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Ambien and other prescription sleep aids have become a stressed-out New Yorker’s best friend (and a $14 billion business). But they’re not necessarily the solution for green-juice-drinking healthy types who prefer a drug-free route to seven solid hours of shut eye.
Because it’s also exhausting trying to find an herbal remedy that actually works, we got recommendations from Jim Nicolai, MD, Medical Director of the Andrew Weil, MD, Integrative Wellness Program at Miraval in Tucson, and functional medicine expert, Dr. Frank Lipman, MD.
Here are the effective, herbal sleep supplements they say will gently help you doze off and get your beauty sleep without a drug-addled hangover. —Jennifer Kass
If you’re someone who has trouble falling asleep (rather than waking in the middle of the night), melatonin is the best option. This is a big one for anyone who lives in a city, travels a lot, or has an abnormal sleep-wake cycle (AKA parents of young children).
“Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that’s released in cycles throughout the day. It keeps us alert during the day and at rest during the night, and it is what our body needs to in order to sleep,” Dr. Lipman explains.
How it works: “Many people don’t have high enough levels of melatonin at night, so adding the supplement can help you fall asleep,” explains Dr. Lipman.
Your Rx: Dr. Lipman recommends 0.5-2 mg of melatonin. $15.26, amazon.com
If you’re under a lot of stress (or going through something emotional) and consistently wake up in the middle of the night, holy basil’s for you. It’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and “creates a sense of calm by lowering anxiety and depression.”
How it works: Stress disrupts cortisol’s regular rhythm, Dr. Nicolai explains. “Often cortisol spikes between 6 and 8 a.m. to wake us up, but stress causes this spike to go backwards, waking us at 3 or 4 a.m. and holy basil can moderate this cortisol response.”
Your Rx: He recommends 1-2 capsules in the early evening. New Chapter’s Holy Basil Force, $16.90 for 60 soft gels, amazon.com
If your racing mind causes you to wake up in the middle of the night so often that you’re considering medication for help staying asleep, Valerian root is your friend.
It helps calm the nervous system, says Dr. Nicolai. “It can be very helpful in creating a low level of calm without causing a major hangover or histamine coma or fog.”
How it works: “It’s a mild sedative that lowers the anxiety response and promotes relaxation and sleep,” explains Dr. Nicolai.
Your Rx: He recommends 1-2 capsules a half hour before bed. Nature’s Way Valerian Root, $4.29, amazon.com
If you struggle with the winter blues and depression, mood-boosting 5-HTP might help add some extra hours of Zzzs. A more modern supplement, for decades Europeans have used 5-HTP to treat sleep and depression.
How it works: This amino acid is the building block of melatonin and it converts to serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, says Dr. Lipman. “Because 5-HTP is the precursor of serotonin and necessary for melatonin formation, it’s very beneficial for mood and sleep.”
Your Rx: Dr. Lipman’s Be Well Sleep Bundle, $59, bewellbydrfranklipman.com
If you’re not struggling with a serious sleep problem, Bach Flower Sleep Remedy might be all you need to nod off.
“It’s great for quieting racing thoughts and an active or nervous mind—flower essences do this really do well,” explains Alisa Vitti, women’s hormonal health specialist and founder of FLOliving.com.
How it works: Homeopathic extracts such as white chestnut help ease a restless mind and cherry plum targets tension.
Your Rx: Swallow a couple sprays right before bed and again, if you wake up in the middle of the night. $12, amazon.com
Things you might already be taking that promote sleep:
Magnesium calms nerves and relaxes muscles, aiding in sleep. but most of us are deficient in this mineral, so it’s often added to sleep supplements.
Vitamin D can remedy daytime drowsiness while improving overall well-being. And that affects sleep.
B vitamins helps tryptophan in your body convert to niacin and serotonin, which regulate sleep and increase REM.
Passion flower is regularly added to sleep supplements or can be taken separately as an anti-anxiety.
Chamomile tea (pictured) at bedtime soothes and calms, acting as a very mild natural sedative.