Natural Sleep Aids: The Science Behind Sleeping Better Naturally

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Sleep is the great healer, capable of restoring and maintaining balance in even the most stressful of times. It’s easy to let the hustle and bustle of the day prevent us from properly winding down at night. Sleeping pills offer enticing support for many—though often at the risk of deleterious side effects. There are some natural sleep aids that have demonstrated a remarkable ability to help one drift away to dreamland at night. Taking note of these natural compounds may help you start sleeping better fast.

Overview

There are a lot of considerations to make when seeking better sleep. There are dietary concerns, physical concerns, mental concerns, and even emotional concerns. All these can impact sleep quality in infinitely complex ways. In such cases where sleep issues arise, having a natural sleep aid at one’s disposal can help get things back on track. While considering the various compounds discussed here keep in mind that buying from trustworthy supplement brands helps ensure product purity and potency. After all, what good is the best sleep aid on the market if it arrives well past its best-buy date?

Staying Asleep IllustrationBest Natural Sleep Aids

There is a wide range of effectiveness when it comes to sleep aids. One could make an argument that certain foods with strong antioxidant properties might lower uncomfortable inflammation thus allowing better sleep. One might also argue that taking a supplement to help absorb other compounds could offer sleep support. For the sake of discussion here, we’re considering these types of compounds indirect sleep aids and omitting them entirely. Our focus here is to provide a list of compounds with enough scientific evidence to stand on their own as natural sleep aids.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the human pituitary gland in response to changes in light conditions. This compound is, in many ways, a signal to our body that another day is over and it’s time to rest. It’s also a powerful anti-oxidant, can help regulate natural circadian rhythms, and has very few side effects.  More than thirty-two randomized clinical studies have investigated the impact on melatonin and sleep. Taking from these studies, a typical dosage of melatonin ranges from .3mg to 10mg (R).

GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is responsible for helping balance out the glutamatergic activity in our brains by calming things down. This compound is derived, at least largely, from amino acids synthesized by our intestinal flora. It’s been shown to help naturally treat anxiety and depression, positively impact mood, and also has a strange role in early childhood development.

It’s a no-brainer that higher levels of our bodies’ main inhibitory neurotransmitter might help us fall asleep and stay asleep. Taken as a supplement, however, there are mixed results in determining its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier (R). It’s possible that taken in combination with P-glycoprotein inhibitors such as Skullcap, GABA would stand a better chance of reaching the brain.

Magnesium Glycinate

Magnesium is one of the most essential minerals in the human body and has been attributed to helping facilitate hundreds of cellular processes. Research has shown it’s able to help treat depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and many other health concerns. Magnesium also plays an essential role in how our muscles function by helping them relax after contraction.

Too little magnesium can often lead to cramps or symptoms of hypertension. Glycine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is found in foods such as meats, nuts, and oils. Magnesium Glycinate is the amino acid chelate of Magnesium + Glycine and offers the relaxing benefits of both compounds. It’s often recommended in helping to address a magnesium deficiency but can also be used as a powerful natural sleep aid. There are many other types of magnesium available but magnesium glycinate has the strongest qualifications to be considered a natural sleep aid.

Valerian Root

Valerian root has been used for centuries as a natural sleep aid. Modern science discovered that the natural valepotriates compounds ( a type of terpene ) found in the root of the Valerian plant help inhibit the breakdown of GABA, thus helping promote a more relaxed state (R). A 2006 meta-analysis of 16 unique studies that observed more than 1000 patients found that valerian shows tremendous promise as a natural sleep aid (R). Valerian root might not be the best natural sleep aid out there but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it’s worth consideration. It’s commonly found in nighttime herbal teas or herbal sleep aid blends.

Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the oldest and most-renowned natural sleep aids on our list. It’s constituent terpenoids and flavonoids are attributed to a wide range of benefits to human health including helping to get better sleep (R)! In addition to its ability to help us meet the Sandman, chamomile has shown the potential to help treat cancer as well (R). Overall, it’s one of the best, oldest, and well-studied herbal sleep aids on the market today. Chamomile is commonly taken as an herbal tea just before bedtime but is also available in capsule form as a supplement.

Lavender

Lavender is another herbal remedy that’s been used for many health benefits throughout the ages. It’s been used to help treat insect bites, burns, bacterial infections, and makes for an especially wonderful natural sleep aid. Research has shown that a standardized preparation of lavender oil, named Silexan, is effective at lowering levels of anxiety and tension (R). The active compounds in lavender are known to exert a neuroprotective action that not only helps relax the central nervous system but also lower risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (R). Lavender is best thought of as a complimentary sleep aid in that it will help relax the body but isn’t necessarily involved in any single sleep mechanism.

Passion Flower

There have been several animal studies that describe passionflower being able to help decrease time-to-sleep, regulate circadian rhythms, and increase overall sleep time (R)(R). There have only been limited human studies, but those completed tend to back up results found in animal studies (R). Passionflower has been observed to cause increases in GABA-dependent signaling channels suggesting its ability to relax the body and mind. This is likely due to the significant GABA content within passion flower extracts themselves (R).

L-Theanine

L-Theanine is an amino acid analog made from glutamate and glutamine that shows some useful anti-anxiety benefits. This compound, commonly found in green tea, has been shown to help reduce anxiety in a non-sedating way. In other words, L-Theanine helps relax you but doesn’t make your tired. Limited human studies suggest that L-Theanine helps improve overall sleep quality and may help reduce tossing and turning (R).

L-theanine is a common ingredient in many natural sleep aid blends. It’s thought to increase levels of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA though some users report side effects such as racing thoughts, increased anxiety, and mild hypertension (R). If you’re considering l-theanine as a natural sleep aid we suggest trying it sometime during the day to see how it affects you.

5-HTP

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is the precursor for 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) which is commonly known as Serotonin. This compound is often associated with mood and is the focal point of many studies on anxiety and depression. 5-HTP is well-regarded as an effective serotonin precursor because it readily crosses the blood-brain barrier (serotonin does not), it’s easily converted to serotonin without any issues, and it shows a dose-dependent impact on serotonin levels (R).

There isn’t a lot of human data to confirm many of the health benefits often attributed to 5-HTP. Nonetheless, subjective accounts of deeper more restorative sleep patterns while taking 5-HTP supplements are well-corroborated in animal studies (R)(R). In one study on mice, researchers noted that 5-HTP helps promote better sleeping patterns but not l-tryptophan itself (a 5-HTP precursor, common to meats such as turkey) (R). This suggests that eating foods with 5-HTP precursors might not positively influence sleeping patterns

Discussion

Natural sleep aids exist in many forms and have the potential to fit into one’s nightly routine in any number of ways. The compounds listed here are common in herbal teas, isolated herbal extracts, encapsulated supplements, and in natural sleep aid blends. As with any natural compound, there is a limited amount of data to describe how these compounds may (or may not) behave when taken by healthy individuals. Anecdotal accounts of compounds such as L-Theanine having effects opposite of those intended (anxiety increasing) should serve as a warning to anyone trying a new compound for the first time.

The complexity of human sleep patterns is still a developing science. Two commonly-measured dynamics of individual sleep patterns are time-to-sleep and incidence of periodic wakefulness. In simpler terms: how long it takes one to fall asleep and how well one sleeps. The natural sleep aids discussed here act on either or both of these primary areas of concern. Many do so by affecting GABAergic pathways in some way, directly or indirectly by allowing better GABA utilization.

Not all sleep issues can be traced back to biochemical or nutritive issues. Sometimes, one’s environment can play a tremendous role in the quality of sleep. Noisy environments, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, and sleep interruptions can all have a negative influence on sleep patterns. For example, simply finding a more supportive mattress to sleep on might help greatly improve sleep quality and lower physical symptoms such as back pain. For anyone considering buying a new mattress check out our article on natural and organic mattresses.

Final Thoughts

Natural sleep aids offer a much-sought alternative to prescription medications that often come accompanied by deleterious side effects. In most cases, it would be unreasonable to expect the same degree of influence on sleep patterns from natural sleep aids as one might expect from prescription synthetics. Nonetheless, the compounds discussed here all have varying degrees of scientific support for their efficacy in helping to improve sleep quality. They serve as a great option for those wanting to improve their sleep naturally.

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Sleep affects all our lives in a big way. Natural sleep aids show strong promise in helping those struggling to find a good night’s rest. If you enjoyed this article please let us know by using the rating box below.

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