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supplements for better sleep

3 common supplements for better sleep

Jun 16, 2023

We examine the science behind three common sleep supplements - melatonin, magnesium, and valerian - to help you choose the one best for your rest.


When you’re struggling to fall asleep, you’re probably willing to try all kinds of things to help speed the process along. (Counting sheep is officially not helpful, just so you know.) 

In your sleepless night of research - or perhaps your drowsy day after research - you may have seen a recommendation to try a sleep supplement. But what are sleep supplements? Do they really work? And if supplements can improve the quality of sleep, how do you know which one is right for you? 

Today, we’re discussing the science behind three common sleep supplements - and hopefully, giving you one more way to rest better.

What are sleep supplements?

Sleep supplements, also called natural sleep aids, are dietary supplements which may help make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Generally, these supplements work by helping to relax the body and mind in preparation for sleep, or by helping to boost the body’s natural sleep-wake processes. 

What’s the difference between sleep supplements and sleep medication?

Sleep medications are drugs which can induce sleepiness based on their chemical compositions and their effect on the brain. Sleep medications are available over-the-counter (OTC) in the form of antihistamines or cold medicines with sedative effects (think Benadryl or NyQuil). There are also prescription sleep medications, like Z drugs and benzodiazepines (think Ambien or Lunesta).

Sleep supplements are not the same as sleep medications, and they do not require a prescription from a doctor to purchase or ingest. However, it’s always recommended to consult your physician before beginning to take a sleep supplement, as not all supplements are appropriate for all adults.

Do sleep supplements really work?

Sleep supplements aren’t a cure-all for insomnia, and they can’t guarantee you a good night’s rest. However, when used in conjunction with a good sleep routine, you may find it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep deeply with a sleep supplement.

Are sleep supplements safe?

The most widely used sleep supplements are considered safe for most adults to consume. Generally, sleep supplements pose only a low risk of mild side effects for most adults. However, it’s always important to understand what you are putting into your body, and how it may affect you. Some sleep supplements are not appropriate for people with certain health conditions or those who are taking certain medications. 

As we break down some of the most common sleep supplements on the market today, take care to note who each supplement is not appropriate for, and talk with your doctor if you have any concerns about whether or not a supplement is right for you.

3 common sleep supplements: How they work and how to use them for better sleep

Now that you understand what sleep supplements are and how they differ from sleep medications, let’s discuss three of the most widely used sleep supplements: melatonin, magnesium, and valerian. By examining how each supplement affects our bodies and brains, you will have a better understanding of which supplement may prove most effective in aiding your sleep.

1. Melatonin

What is melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone that makes us feel tired, and it plays an essential role in our sleep-wake cycle. While our bodies naturally produce melatonin, we can also ingest synthetically manufactured melatonin to further aid our sleep. 

How does melatonin aid sleep?

As the day comes to an end, the darkness triggers our bodies to naturally produce more melatonin, making us feel tired. This helps orient our circadian rhythm, promoting an easier transition from waking to sleeping. Essentially, melatonin doesn’t make you sleep. But it does help put your mind and body in a state that makes falling asleep easier.

How much melatonin should I take to help me sleep?

There is no scientific consensus about the optimal dosage of melatonin. However, a typical dose in supplements ranges from 1-3 milligrams. To ensure it has ample time to take effect, you should take a melatonin supplement around two hours before bed.

What are the potential side effects of melatonin?

Short-term use of melatonin as a sleep supplement has relatively few side effects, and most are considered mild. Potential side effects of melatonin include headaches, dizziness, and lingering drowsiness during the day. These side effects are experienced by only a small percentage of people taking melatonin. 

Who should not take melatonin?

People with certain health conditions or who are taking medications should consult their doctor before trying melatonin as a sleep aid. In particular, the following people need to be cautious when considering melatonin as a sleep supplement:

  • People who are pregnant or nursing
  • People with depression
  • People with epilepsy
  • People with dementia
  • People with diabetes or those who need to monitor their blood sugar levels
  • People taking hypertension medications

Based on its effect on the brain and body, melatonin is most useful as a sleep aid for people who struggle to feel tired enough to sleep at bedtime.

2. Magnesium

What is magnesium?

Magnesium is one of the most common minerals on Earth, and it’s essential for human health. It plays a role in hundreds of cellular reactions in our bodies, including regulating our nervous system and helping us relax.

How does magnesium aid sleep?

Magnesium plays a key role in regulating our brain’s neurotransmitters, activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for getting our bodies to relax. Magnesium binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, quieting down nerve activity. (These are the same receptors targeted by sleep medications like Ambien.) Put simply, magnesium helps your body and brain relax, which can in turn make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep longer.

Also, while magnesium deficiencies are rare, a lack of magnesium can also negatively impact sleep. Anxiety and depression are correlated with low magnesium levels, and both can contribute to insomnia.

How much magnesium should I take to help me sleep?

The recommended daily allowance of magnesium is 310-320mg for adult women and 400-420mg for adult men. To reach the recommended daily dose, you can consume magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. You can also consider a dietary supplement such as magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate, or magnesium chloride.

What are the potential side effects of magnesium?

Magnesium supplements taken in appropriate doses pose few risks. Generally, a healthy individual’s kidneys will eliminate any excess magnesium in the body. However, ingesting a high level of magnesium through foods, medications, and/or supplements can result in nausea, cramping, and diarrhea. Extremely high magnesium intakes can lead to an irregular heartbeat.

Who should not take magnesium?

People with certain health conditions or who are taking medications should consult their doctor before using magnesium supplements. In particular, the following people need to be cautious with their magnesium intake:

  • People taking antibiotics
  • People taking muscle relaxants
  • People taking blood pressure medication
  • People with kidney problems

Based on its effect on the brain and body, magnesium is most useful as a sleep aid for people who have difficulty calming down or relaxing enough to fall asleep.

3. Valerian

What is valerian?

Valerian root, often referred to as simply valerian, is an herb native to Europe and parts of Asia. Its medical usage dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and is most commonly used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and headaches.

How does valerian aid sleep?

Valerian root supplements have been found to help people fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep. Researchers primarily attribute this to the effect of valerian on the brain’s neurotransmitters. The valerenic acid in valerian root affects GABA receptors, quieting nerve activity. Valerian also likely influences our serotonin receptors, impacting our mood and sleep.

How much valerian should I take to help me sleep?

There is no official dosage recommendation for valerian root as a sleep aid. However, most research studies geared towards examining valerian as a sleep supplement use a daily dose of 300 to 600mg. Some research indicates valerian is most effective in aiding sleep after it is consumed regularly for two or more weeks.

What are the potential side effects of valerian?

In most studies of valerian as a sleep supplement, participants have not experienced side effects. Rare cases of side effects include headaches, vivid dreams, stomach aches, and heart rate changes.

Who should not take valerian?

Valerian is considered fairly safe, but people should be aware of the possibility of additive sedative effects when ingesting valerian alongside alcohol or sedative drugs. In addition, the following groups should avoid taking valerian as a sleep aid:

  • Children under age 3
  • People who are pregnant or nursing
  • People taking anxiety medication

Based on its effect on the brain and body, valerian is most useful as a sleep aid for people who struggle to fall asleep and sleep deeply.

Choosing the right sleep supplement for you

So, now that you know about three common supplements, how do you choose the right one for your sleep needs?

When choosing a sleep supplement, consider:

  • Your age and overall health. Your age and existing medical conditions can influence both your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep and the effectiveness of a sleep supplement. In addition, some supplements can be harmful to those with certain medical conditions.
  • Your medications. As always when ingesting a new substance, you need to make sure you understand how it may interact with any other medications you’re currently taking. If you’re taking any medications, be sure to consult your doctor to ensure a supplement is safe for you, and to understand any potential side effects.
  • Additive effects. Similar to being aware of the potential interaction between sleep supplements and medication, be aware of the potential for sleep supplements to have additive effects. If you consume alcohol or certain drugs, the sedative effect of the supplement may be amplified.
  • The cause of your sleeping problems. Getting to the root of your sleeping problems can help you choose the most effective supplement. For instance, do you struggle to relax enough to fall asleep? Or do you find yourself waking many times over in the night? Pinpointing the reason for your poor sleep quality can help you choose a supplement that works to alleviate your specific problem.
  • The supplement form. Different supplements come in different consumable forms; some are capsules, some are chewable gummies, some are liquid solutions, and so on. While you may have a preference for one form or another based on taste or how quickly it allows the supplement to take effect, what’s most important to consider when choosing a supplement form is how effectively it allows you to control your dosage. You always want to know how much of a supplement you’re taking, and you want to be able to easily adjust your intake as needed.

Remember to always consult your doctor before consuming any supplement if you have an existing medical condition or are taking medication. While sleep supplements taken at their proper dosages are safe for most adults, it is always important to understand how they will affect your body, mind, and overall health. 

And speaking of proper dosages, remember to always start taking supplements of any kind in a low dose. If the lowest dose doesn’t seem effective for you, gradually increase it over time until you reach the upper limit of the recommended dosage. Be aware that higher dosages will have a greater effect on your body, and are more likely to result in side effects.

Some final reminders about sleep supplements

  • Sleep supplements are not the same as sleep medications, and do not need to be prescribed by a doctor. However, you should still consult your physician to determine what sleep aid is best for you.
  • Supplements are not as tightly regulated or tested as prescription drugs. Make sure you read labels carefully to understand what you are ingesting and at what dosage. 
  • Similarly, remember that “natural” does not equal “safe.” Products can be natural and still harmful to us. Again, read labels carefully and understand what you are taking.
  • Never replace a prescribed medication with a supplement without consulting your doctor.
  • Sleep supplements are intended to be taken short-term to alleviate occasional sleep problems. If you have persistent, severe sleep problems, discuss options for long-term treatment with your doctor.

Other natural sleep aids

Still not sure if a sleep supplement is right for you? There are many other ways you can try to naturally improve the quality of your sleep. Here’s a few options you can start with:

  • Get some exercise during the day. Expending physical energy can help you feel more tired, and it may also boost restful slow-wave sleep.
  • Try out some lavender lotion, bath salts, or pillow spray. The herb can have a soothing effect that reduces anxiety and restlessness.
  • Drink a glass of chamomile tea or warm milk before bed. Both might help with relaxation and the transition from waking to sleeping.
  • Practice deep breathing or meditation before bed. This can calm your mind and reduce anxiety, making it easier to drift off to sleep.

Looking for more ways to naturally improve your sleep routine (alone or with a sleep supplement)? Check out our 7 steps to establish a better sleep routine for more scientifically-backed tips.

Prepare for a better night’s rest

We all deserve a good night’s rest. But sometimes, falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping deeply can feel like a challenge. Occasional use of sleep supplements like melatonin, magnesium, or valerian may be able to help prepare your body and brain for a better night’s sleep.

Remember, if you find yourself chronically unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, it may be an indication you’re suffering from a more serious sleep disorder - the kind that needs treatment rather than a dietary supplement. If you believe your sleep problems are severely impacting your life, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health each month, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.

 

Learn more about My RBI Academy