We’ve been told over and over again that a healthy night’s sleep is the key to being your best self. (That’s to say clear-headed, anxiety-free, and able to turn down a second piece of cake at your friend’s birthday party.) But sadly, sleeplessness is just a way of life for an unlucky 70 million Americans.
And the factors behind our snooze issues are often hard to control. “The number-one reason [for difficulty falling asleep] is stress,” says board-certified sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD. “There is plenty of data to show how stress inhibits sleep onset and can cause multiple awakenings.”
So although you may try to follow all the good-sleep rules—shutting off your screens, slipping under your cooling sheets, inhaling some calming aromatherapy oils—you may still spend the next hour(s) staring despondently at the ceiling, worrying about that big meeting in the morning. Is it really so bad to pop the occasional sleeping pill for a little chemical nudge into Dreamland?
Actually, yes. While over-the-counter drugs like ZzzQuil and Tylenol PM knock you out, they leave you worse off in the morning. “[Almost] all PM products have some form of anti-histamine added as an anti-inflammatory,” says Dr. Breus. “These compounds were built for lasting 12 hours, so when a person takes it and wakes up after six or eight hours, it is still in effect.”
That’s where natural sleep supplements come in. These drug-free plants and compounds are said to be a less-intense way to get your Zzz’s, without leaving you feeling like a zombie the next morning. But do they really work? To find out, I asked Dr. Breus for his six favorite natural sleep aids—and then tried them out on myself.
Read on to get the facts about sleep supplements and to find out how I fared in my quest for better sleep.
What it does: Perhaps the most recognizable of sleepy-time supplements, melatonin is actually a hormone our body produces naturally. “Melatonin has a daily biorhythm,” says Dr. Breus. “Levels rise and fall throughout the day and night, reaching their highest levels in the evening and falling to their lowest levels in the morning.” But certain things—jet lag, late nights, alcohol, caffeine, low blood sugar, and even exposure to light—can cause your melatonin to stay low into the night, making it difficult to fall asleep.
While they don’t directly make you fall asleep, melatonin supplements help increase those natural levels at night, when you need it most. That’s part of what makes them great for jet lag. (It’s worth noting that many experts recommend only taking them for that reason, since they can disrupt the body’s internal clock when taken in high doses for extended periods of time.)
It gave me some pretty gnarly dreams—the kind you wake up from in a cold sweat still thinking are real.
The verdict: After a short trip to Denver, CO, when I returned home with my internal clock mildly discombobulated from the two-hour time difference, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to try Hum Nutrition’s Beauty zzZz melatonin supplement.
At 11:30pm New York time (9:30pm in Denver), I was still wide awake, so I took my melatonin and settled back under the covers for my usual staring contest with the ceiling. Within 20 minutes, my eyelids started to feel heavy. The next thing I knew, it was 8am and I was nice and perky. I continued to use the melatonin for the next week and a half, but as I readjusted to East Coast time, it gradually became less necessary. It also gave me some pretty gnarly dreams—the kind you wake up from in a cold sweat still thinking are real. For those reasons, I’ve relegated melatonin to my travel bag instead of my nightstand.
What it does: Officially known as 5-Hydroxytryptophan, this is another compound made naturally by the body. It’s a byproduct of an amino acid called L-tryptophan (the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy post-Thanksgiving binge) and works by helping the body produce more serotonin, notes Dr. Breus. (You’ve probably heard of serotonin before—it’s a chemical produced by the body that makes you feel happy. It also happens to be the neurochemical that produces melatonin.)
Wait a minute, you must be saying. Why would I take a supplement that produces melatonin when I can just take melatonin directly? I’ll let Kathi Head, a naturopathic physician who works with nutritional supplement brand Thorne, take it from here. “As a practitioner, if the only problem a person reported was inability to sleep, I would probably go straight to melatonin—particularly if it is [an older person], since melatonin levels tend to decrease as we age,” she says. “If a person came to me with sleep problems coupled with depression or anxiety, I would consider 5-HTP because it converts to serotonin. That can help modulate mood and stress.”
I woke up feeling rested, but with some lingering hints of stress from dreams I can’t quite recall. Nothing as unsettling as the melatonin though.
The verdict: As someone who is chronically anxious, 5-HTP seemed perfect for me. The directions on Thorne’s 5-Hydroxytryptophan supplement suggested taking one capsule, two to three times a day, but that seemed a bit excessive. I chose to take two 50mg capsules about an hour before bedtime. Again, I lay in bed for about a half hour without feeling the least bit tired, and then I was quite suddenly asleep. I woke up feeling rested, but with some lingering hints of stress from dreams I can’t quite recall. Nothing as unsettling as the melatonin though.
One serious word of warning about this compound: If you are on any kind of antidepressant, it is usually advised that you do NOT take 5-HTP as it can cause something called serotonin syndrome. Symptoms can include tremors, confusion, hallucinations, irregular heartbeat, and hypertension. So definitely consult with your doctor before starting on 5-HTP.
3. Valerian Root
What it does: As a plant remedy, this herb is one of the most popular (and scientifically proven) natural remedies for sleeplessness, says Dr. Breus. “Valerian primarily functions as an anxiolytic—an anxiety reliever with calming, sedative effects,” he explains. It increases the levels of a natural neurochemical in our bodies called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Healthy levels protect and promote restful sleep by ensuring we have enough time in both slow-wave sleep and REM sleep. “These are the two most mentally and physically restorative sleep stages,” Dr. Breus notes.
It didn’t push me towards sleepy time per se, but it did help me feel less stressed about the fact that I wasn’t falling asleep right away.
The verdict: Valerian root isn’t known for being tasty, so I turned to The Nue Co.’s Sleep Drops, which also features passionflower, chamomile, and… catnip. (Yes, really.) A few drops in my nighttime mint tea and I was feeling nice and chill. It didn’t push me towards sleepy time per se, but it did help me feel less stressed about the fact that I wasn’t falling asleep right away. That lack of anxiety helped me drift off, and I had no scary dreams, either. Actually, no dreams whatsoever—just pure, restorative sleep.
What it does: Speaking of tea, this next ingredient is an amino acid found in its leaves. “With its ability to increase relaxation and lower stress, L-theanine can help people fall asleep more quickly and easily at bedtime,” says Dr. Breus.
Like valerian root, it’s an anxiolytic, but unlike that herb it has no sedative effects. It reduces agitation and anxiety, making you feel calm and relaxed but without any drowsiness.
While it didn’t help me get to sleep any faster, which I expected, it did help me stay asleep…until about 4am when I suddenly was awake AF.
The verdict: Since there’s only so much tea you can drink—one cup of green tea has only 8mg of L-theanine and Dr. Breus says that you need around 100-400mg for any sleep benefits—I picked up a bag of BulkSupplements’ Pure L-Theanine Powder, which provides you 100-250mg per serving. About 30 minutes before bed, I sprinkled some in my nightly tea (might as well go full throttle) and slurped it down.
While it didn’t help me get to sleep any faster, which I expected, it did help me stay asleep…until about 4am when I suddenly was awake AF. I dozed off a bit later and was again jolted awake. My inner clock was telling me it was noon when, in actuality, it was 8am. I was thoroughly disoriented, but thankfully once I got up and around, that feeling went away. I did somehow find myself feeling quite rested, all things considered.
What it does: What, you didn’t think I’d complete this experiment without road testing 2018’s favorite health plant, did you? A quick primer on cannabidiol, aka CBD: It’s the non-psychoactive derivative of the cannabis plant that comes from the stalks and stems of the plant. It’s what is most commonly used in medical marijuana products.
“Cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries as a sleep aid, a pain and nausea reducer, and to relieve anxiety and other mood problems,” says Dr. Breus. Unlike THC, he notes, which is the cannabis compound that gets you high, CBD has calming, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic effects. That said, many canna-experts claim that using strains with small amounts of THC, instead of just pure CBD, will give you the best of those effects. (Just be warned that if you go that route, since THC is definitely illegal in most states, you do so at your own legal risk.)
I got a full eight hours—however, I did wind up feeling a bit groggy when I woke up. The leftover euphoric feeling from the night before, plus a big cup of coffee, fixed that pretty quick.
The verdict: I’m not a smoker, so I decided I would go the edibles route. While you can buy pre-made ones, I was feeling very Betty Crocker, so I got my hands on a Magical Butter machine, a device that allows you to infuse butters and oils with marijuana for all your CBD-spiked cooking needs.
The machine is ridiculously easy to use: Just pop in your pot of choice, press the button and it does everything for you in as little as one hour. The key with edibles, says Garyn Angel, the CEO of Magical Butter, is consistency by controlling the variables, which the machine does by regulating the temperature and timing of extraction. I asked Angel to share his go-to bedtime snack recipe—chia seed pudding. “Chia seeds are also great for your gut health ,” he points out. And who couldn’t use a boost in that department?
I dutifully made my puddings using the recipe below—I only used 40mg of CBD extract, as Angel says it’s best to start off with 10mg per serving when you’re a newbie—then ate one about two hours before bed. I used a strain with a small amount of THC, just enough to make me feel a little bit loopy when it kicked in. I picked up a book and started reading. About 45 minutes in, it started to droop in my hands and I was out for the count. I got a full eight hours—however, I did wind up feeling a bit groggy when I woke up. The leftover euphoric feeling from the night before, plus a big cup of coffee, fixed that pretty quick.
CBD Chia Seed Pudding
Yields 4 servings
1. Blend all ingredients except chia seeds in a blender until smooth.
2. Whisk in chia seeds.
3. Pour mixture into a glass container and place in the refrigerator, stirring every 20 minutes for the first hour.
4. Let the dish rest in the refrigerator for at least four hours.
What it does: Many of us are low in magnesium, and one of the major side effects of that is disrupted sleep. Abridged explanation: Stress causes your magnesium levels to drop, which causes a subsequent decrease in the production of brain chemicals like melatonin. Not to mention that magnesium plays a role in over 300 of the body’s parts and processes, including healthy blood pressure and strong bones. So yeah, kind of important.
While there were a lot of great options, magnesium was the winner for me.
The verdict: I’m a big fan of everything integrative physician Dr. Frank Lipman does, so when I saw his Be Well line included a magnesium supplement, I was all over it. An hour before bed, I took two of the 150mg capsules and settled in for the evening. While I didn’t wind up falling asleep any faster than usual, I did notice that when I inevitably got up in the middle of the night for a visit to the loo, I fell back to sleep immediately upon returning to my bed, rather than tossing and turning as per usual. I also had a pretty rad dream that involved a tiger friend and unlimited macaroni and cheese.
While there were a lot of great options, magnesium was the winner for me. Nothing beats macaroni and cheese dreams.
True story: Insomina’s a great excuse to redecorate your bedroom. Try these 7 feng shui tips to promote better sleep, and check out a designer’s advice for turning your space into a shut-eye sanctuary.