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The A to Zzzz's Guide to Natural Sleep Aids

Sound the alarm! (Not the alarm clock.) Adults in the U.S. are not getting enough sleep. In fact, according to Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, we are in the midst of a "catastrophic sleep loss epidemic" – and it’s linked to everything from diabetes and obesity to cancer and Alzheimer's. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny.”

It’s no wonder more people than ever are reaching for prescription sleeping pills – over 9 million at last count by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But most sleeping pills (even over-the-counter), especially when taken for long periods of time, can have some pretty unwelcome side effects (to say the least).

Before you buy your next can’t-sleep countermeasure, check out our science-based guide to natural sleep aids. We cover (almost) the full alphabet of options so sit tight and reap the rewards of our research. Knowledge is power(fully sleepy)!

A – Ashwagandha

Also known as “Indian Winter Cherry” or “Indian Ginseng,” Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda (the traditional system of medicine in India) used for thousands of years for its wide-ranging health benefits – like helping ease anxiety and insomnia. Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., physician and herbalist, says it’s one of her “favorite herbs for treating people with nervous tension that makes them feel on edge…during the day, exhausted when it’s time to go to bed, but wide awake when their head hits the pillow.” Until recently, scientists didn’t understand why the herb was effective, but a February 2017 study found the active component that induces sleep – confirming its efficacy.

B – B12

In a study published in the journal Sleep, vitamin B12 was used to treat some pretty severe sleep-wake rhythm disorders and it was surprisingly effective. B12 works hand-in-hand in the body with the sleep hormone melatonin that regulates the circadian rhythms within our bodies. But, B12 isn’t helpful all on its own. It superpowers only shine when bright light is used as its sidekick. For example, one study found that B12, in combination with 3 hours of bright light in the morning, improved sleep in people had a hard time getting to sleep at night. It effectively reset the circadian rhythm helping people to fall asleep faster and wake up earlier feeling more refreshed.

C – Chamomile

“Chamomile is one of the oldest, most widely used and well documented medicinal plants in the world and has been recommended for a variety of healing applications,” writes Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The aqueous extract of this lovely little flower has been frequently used as a mild sedative to calm nerves and reduce anxiety, to treat nightmares, insomnia, and other sleep problems. Studies have found that its powerful calming effects may be due to the flavonoid, apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. (Go science!)

D – Vitamin D

Sleep experts Dr. Stasha Gominak, a board-certified neurologist in Tyler, Texas, and Dr. Walter Stumpf, Professor of Cell Biology and Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studied vitamin D for years and ended up hypothesizing that the “world epidemic of sleep disorders is linked to vitamin D deficiency.” It turns out the “sunshine vitamin” is also important to healthy physical functioning at night, too! In fact, studies show vitamin D can help you fall asleep faster and help you feel more well-rested the next day.

F – Folic Acid

Folic acid is an essential nutrient that’s involved in producing your body’s genetic materials, is crucial for proper brain function, and also plays an important role in mental and emotional health. If you don’t get enough of this vitamin, it can cause all sorts of negative impacts – including insomnia. Folic acid is so important to good health that all grains and cereals in the U.S. are fortified with it. Other good sources of folate include: dark leafy greens, asparagus, beets, brussels sprouts, soybeans, wheat germ, kidney beans, salmon, orange juice, avocado, and milk.

G – Gaba

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that slows down and quiets nerve activity. In fact, it’s what your brain uses as a natural tranquilizer.  As far as supplements go, a 2016 study by Yamatsu et al. found it helped participants fall asleep faster and increased the quality of sleep. Also, pairing GABA with other substances has been found to be effective. In another recent study, GABA was paired with 5-HTP and was found to help with both sleep duration and quality.

H – Hops

You’re probably familiar with hops in regards to its use in beer – a practice that began in Germany sometime around the 9th century. By the 14th century, most of Europe was doing the same and hops growers noticed their field workers often fell asleep on the job, triggering interest in using the herb as a sedative. Since then it’s been widely used for anxiety, restlessness, and troubles sleeping. Studies have found hops, which appears to work best in conjunction with valerian root, helps increase GABA levels, as well as to lower body temperature, which is an important part of the body’s sleep process because it promotes drowsiness.

I – Inositol

Inositol is a naturally occurring carbohydrate that’s found in many foods – especially fruits like cantaloupe and oranges. It’s an important chemical messenger in the brain and research shows that it’s an effective and safe option in the treatment of many mood disorders. Since sleeplessness is often caused by stress, inositol can be helpful by promoting an overall feeling of peacefulness and calm.

J – Juice (Tart cherry, that is...)

Skip the warm milk and go for a glass of cherry juice before bed for better sleep. Studies show drinking tart cherry juice increases levels of melatonin (aka “the sleep hormone”) in your system and that it’s beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality -- even for people suffering from insomnia!

K – Kava

The Piper methysticum plant (aka kava) is a shrub native to the South Pacific where it’s been used in different beverages for centuries. The National Institutes of Health states that the active ingredient in Piper methysticum is kavalactones, which are compounds that show sedative and anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects. In some studies, kavalactones have been found to improve sleep and promote calmness. However, kava use has also been linked to severe liver damage and some countries have even banned it.

L – L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea leaves that’s thought to be the source of umami – the savory, brothy taste. It also promotes relaxation and sleep by supporting a number of changes in the brain: it boosts levels of GABA and other calming brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, it lowers levels of chemicals in the brain that are linked to stress and anxiety, and it enhances alpha brain waves which are a part of restorative REM sleep. Tea time, anyone?

M – Magnesium & Melatonin

Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D. says magnesium “is an antidote to stress, the most powerful relaxation mineral available, and it can help improve your sleep.” Nearly half of the population in the U.S. isn’t getting enough of this magnificent mineral daily, which can increase the risk of many diseases, as well as cause insomnia. Magnesium also helps increase brain levels of calm-inducing GABA.

Melatonin is the natural hormone our brains secrete at night to promote drowsiness (which is why it’s also known as “the hormone of darkness”). In studies, it’s been found to decrease cortisol, which is the “stress hormone” that can keep you up at night, as well as helping muscles relax, helping to give you a calm “sleepy” feeling.

N – Niacin

Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is an important nutrient that every part of your body needs in order to function properly. Plus, it plays a starring role in the regulation of appetite, sleep, and mood. Studies show it can help decrease awake time in those suffering from insomnia and it helps increase REM sleep, which is the restorative part of your sleep cycle. Interestingly, in a 2015 study, researchers found that niacin had a stronger correlation to improved sleep in men than it did with women (a surprising finding they say needs more research). The best food sources of niacin include beets, brewer's yeast, beef liver, beef kidney, fish, salmon, swordfish, tuna, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. Bread and cereals are usually fortified with niacin, as well.

O – Oxytocin

Oxytocin is our natural ‘love’ hormone and it’s released into our systems during childbirth and breastfeeding, when we’re falling in love, having sex, and even when we’re hugging. As a supplement, studies show long-term use of oxytocin reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and it increases restorative REM sleep. While low levels of oxytocin promote sleep – be careful because high levels can promote wakefulness.

P – Passionflower

This strikingly beautiful flower has been used for centuries to calm restless minds, but only recently has it been studied to prove if it’s truly helpful or not. Preliminary research says yes! A 2011 study found that a cup of Passionflower tea before bed could help improve sleep and a 2012 study out of Australia found the same. It’s also often used in cases of anxiety because of its anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) and sedative effects that result from the presence of the flavonoid chrysin in the flower.

R – Rose Oil

Who doesn’t love the scent of roses? And it’s not just great for perfumes and lotions, it’s also great for bedtime prep. It's been shown to relieve anxiety and stress. In fact, a study, published in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, demonstrated this exactly. "They found that aromatherapy with rose oil can reduce anxiety by reducing sympathetic stimulation," says Elizabeth Trattner, AP, DOM, National Board Certified Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture with a private practice in Miami Beach. "I recommend it for bedtime use because it helps you feel grounded, centered and secure before bedtime."

S – Sweet Mary (Lemon Balm)

Sweet Mary (aka Lemon Balm and officially Melissa officinalis) is a perennial plant with tiny white flowers and leaves with a distinctive lemony scent. If you decide to grow lemon balm in your garden, carefully control it because it can become an invasive plant, but it’s one well worth having! It has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years to treat everything from digestive issues and sleep problems to depression and skin sores. Currently, it’s more widely used as a mild sedative and sleep aid. For example, in one study, when combined with valerian root it improved sleep quality by 33%. Another study found Sweet Mary extract alone reduced anxiety by 18% and lowered insomnia by 42%!

T – Tryptophan

Tryptophan is a key sleep trigger. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Your body uses tryptophan and turns it into a B vitamin called niacin (remember that guy from above?). Niacin plays a key role in creating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with sleep and melatonin levels (a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycles).”

U – Uridine

Uridine is a natural substance manufactured in the liver that’s one of the four basic components of RNA (an important little molecule that carries our genetic information). Uridine has a large range of effects on the brain, including anti-epileptic actions, improved memory function, neuronal plasticity, and -- you guessed it -- sleep-promotion. It’s been shown to increase slow wave and restorative REM sleep and it can also potentially increase choline levels in the brain by up to 50%, and choline helps increase REM sleep, as well. In your diet, uridine can be found in organ meats such as liver, pancreas, or in beer, broccoli, tomatoes, and yeast.  

V – Valerian Root

Valerian root is an herb that’s been used for centuries for its calming and relaxing properties. Biologically, it functions as an anxiolytic and anxiolytics relieve anxiety and have sedative effects. It does this by increasing levels of GABA in the brain. And, as mentioned above, GABA is a chemical our brains naturally create and it’s an “inhibitory neurotransmitter” which means it quiets the activity of the neurons in your nervous system promoting relaxation and calm.

W – Wild Lettuce

We all know diet can impact sleep, but who would’ve imagined the humble lettuce plant could play a role? Dr. Oz recommends you “try taking 30 mg of wild lettuce extract before bedtime. Also known as ‘lettuce opium,’ the extract comes from the stems of the wild lettuce plant and has been shown in an animal study to have calming and sedative effects.”

Z – Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral that’s vital for health and well-being. According to Dr. Josh Axe, “Without enough zinc present in your diet, it’s possible to experience negative reactions like frequently getting sick, feeling like you’re always tired and run down, poor concentration, stunted growth, and the inability to heal wounds.” In regards to sleep, one study showed women with higher levels of zinc in their systems slept longer, another showed using zinc along with magnesium and melatonin improved sleep quality in patients with insomnia, and another showed zinc enhances the release of sleep-inducing GABA. Oysters contain the most zinc per serving compared to other foods, but proteins like red meat and poultry are good sources, too – as well as beans, nuts, some types of seafood (like lobster and crab), whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of natural sleep aids out there. These are some of the most popular options and many have been used for centuries in cultures around the world. Still, there is much research to be done to understand how – and if – they really work. And, more importantly, if they’re safe in the long-term. Still, the preliminary science is looking positive, and we look forward to seeing what future studies reveal.

We’ll update this post as new research emerges, so be sure to bookmark it for future use!

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.