4 Sleep Supplements That Actually Work

Plus, the one common supplement that you really shouldn't take.

August 25, 2017
sleep supplements

Adapted from Sleep Smarter

Many people look to supplements to help them sleep, but they come with a huge caveat. Ideally, you first need to address the lifestyle issues that are actually causing the sleep problem. If you jump to taking drugs or supplements, then you'll just be treating a symptom and increase the likelihood that you'll develop a dependency on something that can harm you long term. 

More: 50 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight

So, focus on the lifestyle adjustements first. Then, if you want, you can respectfully add a natural sleep aid, too. I'm going to share with you four of the more gentle-to-moderate aids. Let's get started with the most time-tested sleep aid of all:

Chamomile tea

This herb has been used for thousands of years to treat everything from skin disorders to heart disease to inflammation. Today, numerous studies are proving the true efficacy of this ancient plant. For example, a study highlighted in Molecular Medicine Reports showed that chamomile flavonoids have significant anti-inflammatory properties and trigger COX-2 enzyme activity that reduces physical pain. The study also asserts that chamomile can be used as a mild sedative and sleep inducer. 

The sedative effects appear to be due in large part to a particular flavonoid called apigenin. This compound is abundant in chamomile tea, and it binds to certain GABA receptors in the brain, naturally calming nervous system activity. Again, because it's a natural compound found in foods and medicinal herbs, it's going to tend to have additional health benefits, rather than a page full of potential negative side effects. Apigenin has also been found to be a very potent anti-cancer compound. Research published in the International Journal of Oncology and the journal Pharmaceutical Research identified that apigenin is protective against a wide variety of cancers (including cancers of the breast, digestive tract, skin, and prostate) and has high selectivity against cancer cells as opposed to noncancerous cells.

More: 4 Strategies to Help Break Your Exhaustion Cycle

Chamomile has been used historically as a sleep aid, but now our modern testing methods are proving its efficacy for this and many other health benefits. What studies show is that chamomile can help calm the nervous system, relax muscles, and set you up for a better night's sleep when you need it.

Chamomile is an excellent tea to have before bed. Simply have a standard-size cup of tea with an organic, prepacked chamomile tea bag, and you'll be good to go.

Kava kava
Kava kava

This is actually the national drink of the beautiful island of Fiji. Kava kava is well known for its sedative properties and is commonly used to treat sleeplessness and fatigue. A 2004 study published in Human Psychopharmacology also found that 300 milligrams of kava kava may improve mood and cognitive performance. Several additional studies show that it's effective for reducing the signs and symptoms of anxiety (which is definitely an anti-sleep state to be in). 

More: 15 Relaxing Things You Should Do Before Bed

The most important sleep-related data on kava kava demonstrates that it may help to improve sleep quality and decrease the amount of time needed to fall asleep. Preparing a cup of kava kava tea can be part of a relaxing evening ritual.


This traditional herb is the strongest of the three herbs I recommend and a moderate sedative. It's indicated for individuals who have a difficult time falling asleep, and it also promotes uninterrupted sleep. The root of the valerian plant is used as medicine and pressed into fresh juice or freeze-dried to form a powder. 

More: 6 Things You Should Never Do Before Bed

For tea, you can use a prepackaged tea bag or simply pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon (2 to 3 grams) of dried root, steep for 5 to 10 minutes, strain the tea, and enjoy. There are also tinctures and dried powder supplement capsules of valerian as well as the previous two medicinal herbs.

5-HTP, GABA, and L-tryptophan

I bundled all three of these together because they are not the ideal choices, due to the fact that they're not natural herbal preparations like the previous three. These are isolated chemicals, and they can be helpful if intently monitored and used with caution.

5-HTP is a neurotransmitter precursor to serotonin. In our bodies, as you well know from previous chapters, serotonin gets converted into melatonin (the get-good-sleep hormone). In a study compiled by the University of Maryland Medical Center, people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo. Researchers recommend 200 to 400 milligrams at night to stimulate serotonin, but it may take 6 to 12 weeks to be fully effective.

More: How to Become a Morning Person

GABA is an important neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. In fact, it is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Therefore, it blocks the action of excitatory brain chemicals. Some people swear by the sedating effects of GABA to help manage stress. If GABA is of interest to you, 500 milligrams in the evening is a good place to start. Also, consider looking into the GABA precursors picamilon and phenibut.

L-tryptophan is actually the precursor to 5-HTP. Although you can't get 5-HTP in food, there are several foods that are rich in tryptophan, like turkey, chicken, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, collard greens, and sea veggies. Although these foods can be part of a healthy diet, the trace amounts of tryptophan found in them may not be enough to get the effects you're look- ing for. L-tryptophan is a simple over-the-counter supplement you can use in addition to what you get from your diet. It can ideally be taken 90 minutes before bed.

More: Here's Why You Don't Sleep Well Away From Home

These, like all other supplements, will influence people differently. One supplement might be a miracle for one person that helps them reestablish their sleeping cycle, while for someone else it may cause them to have crazy dreams or even feel groggier in the morning. Bottom line: It's unique to you whether something is going to be helpful or not. This goes for food, supplements, and even exercise. You have to experiment to find out what is the most intelligent, safest, and most effective long-term choice for you.

The melatonin mistake

This has become a very popular supplement as of late, with all of our society's sleeping issues. Many experts agree that melatonin supplementation can be very effective for some people. But what's critical to understand about melatonin is that it is an actual hormone you're taking. And just like any other hormone therapy, such as testosterone therapy or estrogen therapy, it comes with a greater risk of side effects and potential problems.

One of the main issues with melatonin supplementation is that it can potentially down-regulate your body's natural ability to utilize melatonin on its own. A study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms discovered that faulty timing or large doses of melatonin can cause desensitization of melatonin receptors. Essentially, you can start shutting down your body's ability to even use melatonin at all.

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Many people who've consistently taken melatonin notice that over time they've had to take more and more. And still, according to board-certified sleep specialist Michael J. Breus, PhD, their sleep quality really isn't necessarily better. In regards to melatonin, he says, "Remember, it's a hormone, not a vitamin." So, unless you want to chance creating a dependency or shutting down your body's ability to use melatonin, I'd say avoid it or at least try other things first.

Taking precursors to melatonin can be a few degrees safer, but still, a word of caution: The best way to use a sleep-regulating supplement is in a shortterm period to establish a normal sleep pattern, or to reestablish a normal sleep pattern after a time zone change from travel or a time change due to daylight saving time.

Do safe, smart, natural things first, then only bring the supplements in to "supplement" the good things you're already doing.

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