The Best Vitamins, Minerals, & Herbs For Natural Sleep Aids
These days, a lot of sleep-deprived patients have been coming to me seeking remedies for their restless, sleepless nights. Sometimes, these patients have underlying medical conditions or disorders that needs attention. But for healthy people, resting well is often the product of a lot of small but important everyday decisions. Eating healthfully, exercising regularly, managing stress, and sticking to regular bedtimes and wake times are the foundation of good sleeping habits.
Natural sleep aids and supplements can also play a role in supporting good rest (especially if your routine has been disrupted, due to factors out of your control, like a global pandemic).* I've put together this list of my top recommendations for natural sleep aids.* Used in conjunction with smart rest routines, these are the supplements I see making a real difference in my patients' sleep*:
I often talk with my patients about the importance of magnesium, and its critical, under-recognized, role in sleep and overall health.* Unfortunately, it's thought that about half of adults in the United States are deficient in this essential macro-mineral. In addition, we're more inclined to have low magnesium as we age, and women are particularly vulnerable to magnesium deficiency.
People with low magnesium often experience restless sleep, which means that supporting normal magnesium levels with supplementation can be helpful.* Magnesium plays a role in supporting restorative, deep sleep1 by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and a good night's rest.* Research indicates supplemental magnesium can promote quality sleep1, especially in people who sleep poorly2.*
It's no surprise that melatonin makes my list. This hormone, produced naturally by the body in response to darkness, is essential for sleep. Melatonin supplements don't work as a sedative. Instead, they promote sleep by helping to regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles3.* That makes it easier to sleep on a regular schedule—and consistency is a cornerstone of healthy sleep. Research shows that melatonin can help you fall asleep faster4, sleep longer, and improve the quality of your sleep.* Studies also show melatonin may increase REM sleep5.* Melatonin supplements can be helpful in reducing the impact of jet lag: Take this supplement about 90 minutes before you want to sleep, and follow your night's rest with some light exposure first thing the next morning.
Valerian and hops
Both valerian and hops have well-documented benefits for sleep and long histories of use as natural sleep aids. Why am I talking about them together? They're frequently paired in therapeutic use6. Hops appears to work most effectively for sleep7 when it is used in conjunction with valerian.* Valerian and hops both have mildly sedative effects that can make it easier to fall asleep and increase overall sleep time8. These two herbs also support levels of GABA, an important brain chemical for sleep and relaxation.*
It seems like hemp oil is everywhere these days, doesn't it? Specifically, CBD, a cannabinoid compound found in cannabis—which includes both marijuana and hemp—has captured a lot of attention for its benefits9.* Unlike THC, another well-known cannabinoid, CBD does not have any mind-altering effects. Instead, CBD is calming and can positively impact sleep.10* CBD is available in hemp oil supplements and also as an isolated oil. While some people report that CBD promotes wakefulness, I have at least a dozen patients on CBD none of them have had that issue.*
L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. While tea is the most common dietary source for L-theanine, this compound is also found in some types of mushrooms. L-theanine supports normal levels of GABA11,* as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills.
One of the appealing aspects of L-theanine is that it works to relax without sedating.* That can make L-theanine a good choice for people who are looking to enhance their "wakeful relaxation" without worrying about becoming sleepy and fatigued during the day. With its ability to increase relaxation and lower stress, L-theanine can help people fall asleep easier at bedtime.* Research also shows L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep12.*
Magnolia bark has a centuries-long history in traditional medicine as a stress-reliever, and sleep-promoter.* Like other natural remedies on this list, magnolia bark extract works to support GABA activity in the brain.* GABA is important for sleep13, and people with reduced GABA activity are prone to insomnia and other sleep problems.* Research shows at least one bioactive compound in magnolia bark can increase the amount of time you spend in both REM sleep and NREM sleep and reduce the time it takes you to fall asleep14.* Magnolia bark's ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol15 also make it an effective natural sleep aid for people who tend to be wired at night.*
5-Hydroxtryptophan—commonly known as 5-HTP—is a compound made naturally in the body. 5-HTP is created as a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan. Our bodies don't make L-tryptophan naturally—we absorb this essential amino acid from the foods we eat. 5-HTP is produced as a supplement from the seeds of a plant, Griffonia simplicfolia.
Research suggests that 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep duration16.* 5-HTP can be effective in supporting mood and easing symptoms of stress and anxiousness, which can, in turn, interfere with sleep.*
GABA is a substance that is produced naturally in the brain, and can also be taken as a natural sleep aid supplement (like melatonin). GABA is a neurotransmitter I call the “Brakes of the Brain” because when your body produces it, your central nervous system slows down, which makes a person feel more relaxed, and in many cases sleepy. In fact, most of the current sleep aids support normal GABA levels in the brain.*
Many of the other best natural sleep aids I have written about in this article effect internal GABA ( L-Theanine, Magnesium, and Valarian) as well.* GABA can be found naturally in many different foods and there are some foods that promote GABA production (fermented foods like sauerkraut are one good example).* There is debate about how GABA supplements work in the body17, and how the mechanisms of action may differ from the body’s own internally-produced GABA.
You might not know it by name, but the tiny amino acid glycine is hard at work in your body right now, maintaining strength and support in your muscles and bones, helping keep your metabolism functioning correctly, supporting a healthy brain, and contributing to a good night's sleep. Glycine (also known as 2-Aminoacetic Acid) is an amino acid and a neurotransmitter. The body produces glycine on its own, synthesized from other natural biochemicals, most often serine18 but also choline and threonine. We also consume glycine through food. This amino acid is found in high-protein foods including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and legumes. A daily diet typically includes about 2 grams of glycine.
Research shows dietary glycine elevates serotonin19 and promotes sleep quality. Glycine can help you bounce back to healthy sleep cycles20 after a period of disrupted sleep. A recent study of the effects of glycine as a supplement21 showed it triggered a drop in body temperature and at the same time helped people both fall asleep more quickly and spend more time in REM sleep.* And glycine may help you move more quickly into deep, slow wave sleep.
Jujube fruit is densely packed with nutrients—so much so that this small, shrublike plant has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for various health conditions.* I often recommend jujube as a natural sleep aid for my patients. I find jujube especially effective for people whose sleep problems22 are related to stress.*
Scientific studies show jujube extends sleep time23 in mice.* Both flavonoids and saponins—bioactive compounds found in jujube—have been shown to increase sleep time24.* One of the flavonoids in jujube25 can increase time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, the two most restorative stages of sleep.*
I hope you find a right-fit sleep supplement for yourself on this list. Remember, long term sleep problems don't typically appear overnight, which means they don't disappear in the short term either. It can often take a few weeks for the effects of a a natural sleep aid to appear. (And be sure to speak with your doctor if you're concerned about side effects with any current medications.) Be patient, and pack your days (and nights) with plenty of sleep-supporting habits. You'll be sleeping better sooner than you think!
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and both a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He is one of only 168 psychologists in the world to have passed the Sleep Medical Speciality board without going to Medical School. Breus was recently named the Top Sleep Specialist in California by Reader’s Digest, and one of the 10 most influential people in sleep. He is on the clinical advisory board of The Dr. Oz Show and on the show (40 times). His topic of expertise is the science of sleep and peak performance.
Breus is the author of four books with his most recent with co-author Stacey Griffith called Energize: Go from Dragging Ass to Kicking it in 30 days (Dec 2021) This book has a unique program designed to deliver natural energy all day long (without caffeine). His third book The Power of When (September 2016), a No. 1 at Amazon for Time Management and Happiness and No. 28 overall, is a bio-hacking guide book proving that there is a perfect time to do everything, based on your genetic biological chronotype.
Breus has supplied his expertise with both consulting and as a sleep educator (spokesperson) to many brands, and has lectured all over the world for various organizations, hospitals and medical centers, product companies, and more.
For over 14 years he has served as the Sleep Expert for WebMD. He also writes The Insomnia Blog on his website, and can be found regularly on Psychology Today and Sharecare. Breus has been interviewed as an expert resource for major broadcast networks and digital media publications, where he has been interviewed about sleep disorders and sleep hacking for performance.
Breus has been in private practice for 23 years and recently relocated his practice to Manhattan Beach just outside of Los Angeles.