Sleeping aids and supplements treat insomnia and come in a wide variety of forms with different chemical and metabolic mechanisms. They include but are not limited to melatonin supplements, valerian root, magnesium, lavender, sedating antihistamines, and hypnotics. Insomnia is an incredibly prevalent mental health issue, affecting about 25% of American each year (1).
Even though most recover eventually, insomnia has probably affected more than a few of the people you know personally. Insomnia has a wide variety of potential causes; it could be the result of a separate health condition, a side effect from medication, or just a standalone disorder. Alcohol, nicotine, and drug usage are all possible causes, and lifestyle is a huge factor in insomnia, especially if it’s chronic (2).
Regardless, it comes with significant adverse effects for both physical and mental health. A marked lack of sleep on a regular basis activates your stress system and can be linked to neurodegenerative disorders. In fact, insomnia is one of the earliest warning signs/precursors to serious neural diseases such as Alzheimer’s (3).
1Sleep aids can improve the quality of your sleep, ensuring better rest in the same amount of time. A 2017 meta-analysis showed that melatonin, helped people fall asleep faster and more easily, while also more effectively regulating their sleep schedules (4).
A different 2017 review found that melatonin could assist in a wide variety of sleep disorders, including hypersomnolence (chronic daytime sleepiness) and breathing-related sleep issues. In comparison to widely available drug options, researchers found that melatonin offered a measure of the benefits with fewer side effects and less of a risk of dependency (5).
Moreover, according to a 2016 systematic review, valerian root can help people fall asleep and experience better sleep quality, without the risk of significant adverse side effects (6).
Several studies showed it improving subjective sleep latency, or the self-reported time it takes someone to fall asleep. Valerian has been shown to relax the central nervous system of mice by stopping the breakdown of gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brain.
2Sleep aids can improve the duration of your sleep, helping you get enough per night. Sleep duration is important not only for physical health but also for mental well-being and happiness. Studies show that happiness can be correlated with the amount of time spent sleeping (to a certain degree of course) (7, 8).
Short sleep durations and common sleep disturbances can even be linked to cardiovascular disease.
This is especially important for people who suffer from significant hypersomnolence, or daytime sleepiness. Magnesium, for example, may be able to help women feel less sleepy during daytime hours, according to a 2018 study of magnesium as an insomnia treatment that took place in China (9).
It’s important to note that while natural sleep aids have been linked to better sleep, there’s also not as high a level of standardization among studies for them as there is for established, commercial hypnotic drugs (10).
The surest bet for a longer sleep duration is sedative antihistamines or prescribed sleeping pills.
3Sleep aids can boost cardiovascular health. Valerian root, for instance, has a myriad of cardiovascular benefits, reducing lipid levels, lowering heart rate and improving blood pressure (11). It contains a number of amino acids and other essential oils. Melatonin may have slight benefits for people who suffer from Alzheimer’s or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (12).
4Sleep aids can help manage your weight and obesity. Evidence suggests that a lack of sleep makes dieting and other management techniques less effective, while also contributing to weight gain and obesity. While sleep is only one part of the picture (stress, lifestyle, and exercise all play equally important roles) taking sleep supplements can help you manage weight if it improves your sleep schedule and quality (13).
5Magnesium can help you de-stress and relax your muscles, especially if you often find them tensing up at night. Besides being a potential sleep aid, magnesium is an electrolyte that helps regulate muscle contractions in the body (14).
A lack of proper magnesium can lead to cramps or muscle pain. Magnesium is used all throughout the body (even within your skeletal system) for a number of different physiological processes (15). A 2012 study showed that magnesium as a sleep supplement can help treat insomnia, but it can also lower cortisol levels and keep your body’s muscles looser and more relaxed (16).
Lower cortisol levels also mean less stress. Insomnia has been linked to stress and abnormal cortisol levels in a number of ways, with some studies suggesting that insomnia is a form of stress on your nervous system and others suggesting that your body’s stress-response system becomes more activated as a result of sleeplessness (17).
6Sedating antihistamines can also aid with allergy relief, which might further help cure insomnia. In fact, such medicines are primarily used to treat allergies, not sleeplessness. The drowsiness you may feel after taking a Benadryl is actually a side effect. However, at this point in time, there are antihistamines on the market which provide allergy relief without the sedating effects, making sedating antihistamines a good choice if insomnia is also a factor (18).
7Sleeping aids can help resolve issues associated with jet lag. Jet lag can turn into a major health issue if it starts seriously depriving you of the sleep your body needs to rest and reset. Studies show that the average recovery time can be as long as 4 to 6 days, with recovery time increasing the more time zones that you pass (21).
This happens because your body’s internal clock, which runs on melatonin, gets disrupted. It normally measures the time and tells you to sleep based on the amount of light outside, but suddenly crossing time zones throws that entire process off.
Luckily, both melatonin and hypnotic sleep medications are effective treatments. Melatonin can improve subjective sleep ratings, meaning people who take it often say they feel more well-rested. Hypnotic sleeping medications improve both sleep duration and quality if taken around the appropriate bedtime (22).
8Sleep supplements can assist with shift work or other strange working hours. Research suggests that insomnia is a huge part of sleep difficulty that many shift workers experience (23).
If you work a night shift or have working hours that extend beyond the normal 9-to-5, insomnia may be affecting you. As such, using sleep aids or supplements can improve sleep and work performance at the same time, even in the face of an uneven work schedule.
9Sleep aids can improve mental health. There’s some evidence to suggest that, for example, valerian root can be used to treat mild cases of anxiety as well as insomnia (24).
However, results aren’t completely standardized, and the effect of sleep supplements on mental health isn’t as well-researched as their sedative abilities.
What we do know, however, is that insomnia presents a significant mental health problem (25).
Lack of sleep has been linked to both anxiety and depression, especially among the elderly (26).
Supplements which treat insomnia thereby can also have a positive effect on individuals suffering from related mental health issues.
10Valerian root may reduce the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). According to one study of 100 women in Tel Aviv, valerian root caused a significant difference in symptoms of PMS such as dizziness and pain (27).
The authors concluded that it might help reduce the adverse physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of PMS. More research is needed to completely establish valerian root as a standard PMS treatment, however.
1Taking sleep aids too frequently may result in dependency or an abnormal circadian rhythm. Though sleeping pills aren’t particularly harmful drugs, developing a dependency on them is relatively easy if taken for long periods of time on a nightly basis (28).
It’s easy for your body to become completely accustomed to them, and stopping suddenly can result in withdrawal symptoms like irritability and headache. As such, hypnotics should only be taken when insomnia becomes a serious problem, and then only for short periods of time. Once symptoms get better, usage should be tapered off slowly so as to avoid withdrawal.
2Hypnotic sleep aids may result in dizziness, amnesia, nausea, headaches, and confusion. Certain types of prescribed sleep aids may result in dizziness or more motor movement during sleep (29).
Others may cause amnesia or make it harder to do tasks that require focus and fine motor control, such as driving a car or operating machinery (30).
More powerful hypnotics may even produce a “hangover” effect similar to what you might feel after a night of heavy drinking. While they’re well-researched in short-term use, not as much is known about using hypnotics to manage long-term insomnia (31).
3A few other side effects associated with heavy hypnotic use include sexual dysfunction and neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety and suicidal tendencies (32). If you have mental health issues, you should make sure your doctor is aware before you ask for a hypnotic sleeping pill prescription.
Because types of sleep supplements differ widely, the recommended dosage varies. For valerian root, for example, a few hundred milligrams (300-900mg) is a standard adult dosage, whereas somewhere between two tenth’s of a milligram and five milligrams is appropriate for melatonin.
Generally speaking, one dose per day before bedtime is appropriate as long as symptoms last, though as previously stated, users should be careful not to develop a dependency on sleep aids.
Is it safe to take more than one kind of sleep aid? This is a slightly complicated question. In some cases, yes. In other cases no. Users who are taking a hypnotic sleeping pill, for instance, probably shouldn’t supplement it with anything else. Such drugs are powerful enough to dramatically affect your sleeping habits on their own. Users who combine two different natural supplements, however, such as lavender and melatonin, may not have any issues.
One thing users should look out for is combining too many sedatives. An overdose of sedatives could cause trouble breathing and speaking, unconsciousness, and even death under extreme circumstances.
No matter what the combination is, however, it’s always best to start slowly with one supplement, and then gradually add in another if you’re sure that you want to take two at the same time, monitoring closely for any unintended interactions or side effects.
Can I take sleep aids/supplements while taking other drugs? Generally, taking a sleep supplement (especially the natural kind, like lavender or valerian root) won’t come with any serious drug interactions. However, users taking prescription hypnotics or using sedating antihistamines should check with their doctor beforehand. Users who combine too many sedatives at the same time could suffer from unconsciousness or trouble breathing and speaking. The condition can even be life-threatening in extreme cases.
Should I take sleep supplements every night? For short periods of time, and during times of chronic and unmitigated insomnia, taking a supplement every day is okay. However, users should probably stray away from using a sleep aid every single night, especially if they can fall asleep without it. Overuse of sleep supplements or medications can disrupt your body’s normal sleep cycle and make it hard for you to fall asleep naturally, which is exactly why you started taking them in the first place.
When is the best time to take a sleep supplement? The best time to take a sleep supplement depends on your use case. If you’re taking them to solve general insomnia during the nighttime, the best time to administer supplements is 30 minutes before bed or seven hours before your standard wake-up time. On the other hand, if you’re trying to solve jet lag, you should take supplements slightly ahead (around 30 minutes) of the time you want to fall asleep, even if you’re not tired yet.
What is the best sleep supplement for me? When choosing a sleep supplement, it’s useful to think about the root cause of your insomnia. If it’s caused by allergies, then sedative antihistamines are a sure bet. On the other hand, if you’re suffering from jet lag, then melatonin and prescribed hypnotics are the two most well-established treatment methods.
Are natural or drug/synthetic sleep aids better? Natural sleep supplements like valerian root often come with fewer side effects, but they may not be as efficacious as synthetic pills. Melatonin, for instance, doesn’t come with the addiction and dependency risks that commercial sleeping drugs do, but it can also be used to treat sleep disorders and regulate your body’s circadian rhythm. In some ways, natural sleep supplements are actually preferred to stronger, conventional alternatives because there’s a much lower risk of addiction and abuse.
If you only suffer from mild insomnia, taking melatonin or supplementing with lavender or valerian root may be enough to help you overcome your symptoms. However, if you try doing so and do not experience any relief, sedating antihistamines and prescribed drugs are likely to offer a slightly stronger effect.
Can I get hypnotic sleeping medication over the counter? No. While you can get antihistamines with sedating ingredients (like the diphenhydramine in Benadryl) over the counter, hypnotics like zolpidem and zaleplon are available only through a doctor’s prescription. They’re stronger and come with more side effects and potential complications, so acquiring them is a bit more difficult.
Does my body make melatonin naturally? Yes, melatonin is a naturally-produced hormone released by the pineal gland. However, in some people it may be released at abnormal levels or at strange times, resulting in daytime sleepiness, an unusual sleep schedule, or insomnia. As such, supplements can be used to treat related sleep disorders by giving the body melatonin at the appropriate time.
In short, various sleep aids and supplements like melatonin, sedating antihistamines, valerian root and lavender can help you sleep, but they come with many other benefits as well, such as ameliorating the effects of jet lag, offering allergy relief and even relaxing your mind and muscles.
The right supplement for you depends upon your particular cause of insomnia, as well as any other medical conditions or medications you may be dealing with, but that shouldn’t be an issue — a wide variety is available, both over the counter and as prescribed.