-11-78
- JJ, M., SX, X., JR, K., I, S., QS, L., & JD, A. (2016). Long-term chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Phytomedicine : International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 23(14), 1735–1742. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.PHYMED.2016.10.012
- H, V., C, W., M, L. de S., C, W., R, S., F, D., JH, M., & AC, P. (1995). Apigenin, a component of Matricaria recutita flowers, is a central benzodiazepine receptors-ligand with anxiolytic effects. Planta Medica, 61(3), 213–216. https://doi.org/10.1055/S-2006-958058
- CY, C., TY, L., CW, L., CC, W., YC, W., SS, C., & SJ, W. (2015). Apigenin, a natural flavonoid, inhibits glutamate release in the rat hippocampus. European Journal of Pharmacology, 762, 72–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.EJPHAR.2015.05.035
- Jay D Amsterdam, Justine Shults, Irene Soeller, Jun James Mao, Kenneth Rockwell, & Andrew B Newberg. (n.d.). Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) may provide antidepressant activity in anxious, depressed humans: an exploratory study - PubMed. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22894890/
- JR, K., JJ, M., I, S., QS, L., & JD, A. (2016). Short-term open-label chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) therapy of moderate to severe generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine : International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, 23(14), 1699–1705. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.PHYMED.2016.10.013
- JD, A., Y, L., I, S., K, R., JJ, M., & J, S. (2009). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 29(4), 378–382. https://doi.org/10.1097/JCP.0B013E3181AC935C
- IM, van G., HP, K., & MG, S. (2010). The use of exogenous melatonin in delayed sleep phase disorder: a meta-analysis. Sleep, 33(12), 1605–1614. https://doi.org/10.1093/SLEEP/33.12.1605
- E, F.-O., A, Q., & MH, B. (2013). Meta-analysis: melatonin for the treatment of primary sleep disorders. PloS One, 8(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0063773
- F, A., EL, M., I, M., DJ, S., & RL, R. (2017). Evidence for the efficacy of melatonin in the treatment of primary adult sleep disorders. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 34, 10–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.SMRV.2016.06.005
- S, N., M, O., H, M., W, O., A, A., & T, W. (2018). Bright-light exposure during daytime sleeping affects nocturnal melatonin secretion after simulated night work. Chronobiology International, 35(2), 229–239. https://doi.org/10.1080/07420528.2017.1394321
- F, N., T, N., T, Y., T, I., Y, M., A, K., T, M., A, Y., A, M., T, M., N, O., & K, Y. (2017). Histamine N-methyltransferase regulates aggression and the sleep-wake cycle. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/S41598-017-16019-8
- Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153(7), 435. https://doi.org/10.1059/0003-4819-153-7-201010050-00006
- Nagai, M., Hoshide, S., & Kario, K. (2010). Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease- a Review of the Recent Literature. Current Cardiology Reviews, 6(1), 54. https://doi.org/10.2174/157340310790231635
- Y, F., SA, D., & AA, M. (2016). Sleep quality and obesity in young subjects: a meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 17(11), 1154–1166. https://doi.org/10.1111/OBR.12444
- L, S., SJ, C., MY, M., YP, B., Y, H., YM, W., J, S., MV, V., & L, L. (2018). Sleep disturbances increase the risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 40, 4–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.SMRV.2017.06.010