These Are The Best Vitamins, Minerals, & Herbs For Sleep
A lot of sleep-deprived patients come to me looking for a quick fix for their restless, sleepless nights. It pains me to say it, but I often have to tell them that there's no silver bullet that instantly solves sleep problems. Sometimes, there's an underlying medical condition that needs attention. For healthy people, sleeping well is 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 sleep hygiene.
Supplements can also play a role in improving sleep. I get asked all the time about what supplements I think work best to create better nightly rest. I've put together this list of my top recommendations for natural sleep remedies. There are no silver bullets on this list. But used in conjunction with smart sleep routines, these are the supplements I see making real improvements to my patients' sleep:
I talk often with my patients about the importance of magnesium, and its critical, underrecognized, 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 replenishing the body's magnesium can be helpful for sleep. Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and a good night's rest. Research indicates supplemental magnesium can improve sleep quality, especially in people who sleep poorly. Magnesium can also help insomnia that's linked to the sleep disorder restless leg syndrome. This mineral can also ease symptoms of both mild-to-moderate anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression, which in turn may help you rest better.
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 does not work as a sedative. Instead, it promotes sleep by helping to regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles. 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 faster, sleep longer, and improve the quality of your sleep. Studies also show melatonin may increase REM sleep. Melatonin 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. Melatonin can be taken every day, especially if you have a melatonin deficiency, which often occurs as you get older.
3. 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 use. Hops appears to work most effectively for sleep when it is used in conjunction with valerian. Valerian and hops both have mildly sedative effects that can make it easier to fall asleep, reduce symptoms of insomnia, and increase overall sleep time. These two herbs also function as anxiolytics—anxiety reducers—that elevate levels of GABA, an important brain chemical for sleep and relaxation.
It seems like CBD oil is everywhere these days, doesn't it? CBD is a cannabinoid, a group of chemical compounds found in cannabis—which includes both marijuana and hemp—that have captured a lot of attention for their benefits in the treatment of pain and disease. Unlike THC, another well-known cannabinoid, CBD does not have any mind-altering effects. Instead, CBD is one of the most calming and stress-reducing of the natural compounds derived from the cannabis plant. New research shows CBD can significantly reduce insomnia symptoms.
CBD also can ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain—all of which often interfere with sleep. I was especially encouraged to see this new study showing CBD can exert calming and anxiety- and stress-reducing effects without causing changes to healthy sleep-wake cycles. Magnesium is available in supplement capsule form and also as an oil, cream, or in the form of Epsom salts that you can add to your bath. While some people report that CBD promotes wakefulness, I have at least a dozen patients on CBD to help with their sleep and none of them have had that issue.
Jujube is densely packed with nutrients—so much so that this small, shrublike plant has been used for centuries as a natural remedy to treat insomnia, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, and pain. I often recommend jujube as a supplement for my patients with insomnia or other sleep issues. I find jujube especially effective for people whose insomnia and other sleep problems are related to stress and anxiety.
One of the strongest benefits of jujube is its ability to calm the mind, quiet neural activity, and help induce and sustain sleep. Scientific studies show jujube extends sleep time in mice. Both flavonoids and saponins—bioactive compounds found in jujube—have been shown to increase sleep time. One of the flavonoids in jujube can increase time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, the two most restorative stages of sleep.
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. (In foods, particularly green tea, L-theanine is thought to be a source of umami, the savory, brothy taste.) L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, neurochemicals that regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills. At the same time it is increasing chemicals that promote feelings of calm, L-theanine also reduces levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety.
L-theanine appears to trigger production of alpha waves in the brain, which enhance relaxation, focus, and creativity. 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 more quickly and easily at bedtime. Research also shows L-theanine can improve the quality of sleep.
7. Magnolia bark
Magnolia bark has a centuries-long history in traditional medicine as a stress-reliever, anxiety-soother, and sleep-promoter. Like other natural remedies on this list, magnolia bark extract works to increase GABA activity in the brain. GABA is important for sleep, 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 asleep. Magnolia bark's ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol also make it an effective natural sleep aid for people who tend to be wired and anxious at night.
5-Hydroxytryptophan—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.
5-HTP helps the body produce more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood and sleep-wake cycles. Because of its role in creating serotonin, 5-HTP is indirectly involved in producing melatonin, a hormone that is critical for sleep. Melatonin helps the body's bio clock stay in sync and regulates daily sleep-wake cycles. A strong bio clock and regular sleep-wake routines are the cornerstone of healthy, restful, rejuvenating sleep. Research suggests that 5-HTP may help shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep amounts. 5-HTP can be effective in improving mood and easing symptoms of stress and anxiousness, which can, in turn, interfere with sleep. 5-HTP may also be effective in helping to reduce sleep terrors in children.
GABA is a substance that is produced naturally in the brain, and can be in supplement format (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 increase GABA levels in the brain!
The body’s own GABA activity is important for sleep. GABA enables the body and mind to relax and fall asleep, and sleep soundly throughout the night. Low GABA activity is linked to insomnia and disrupted sleep. Many of the other supplements 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 or there are some foods that boost GABA production (fermented foods like sauerkraut are one good example). There is debate about how GABA supplements work in the body, and how the mechanisms of action may differ from the body’s own internally-produced GABA. But like CBD, GABA helps reduce anxiety, which could be beneficial for sleep.
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 right, 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 serine 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 oral glycine elevates serotonin, reduces symptoms of insomnia, and improves sleep quality. Glycine can help you bounce back to healthy sleep cycles after a period of disrupted sleep. A recent study of the effects of glycine as a supplement 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.
I hope you find a right-fit sleep supplement for yourself on this list. Remember, sleep problems don't typically appear overnight, which means they don't disappear instantly either. It can often take a few weeks for the effects of a supplement to appear. Be patient, and pack your days (and nights) with plenty of sleep-supporting habits. You'll be sleeping better sooner than you think!
Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.