7 Best Natural Sleep Aids: Methods that Really Work?

7 Best Natural Sleep Aids: Which Method Really Work?

7 Best Natural Sleep Aids Methods

About one-third of U.S. adults aren’t regularly getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2020 Sleep in America Poll[1]. Yet sleep is recognized as an essential part of overall health, and the effects of being sleep-deprived are well-known. In fact, researchers report that a chronic lack of sleep can contribute to a host of health issues, including depression, a weakened immune system and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

Pharmacy aisles feature an overwhelming array of sleep solution supplements, however these supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “A number of supplements have some data to support their use to improve certain aspects of sleep, but it’s often a subtle effect,” says Michael A. Grandner, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and the director of the behavioral sleep medicine clinic at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, Arizona. A supplement that offers a slight improvement in sleep quality may be adequate for minor or occasional sleep problems, though Grander encourages anyone experiencing persistent problems with sleep to seek professional care.

Below we explore some of the most common natural sleep aids and how well they actually work.

What Is a Natural Sleep Aid?

Natural sleep aids are products that can potentially address mild to moderate insomnia and sleep issues, according to Biomolecules and Therapeutics. These products include over-the-counter plant, vitamin or mineral supplements, as well as substances already found within the body with potential sleep-promoting benefits, such as melatonin.

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs typically prescribed for insomnia, such as barbiturates which can cause habitual use or addiction, natural sleep aids have minimal unwanted side effects. People who suffer from chronic sleep issues or mild insomnia may gravitate toward natural sleep aids due to their lack of side effects and risks. However, ongoing research into the mechanism of various natural sleep aids, their efficacy and side effects is essential.

How Do Natural Sleep Aids Work?

Rather than inducing sleep by depressing the central nervous system as medications like barbiturates do, many natural sleep aids contain sleep-promoting hormones and chemicals that are naturally occuring in the body, such as melatonin.

Some natural sleep aids, including tryptophan, 5-HTP and GABA, are amino acids typically consumed through the diet. Once digested, they promote the brain’s production of melatonin and serotonin, each of which help induce and regulate sleep. Other natural sleep aids, such as valerian root and lavender, may help to improve sleep through their ability to promote a sense of calm in the user.

The Best Natural Sleep Aids

Natural sleep aids are neither approved nor regulated by the FDA, which means it can be difficult to know which products are safe and effective. Several of the most popular natural sleep aids include melatonin, GABA, tryptophan, 5-HTP, CBD and THC, valerian root and lavender. Which is the best natural sleep aid for your sleep needs depends on a variety of factors, including your specific sleep struggles (falling asleep, staying asleep, etc.). Speak to your health care provider to determine which of these options might help you get the quality sleep you need.


Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body it’s time for sleep by timing your circadian rhythm. In the human body, the pineal gland secretes melatonin as a reaction to reduced light, signaling to the brain that it’s time to get sleepy.

In most countries, you need a prescription to obtain synthetic melatonin, but it’s available over the counter in the U.S. as a nutritional supplement.

Does Melatonin Help You Sleep?

There’s plenty of peer-reviewed research indicating that melatonin can, in fact, help with sleep—including studies in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism and the Journal of Sleep Medicine Reviews—but too many people misunderstand how melatonin works.

“Melatonin is more of a clock shifter than a sleep inducer,” says Grandner. Taking half a milligram to 3 milligrams a couple of hours before bedtime (a little before your body starts to naturally produce melatonin) can give you an extra push to fall asleep faster—and it just might help you sleep through the night more soundly. But if you fall asleep earlier, it’s likely that you’ll also wake up early, warns Grandner.

And more melatonin is not better. He says too much melatonin can lead to an upset stomach, and some evidence suggests it could even be counterproductive to sleep. In effect, you want to trick your body into believing that, according to the level of melatonin present, it’s time for sleep. But your body can actually override melatonin levels that are unbelievably high, treating them kind of like an error code.

Try it or skip it? For occasional sleep issues, melatonin may be fine. But when it comes to chronic insomnia, both the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine say there isn’t enough strong evidence on the effectiveness and safety of melatonin supplements to recommend its use.


Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that sends chemical messages through the brain and nervous system and helps regulate communication between brain cells. GABA’s role is to reduce or calm the activity of neurons. Many prescription sleeping pills work by boosting GABA in the brain, which has led supplement manufacturers to suggest GABA supplements might help with stress and sleep.

Does GABA Help You Sleep?

GABA is well established as a sedative mechanism in the brain. However, GABA taken orally as a nutritional supplement is an entirely different story.

A 2020 review of studies observing people who took GABA supplements and ate foods rich in GABA (like brown rice and oolong tea) concluded there’s limited evidence for GABA’s sleep benefits, though more research is needed[2]. “If taking GABA as a supplement did anything to GABA in the brain, we wouldn’t need prescription sleeping pills,” says Grandner. “[GABA as a supplement] doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and doesn’t get into the brain.”

Try it or skip it? The research is too limited to recommend GABA supplements as a reliable sleep aid.


Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, assists in nitrogen balance regulation and niacin production, which is key in creating the neurotransmitter serotonin (known as the “feel good” or relaxation neurotransmitter). Our bodies need serotonin to produce melatonin and subsequently regulate sleep.

While tryptophan is often linked in the U.S. with the sleepy feeling you get after eating Thanksgiving turkey, this essential amino acid is actually plentiful in foods most of us eat every day—including turkey, chicken, meat, cheese, yogurt, eggs and fish.

Tryptophan is commonly available as a supplement, too, although it was banned in the U.S. in the late 1980s due to an outbreak of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), a complicated muscle and nerve disorder that sometimes leads to death. Ultimately, the outbreak wasn’t linked to tryptophan, but rather to one manufacturer’s contaminated processes, so the ban was lifted in 2005.

Does Tryptophan Help You Sleep?

Most data on tryptophan dates back to the 1970s and 1980s and suggests that otherwise healthy people with mild sleep disturbances who take tryptophan in doses of at least 1 gram generally report feeling sleepier quicker and drifting off to sleep faster.

Grandner warns, though, that it’s not a sleeping pill and won’t work for severe insomnia. And similar to melatonin, more is not better. The literature is scarce, but occasional side effects—seen mainly at higher doses—include tremors, nausea and dizziness. These effects can occur when tryptophan is taken either alone or with a drug that enhances serotonin function (like prescription antidepressants).

Try it or skip it? Tryptophan might help, but consult with your doctor if you’re going to mix it with other medications.


Similar to tryptophan, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a precursor of serotonin. In fact, some believe it’s more effective than tryptophan because it’s the more immediate precursor of serotonin. It grew in popularity in the wake of the tryptophan ban and continues to be touted as a sleep aid, as well as an antidepressant.

Does 5-HTP Help You Sleep?

There’s some evidence 5-HTP can be effective for sleep. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Therapeutics found participants who consumed a combination of GABA and 5-HTP reduced the time it took for them to fall asleep significantly, as well as improved both their sleep quality and duration[3]. And a 2004 study, in which researchers fed 5-HTP supplements to mice, found it increased their serotonin levels.

Try it or skip it? Because the risk of side effects in consuming 100 milligrams of 5-HTP are low and transient—meaning they don’t last long—Grandner isn’t opposed to anyone trying 5-HTP. However, side effects can include nausea and constipation. He notes, too, that despite the scientific community’s interest in 5-HTP for more than 40 years, there still aren’t enough solid, peer-reviewed studies for him to strongly recommend it in supplement form to patients.


The cannabis sativa plant contains more than 100 different natural chemical compounds called phytocannabinoids, with cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being the two most researched and well-known. These phytocannabinoids act on your endocannabinoid system, a cell signaling system, which is responsible for regulating lots of processes in the body, including communication between cells, appetite and metabolism, immune response, memory and more.

People consume CBD and THC in many forms—capsulesgummies, foods or oil tinctures—and they can be consumed separately or together. Some theories suggest that CBD and THC work synergistically, meaning that when taken together, they’re more effective.

Does CBD/THC Help You Sleep?

CBD and THC consumers might swear by it, but research suggests we should remain skeptical. A 2021 study in Addictive Behaviors put it this way: “Cannabis users have increased expectations of cannabis being a sleep aid, but few associations exist between cannabis use and sleep outcomes[4].” As for CBD, though, a 2019 study in the Permanente Journal found it had a positive impact on anxiety, which could, in turn, help some people with sleep[5].

Try it or skip it? Long story short, researchers don’t quite know yet. But with the growing acceptance (and legalization) of cannabis in many parts of the country, experts anticipate a lot more high-quality, peer-reviewed research on the topic in the near future.

Valerian Root

Valerian root, is a perennial herb native to North America, Asia and Europe. Its use dates back to the Roman empire where it was a treatment for insomnia, as well as other conditions like anxiety, according to an article in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine[1].

Valerian supplements are made from the plant’s roots, rhizomes (stems located underground) and stems. The dried herb can be encapsulated in tablets, and dried roots can be prepared as teas or tinctures.

Does Valerian Root Help You Sleep?

Some clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of certain valerian root supplements for improving sleep quality and reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, according to the American Botanical Council.

Although valerian root is a popular natural sleep aid, studies have not yet shown which chemical components cause its potential sleep-promoting and sedative effects. However, one theory being studied is that valerian potentially releases GABA in the brain and may block the enzyme that destroys GABA, which may cause sedative effects in either case.

Try it or skip it? The results of existing studies regarding valerian root’s effectiveness as a sleep aid are inconsistent, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. However, some research suggests that valerian root may effectively improve the quality of sleep and reduce sleep latency without problematic side effects.


Lavender, of the genus Lavandula, includes 30 species of evergreen plants in the mint family native originally to the Mediterranean (but now widely cultivated). The most common forms of lavender are English lavender and French lavender, both of which can be identified through the spikes of purple flowers growing from the stems.

Lavender has a long history of use, including being added to baths in ancient Rome. When referring to lavender as a natural sleep aid, it’s most often in the form of essential oil aromatherapy or oral administration.

Does Lavender Help You Sleep?

There have been several studies examining the effects of lavender on sleep, with improvements being noted in mild cases of insomnia. One study, conducted with four geriatric patients who discontinued use of benzodiazepines, found lavender oil aromatherapy to be as effective as the pharmaceuticals to treat insomnia.

However, most research concluding that lavender is effective at promoting sleep comes from small studies, and broader, well-organized clinical studies are needed.

Try it or skip it? Using lavender oil orally or in aromatherapy seems to be safe with very little risk of adverse side effects, though little is known about side effects if used during pregnancy.

What Is the Most Effective Natural Sleep Aid?

Many popular natural sleep aids, such as CBD, valerian root and lavender, are lacking in large, peer-reviewed studies and trials, making it difficult to confirm efficacy. Depending on your individual sleep concerns, some natural sleep remedies may be more effective than others.

To find the most effective natural sleep aid for you, speak with your doctor about any difficulty sleeping, and to rule out any other conditions. Keep in mind that some natural sleep aids can have interactions with certain medications or contraindications based on health history. Medical professionals can also guide you when it comes to which sleep aid is appropriate for you, and with doses and timing.

Are Sleep Aids Safe?

Anything you take—including natural sleep remedies—can have unexpected side effects and risks. And since the regulation of supplements isn’t nearly as strict as that of pharmaceuticals, the products you buy could even contain fluctuating amounts of the active ingredients in each batch. If you’re going to try a supplement, Grandner recommends sticking with a major supplement manufacturer to increase the likelihood of better quality control.

And remember to check with your doctor before taking any supplement—especially if you have a preexisting health condition or if you take prescription medications.

Are Sleep Aids Safe During Pregnancy?

Sleep can be difficult during pregnancy and expecting parents may be tempted to reach for natural remedies, like 5-HTP, or melatonin, that helped them sleep prior to becoming pregnant. However, there’s not enough evidence to claim that natural sleep aids are safe during pregnancy, and some could even pose risks. Very few human trials regarding the safety of using sleep aids during pregnancy exist.

If you are pregnant and suffering from poor sleep, speak with your doctor to discuss options that may be available to help.

The Benefits of Using Sleep Aids

Natural sleep aids may help to regulate your sleep cycle, improve the time it takes to fall asleep and help you stay asleep longer. Improved sleep quality through natural sleep aids may also help to reduce daytime drowsiness, which can lead to increased energy and concentration throughout the day.

Do Natural Sleep Aids Have Side Effects?

Common side effects of using natural sleep aids may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Heartburn or gas
  • Blurred vision
  • Vivid dreams
  • Dry mouth

Some natural sleep aids may interact with certain medications. Consult with your doctor to determine the best natural sleep aid for your needs.

Should You Talk to a Doctor Before Taking Natural Sleep Aids?

If you’re considering adding a natural sleep aid to your nightly routine, it’s wise to consult with your doctor beforehand. Your health care provider can consider your personal health history and any medications you’re currently taking to help you determine which natural sleep aid will best fit your needs. Additionally, your doctor may be able to diagnose any underlying conditions that might be interfering with your ability to sleep.

5 Tips for Better Sleep

Supplements may seem like a quick and easy fix, but don’t forget many people improve their sleep issues simply by working on sleep hygiene, or lifestyle habits are known to directly impact sleep. Here are Grandner’s top tips for getting better sleep.

  1. Stick to a routine. The human body thrives with a regular sleep schedule. Commit to going to bed at (or around) the same time every night and waking up at (or around) the same time every morning—even on weekends.
  2. Avoid stimulants up to six hours before bedtime. Skip that afternoon or evening coffee or any other caffeinated beverages you tend to sip later in the day. And remember: Some nutritional supplements and foods like chocolate can be stimulating, too. Even some prescriptions like certain blood pressure medications act as stimulants. Check with your doctor to see if you can take those particular prescriptions earlier in the day.
  3. Reduce your exposure to light in the evening, and turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime (or two hours for patients who are sensitive to sleep problems). Light suppresses melatonin production, and the blue light that emits from your phone screen and other devices does an even better job of suppressing melatonin production. So, yes, dim the lights. But if you can’t get away from your screens, consider investing in blue light-blocking glasses—research suggests they work at advancing melatonin secretion and sleep.
  4. Don’t eat or drink near bedtime. If your body is actively trying to digest a big meal as you lie down, you’re less likely to sleep well. Some people even experience reflux when they eat too close to bedtime, which naturally keeps them awake, too. Meanwhile, drinking less helps reduce the likelihood that you’ll wake up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
  5. Try stimulus control therapy (SCT). “Stimulus control therapy is absolutely the best bang for the buck,” says Grandner. “It works better even than prescription sleep medication.” Studies on SCT date back to the 1970s. Here’s how it works: First, you commit to a regular sleep and wake schedule, as well as create a bedroom environment that’s comfortable and conducive to sleep—cool, dark and quiet. From this point forward, only use your bed for sleep (and perhaps sex). If you’re awake for more than 10 minutes at any point in your bed, immediately get up and go to another room. Then return to bed once you’re tired again. Get up in the morning at the same time no matter how little or how much sleep you’ve had, and don’t nap during the day. Gradually, you’ll train your body to associate your bed with sleep so much so that if you sit on your bed to fold laundry, you’ll start to get sleepy, says Grandner.

How to Choose the Best Sleep Aid for You

The best sleep aid for you will depend on factors like your personal health history, side effects, cost and more. Consult with your heath care provider to determine the right natural sleep aid for your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are natural sleep aids effective?

Natural sleep aids are not regulated by the FDA, which can make it difficult to determine which products are effective. However, research suggests that some natural sleep aids (such as melatonin) may be an effective short-term treatment for sleep problems.

Are natural sleep aids safer than prescription options?

As natural sleep aids aren’t regulated by the FDA (unlike prescription sleep aids) it’s difficult to know the safety and efficacy of natural sleep aids. However, many natural sleep aids offer fewer side effects than prescription sleep medications and are less likely to lead to habitual use or addiction.

What is the safest sleep aid to take every night?

The safest sleep aid to take will depend on your health history and any medications you’re currently using. Speak with your doctor to determine which sleep aid will best suit your unique needs.




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