At the end of the day, you slip into your pajamas, turn off the lights, and crawl under your cozy covers, looking forward to a deep night’s sleep. Yet instead of drifting off to dreamland, you’re wide awake, staring at the numbers on the clock in a mixture of frustration and desperation.
Been there before? You’re not alone. Twenty-five percent of people experience acute insomnia each year, according to a 2020 study in Sleep.
But if you’re tempted to pop a sleeping pill to help you snooze, think twice. Although prescription meds might make you pass out, they don’t foster the kind of restorative shuteye your brain and body need to feel rested and replenished.
According to the American Association of Sleep Medicine, pills only increase slumber by 35 minutes, frequently lead to next-day drowsiness, and can create dependency. What’s more, once you stop taking them, you may find you sleep even worse than you had beforehand.
Luckily, there are safer alternatives.
The 5 Natural Remedies to Try Before Bedtime
Try these sleep aids to inspire slumber.
The dried flowers of this daisy-like plant have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years to treat everything from hay fever to inflammation to insomnia. According to a Case Western Reserve University study, chamomile’s sedative effects may be caused by certain flavonoids that bind to receptors in the brain that induce sleepiness.
“Often consumed as a tea, chamomile is also found in tablets, powders, and gel-caps used as sleep aids,” says Dr. Brandon Peters, author of “Sleep Through Insomnia" and sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. “It may cause sleepiness and relieve anxiety, although limited scientific research has not demonstrated a benefit in its use to improve insomnia.” Pro tip: To avoid waking up in the middle of the night to pee, don’t drink it too close to bedtime.
This mineral—found in nuts and seeds, leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains—is key to healthy body function. According to the National Institutes of Health, magnesium regulates muscle and nerve function, blood sugar, and blood pressure. It also plays a role in shuteye.
A University of Vermont study suggests that magnesium supplements can relieve depression and anxiety, which in turn may improve sleep. “It may be particularly helpful in those who suffer from nighttime leg cramps,” Dr. Peters adds.
You’ve probably heard of this powerful sleep-inducer. “Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the brain’s pineal gland during sleep,” Dr. Peters says. “It reinforces the circadian rhythm and may modestly improve insomnia as a supplement.”
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveals that the use of melatonin more than doubled between 2007 and 2012. That said, Dr. Peters points out that there are potential side effects, including nightmares and daytime sleepiness, especially at higher doses.
On that note, it’s essential to get the dosage and timing right, as well as obtain it from a trusted source. (A study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine found that 71% of melatonin supplements contained more than 10% greater or less melatonin than indicated on the label.)
Breus suggests starting with a low dose of 0.3mg and increasing gradually until you reach the optimal amount for you. He also urges people to select a time-release rather than a standard-release supplement. “Otherwise, your melatonin levels will peak and drop off too early,” Breus says. For best results, work with your doctor or a sleep specialist to develop a custom treatment.
4. Cannabidiol (CBD)
Touted as a panacea for everything from pain to bad moods, CBD is having a moment. “It is one of the most calming and stress-reducing of the cannabinoids, a group of chemical compounds found in cannabis, and it’s also a natural sleep booster,” Breus says. “Unlike THC, CBD has no high associated with it.”
Since CBD is a new and active area of research, the science is still emerging, but the American Sleep Association surmises that it interacts with receptors in the brain that regulate circadian rhythm, impacting our sleep-wake cycle. Studies indicate that it reduces anxiety and improves insomnia. "Still, further research into potential harms is needed,” Dr. Peters cautions.
5. Valerian Root
This flowering plant can reach five or six feet in height and is adorned with clusters of tiny, sweet-scented pink buds. Its name derives from the Latin valere, meaning to be strong and healthy—which is fitting, considering that it has long been a mainstay in herbal medicine. “Since ancient Greek times, this herb has been used for its sedating properties to aid sleep,” Dr. Peters says.
How does it work to help you zonk out? “Valerian boosts production of GABA, a calming brain chemical that promotes sleep,” Breus says. “It appears to function primarily as an anxiolytic—an anxiety reducer.” And when you’re in a Zen state of mind, Zzz’s come more easily.
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