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Natural Sleep Aid Supplements That Actually Work

If you're one of the 70 million Americans who struggles with sleep, you're probably aware that things like stress, caffeine, a heavy meal, or an uncomfortable bedroom can keep you up at night. If you've addressed those, but still aren't satisfied ...
Natural Sleep Aid Supplements That Actually Work

If you're one of the 70 million Americans who struggle with sleep, you're probably aware that things like stress, caffeine, a heavy meal, or an uncomfortable bedroom can keep you up at night. If you've addressed those, but still aren't satisfied with your sleep quantity and quality, consider whether you're getting the right nutrients for a good night's sleep.

In addition to keeping your body healthy and working well, numerous vitamins, minerals, amino acids and plant compounds also function as natural sleep aids. You can get many of them from a balanced diet, but possibly not enough, or not in the right combination to support good sleep. Other natural sleep aids come from plants that can be used medicinally. They have roots in Eastern medicine and scientific evidence behind them.

Adding natural sleep supplements may make a big difference in how quickly you fall asleep, how deeply you sleep, and the quality of your sleep.

Sleep supplements support improved sleep by boosting levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain that promote relaxation, and by activating the brainwaves that move you through all of the necessary stages of sleep. Here's a short list of some that have been backed by research.

The sleep supplement that says "it's bed-time"

Melatonin – Before you can fall asleep, your body has to recognize that it's time to sleep – and that starts with melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced from the amino acid tryptophan. It's also probably the most well-known and widely used natural sleep supplement because it works well, and it's safe as long as you use it correctly.

Melatonin is produced by a gland in your brain when it's dark, and it gets shut off when it's light. Therefore, it helps to synchronize your circadian rhythms, or your body's internal clock, by signaling when it's time to sleep and awaken. Melatonin production decreases with age. Many research studies, including some high quality randomized controlled studies (the gold-standard in research studies) have found that melatonin supplements are effective for people of all ages, in helping to regulate the body's clock and fall asleep faster. [1]

Sleep supplements that promote relaxation

Research on the following supplements suggests they may be helpful when your mind is wide awake and racing, but your body needs to sleep. They help to calm and relax you and quiet your mind so you can transition into sleep mode.

Valerian and Hops Extract  The compounds in the herbal root valerian act on receptors in your brain to promote a sense of calm and relaxation. When tested on postmenopausal women with insomnia, valerian supplements were found to improve sleep quality. [2] In an analysis of 16 different studies on children to older adults, those who took the supplement reported an 80% greater chance of improved sleep compared to those who took a placebo. [3]

Several studies have combined valerian with hops extract from Humulus lupulus, (the same plant that gives beer it's bitterness) and found the combination to be more effective than valerian alone in reducing the time to fall asleep and improving the slow wave sleep cycle – which is where you get your restorative deep sleep. [4]

Hops has a long history of use in folk medicine, because it's rich in polyphenol compounds that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer activities. Like valerian, it's thought to act on gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. GABA is an important neurotransmitter which helps to promote a sense of calm and relaxation. [5]

Lemon balm extract – This plant, known as Melissa officinalis L, is also used in integrative medicine to help manage anxiety, promote relaxation and reduce insomnia. It contains compounds that block the breakdown of GABA. In a small study on 20 people with mild to moderate anxiety and insomnia, taking lemon balm resulted in an 18% improvement in anxiety levels, and 42% reduction in insomnia. In fact, there were improvements in all measures of insomnia, including falling asleep, staying asleep and returning to sleep after waking in the middle of the night or early morning. [6]

Jujube  Also known as Chinese red date, this fruit has been an important part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years because its compounds have benefits for many parts of your body. In traditional Chinese medicine, it's used to calm the mind and relieve mental tension, as well as to treat insomnia and forgetfulness. [7]

Magnolia Bark Extract  Compounds found in the bark of the magnolia tree have anti-anxiety, neuroprotective, and muscle relaxant properties. It's another plant that's been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and has been rediscovered as a natural sleep aid for its ability to promote a sense of relaxation and bring on sleep much easier. [8]

L-ornithine and L-lysine – Ornithine and lysine are amino acids. While both are available in protein foods, research suggests that taking an additional supplemental dose of these amino acids in the form of L-ornithine and L-lysine, might be helpful in reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and making it easier to fall asleep.

In an eight-week study on 52 healthy adults with stress, those who took L-ornithine supplements reported less stress and an easier time falling asleep. They also had lower blood cortisol levels, which is a marker of stress, after the eight weeks. [9] Similar results were found in another study on 108 adults who took L-lysine. [10]

Supplements that boost calming neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout your brain and central nervous system, and thus, regulate everything from your nerves and muscles, to your memory and mood. And, yes, they also play an important role in sleep.

L-tryptophan and 5-HTP – Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that's sometimes called "the feel-good hormone" because it promotes a feeling of calmness. Serotonin influences your appetite, digestion, mood, and sleep cycle. It also helps regulate your circadian rhythm, and it's required for the production of melatonin. [11]

Lower levels of serotonin are associated with more depression, anxiety, mood and sleep disorders. For many people, serotonin levels are lower in the winter months because they fall when there's less sunlight.

Unfortunately, serotonin isn't found in food, and you can't take a serotonin supplement because it can't cross into your brain. However, you can get more of the nutrients that help your brain make serotonin which will in turn make more melatonin. These include the B-vitamins, omega-3 fats, the amino acid tryptophan, and a compound called 5-HTP, which is made from tryptophan. Foods like fish, eggs, turkey, tofu, and nuts are good sources of these nutrients. You can also get more tryptophan and 5-HTP from a supplement. [12]

GABA and L-theanine – GABA is known as the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, so it helps to block electrical impulses, and as such, it favors sleep. [13] Theanine is a non-protein amino acid found in both green and black tea. It promotes relaxation without drowsiness. Either of these can be used in supplement form as natural sleep aids, but research suggests that they work even better when taken together. [14]

Glycine – Like GABA, the amino acid glycine also functions as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain as well as the spinal cord. It triggers muscle paralysis during REM sleep by inhibiting neurons that move your muscles. [15] It also helps to lower your core temperature a bit so you can drift into deep sleep. [16] Several studies show it to be helpful in reducing the time to fall asleep and improving quality of sleep. In a study on women, most reported taking less time to fall asleep, having improved sleep quality, feeling more refreshed and clear-headed after sleep. [17,18]

Nutrients and vitamins that work behind the scenes

You might associate micronutrients like vitamins and minerals from foods and supplements with giving your body energy to get up and go, but they're equally as important for sleep. Micronutrients act as co-factors for different chemical reactions in your body. They're like the cogs in the wheels that run a machine (your body and brain) and without them, the machine doesn't work very well.

Vitamin B-6, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and omega-3-6-9 - These are some of the most important micronutrients involved in sleep. They're essential for the synthesis and metabolism of serotonin, GABA and glycine. They're also involved in lowering your brain and body temperature which helps to initiate sleep, and also to help transition you the nonREM sleep stage. Research has linked low intake of these and other vitamins and minerals with poor sleep quality, including difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and non-restorative sleep. [19]

Sleeping is every bit as essential to your body as eating. It helps to boost your immune system and also to prevent chronic diseases down the road, so make sure you're doing all you can get the best sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene and work on ways to relax and destress so you can fall asleep easier, but also look for any gaps in your diet. In addition, consider taking a high-quality natural sleep supplement. REM Sleep combines all of the natural sleep aids mentioned in this article and the only sleep supplement made with MICROGEL™ technology to ensure maximum absorption of these nutrients that support all stages of sleep.

About The Author

Anne Danahy, MS RDN is a registered dietitian, integrative nutritionist and nutrition writer who specializes in women’s health and healthy aging. She works with individuals and groups, as well as brands, food commodities and the media to inspire her audience to eat better, age gracefully and live vibrantly.

Anne received her Bachelor of Arts degree from The University of Notre Dame, in Notre Dame, IN, and a Master of Science degree in Food and Nutrition from Framingham State University in MA.


1. Exogenous melatonin as a treatment for secondary sleep disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 

2. Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women. A randomized controlled clinical trial.

3. Valerian for sleep. A systematic review and meta-analysis.

4. The efficacy and safety of herbal medicine for insomnia in adults: An overview of recent research.

5. Biologically active compounds from hops and prospects for their use.

6. Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances.

7. A review of dietary ziziphus jujuba fruit (jujube): Developing health food supplements for brain protection.

8. Sleep aids derived from natural products.

9. Randomised controlled trial of the effects of L-ornithine on stress markers and sleep quality in healthy workers.

10. Oral treatment with L-lysine and L-arginine reduces anxiety and basal cortisol levels in healthy humans.

11. Serotonin: its place today in sleep preparation, triggering or maintenance.

12. Diet promotes sleep duration and quality.

13. GABA mechanisms and sleep.

14. GABA and L-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep.

15. REM sleep at its core – circuits, neurotransmitters, and pathophysiology.

16. New therapeutic strategy for amino acid medicine: glycine improves the quality of sleep.

17. Subjective effects of glycine ingestion before bedtime on sleep quality.

18. Glycine ingestion improves subjective sleep quality in human volunteers, correlating with polysomnographic changes.

19. Diet and Sleep Physiology: Public Health and Clinical Implications.

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