Magnesium vs. Valerian: What Are The Differences & Which One's Best For Your Sleep?
Nonprescription sleep aids are a popular option for those who consistently suffer through sleepless nights. When combined with good sleep hygiene, they seem to help some people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. But what's the difference between them, and do some work better than others? Today, we're comparing two of the most common options: valerian and magnesium.
What does valerian do?
Valerian is a herb extracted from the root of—you guessed it—the valerian plant, which grows across Europe, Asia, and North America. The perennial is quick to grow and easy to maintain, making it a popular garden option around the world. Its roots have been harnessed for their medicinal qualities for centuries, and today you can find them in powder, liquid, and capsule form. Dried valerian root can also be steeped as an herbal tea.
Valerian has long been used as a mild sedative, but research into its efficacy as a sleep aid has brought up some mixed results. One 1996 study on 121 patients1 found that dried valerian root could decrease insomnia symptoms when taken at bedtime for 28 days, compared to a placebo. However, during a more recent trial on 16 women with insomnia, valerian did not appear to improve sleep2 after two weeks.
After reviewing the pool of existing research, the NIH declared1 that there is not enough evidence to determine the effectiveness of valerian to treat sleep disorders. The studies that have been conducted on it so far vary widely in their methods of data collection, and some combine valerian with other calming plants like hops, making it difficult to say whether the ingredient works or doesn't work on its own. Since valerian is a natural plant compound, its potency will also vary depending on how and where it was harvested, the NIH says, and some people might glean more benefits from taking it in certain forms over others.
Potential side effects of taking valerian root include nausea and abdominal cramps.
What does magnesium do?
Magnesium is an essential nutrient, meaning that our body needs the mineral to function but doesn't produce enough of it on its own. There are many forms of magnesium supplements on the market, but magnesium glycinate is the most popular for sleep. This combination of magnesium and glycine, an amino acid that makes the magnesium easier to absorb, has been shown to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer in early trials.*
In one double-blind study3, 46 elderly subjects were given a magnesium supplement or a placebo daily for eight weeks. The ones who took the supplement had longer and deeper sleep by the end of the trial, causing the researchers to conclude that "supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia."*
Those who took the magnesium also had elevated melatonin levels and decreased cortisol levels, demonstrating that the supplement has an effect on hormone production and nervous system functioning. This could be one reason magnesium supplements are unlikely to lead to morning grogginess—they play a role in the entire sleep cycle from beginning to end.* This is just one study, though, and more research needs to be done to further validate magnesium's effects on sleep.*
Like valerian, magnesium can lead to stomach discomfort, but magnesium glycinate is less likely to cause side effects than other forms.
Which one is better for your sleep?
Based on what we know so far, valerian has relaxing effects on some people, but it's gentle. Like most herbal medicines, you may need to work with the plant for a while to fully reap its benefits. Its versatility makes valerian a nice addition to a nighttime tea, though it may interfere with other prescription medications, so you should check with your doctor before adding it to your routine.
If you're looking for something stronger and more targeted, magnesium is the move.* "Magnesium helps to calm the central nervous system, which helps to prepare the brain to turn off and also to keep it functioning at a calmer level throughout the night," family medicine physician Robert Rountree, M.D., says of the supplement.*
Hence why mindbodygreen chose magnesium as the star of its first sleep supplement, sleep support+. We worked with Rountree to develop a formula that pairs 120 milligrams of magnesium glycinate with other sleep promoters like jujube and pharmaGABA.* Both of these complement magnesium's ability to help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling more refreshed.*
The bottom line.
Valerian is an herbal medicine that seems to have some relaxing effects on the body, though its effectiveness on insomnia varies from person to person. Magnesium is an essential mineral, and while less research has been done on its ability to promote sleep, early trials show that taking it leads to a better night's rest.* That being said, no herb or supplement can undo unhealthy habits, so you should tackle those first (and check in with your doctor) before introducing either sleep aid into your routine.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.