Poor-quality sleep affects many people at some point in their lives and can have a huge range of detrimental health effects. For this reason, many people turn to sleep aids and supplements. However, it's important to know what's in these supplements before you try them.
Many sleeping pills and over-the-counter medications have hidden ingredients or untested compounds that have no effect at best and can be downright harmful at worst. Natural sleep aids are the best, but even these need to be clinically tested and understood before you try them.
This guide will explain how sleep aids work and who should use them. We'll provide a comprehensive list of ingredients used in natural sleep aids and sleeping pills. There will be additional advice to help you choose an over-the-counter sleep aid that only has positive effects on your sleep and doesn't risk causing harm with strange synthetic ingredients or unknown compounds.
Let's get into it.
What is a Sleep Aid?
Sleeping medications have been around for millennia. Some of the most common ingredients in age-old herbal remedies are still popular today. The ingredients typically aim to achieve a few things:
- Physically relaxing the muscles and reducing stress throughout the body
- Calming the mind and easing common causes of sleeplessness such as racing thoughts
- Slowing down the heart-rate
- Promoting a sense of well-being and positivity that eases anxiety
- In some cases, numbing the mind and inducing sleep using powerful chemicals - this is what is used in “sedative-hypnotics” are only offered through prescription and are not sold as over-the-counter sleep aids
Most people experiencing poor sleep don't need drastic remedies like sedative-hypnotics. These can often have side effects and can be addictive, meaning that they should only be used as a last resort if poor sleep is severely impacting the health of the individual.
We'll discuss more powerful sleeping pills and tranquilizers later, but for now, let's focus on what makes a natural sleep aid effective and who can benefit from an over-the-counter sleep aid.
When Should You Use an Over-the-Counter Sleep Aid?
Lack of sleep is a common problem, but the way our working lives are structured means that many people feel they should “accept” poor sleep as a condition of life. People working long hours or high-stress jobs rarely sleep for as long as they should. Parents of young children often sleep poorly and have to wake up frequently, which can have a detrimental effect on their health.
Lack of sleep can cause a range of health issues, some of which can become very severe. These include:
- Poor sleep makes us more likely to snap or find things irritating, as our mind sees them as keeping us from sleep.
- Loss of concentration. It's hard to focus on important tasks when you're exhausted. This can also lead to an increased chance of accidents.
- High blood pressure. Prolonged lack of sleep can raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels, putting you at risk of heart attacks and other health complications.
- Low mood and poor mental health. Existing mental health conditions can be exacerbated by a lack of sleep - it can also make you more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Long-term and severe sleeplessness can even lead to psychosis.
- Failing to sleep enough puts you at greater risk of obesity, as your body doesn't process food properly.
- Long-term poor-quality sleep puts you at increased risk of developing diabetes.
- Vulnerability to common illnesses. Your immune system suffers when you aren't getting enough rest. This makes you vulnerable to illnesses like the common cold or flu.
- Reduced sex drive. Feeling tired all the time can diminish the sex drive. Combined with irritability, this can have damaging effects on relationships.
If poor-quality rest is hurting your life in any way, you might wish to consider an over-the-counter sleep aid. But how do you choose, and what ingredients should you look out for? This depends on what you're using the sleep aid for and how long you're planning to use it. It's also important to keep an eye out for side effects - people react differently to ingredients used in natural sleep aids, and just because it works for someone else doesn't mean it's the right choice for you.
Let's consider the different types of sleeping pills and other supplements available before we start breaking down what you'll find in an over-the-counter sleep aid.
Different Types of Sleep Aids
Before you try any type of over-the-counter sleep aid, it's a good idea to speak to your primary care provider and ask for their advice. Doctors don't always agree on which ingredients are effective - you should do research by yourself as well as ask for advice. However, if you're considering a specific product, your doctor will at least be able to tell you if there's anything in it with potentially harmful side effects.
A natural sleep aid tends to be the safest choice because synthetic compounds carry a much higher risk of reacting negatively or causing side effects. However, even with natural sleep aids, you should learn about all the ingredients in detail before you try it.
Natural Sleep Aids
Natural sleep aids are made from ingredients that don't need to be created in a laboratory. Many of these ingredients are botanical and have been known to have relaxing or mildly sedative properties for millennia. However, a natural sleep aid can also contain ingredients such as minerals (e.g. magnesium) and hormones that occur naturally within the body.
These might be taken in isolation or as part of compound sleeping pills that combine several well-known ingredients to achieve a better effect. When ingredients are combined, sleeping pills need to be tested thoroughly to ensure that there are no disharmonious reactions caused by different ingredients reacting.
The most effective natural sleep aid will combine numerous ingredients that act in tandem with each other to reduce physical and mental stress and promote easy, restful sleep. One of the main reasons people prefer a natural sleep aid over synthetic sleeping pills is that the effects are better understood and more consistent.
Synthetic Sleep Aids
Synthetic products contain lab-produced chemicals that may have effects that improve sleep. However, most over-the-counter sleep aids containing synthetic chemicals aren't designed primarily to promote rest - rather, they tend to cause drowsiness and so are sometimes “re-purposed”.
Benadryl and Nyquil are good examples of this. Neither is designed to promote sleep; Benadryl is an antihistamine while Nyquil is a popular treatment for cold and flu-like symptoms. Each tends to cause drowsiness as a side effect, especially in higher doses. This means that people sometimes use them as an “unofficial” over-the-counter sleep aid, which can be harmful if done consistently.
You should never use a product that isn't designed as an over-the-counter sleep aid to help you get better rest. Substances like this have addictive properties and are meant to treat short-term problems that have nothing to do with rest. Using synthetic products in this way can have harmful consequences and should never be used as an alternative to a natural sleep aid.
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
This simply refers to any synthetic or natural sleep aid that is sold without a prescription. An over-the-counter sleep aid can be sold as such because it doesn't contain any controlled substances. This doesn't necessarily mean that over-the-counter sleep aids will be less effective for you than prescribed medication. Many people find that prescription sleeping pills don't provide good-quality rest and that a natural sleep aid is more effective.
There are so many ingredients that can be used in an over-the-counter sleep aid that it's important not to become disheartened if you try one, and it doesn't seem to work. You should also give any natural cure a fair trial - some become more effective if used consistently over several weeks, as they help to gradually reduce key causes of sleeplessness like high blood pressure and racing thoughts.
The vast majority of people should only use natural, over-the-counter sleep aids, compared to prescription sleeping pills. This is because the addiction risks and potential side effects can be much more severe with prescribed medications.
Prescription Sleep Aids
For the most severe sleep disorders, you may wish to speak to your doctor about prescription sedatives. These tend to be very potent and rather than treating symptoms that prevent you from getting proper rest, act directly on the brain to “shut it down” for the night.
This can be highly effective but doesn't work for everyone. Prescription sleeping pills are also typically addictive and can have a wide range of negative side effects. Many sedative drugs that were once prescribed as medication are now outlawed or strictly controlled, such as barbiturates.
Remember that it's still always safer to take a prescription drug that has been approved by your doctor than to seek out uncontrolled substances that might have powerful sedative properties but poorly-understood side effects. There have been several unregulated products that have become common in the U.S. over the past few years and purport to have the same kind of sedative properties as prescription drugs but don't require a doctor's approval. Always ask your primary care provider before you try any type of sleeping aid.
How to Take Sleep Aids
There are several ways to consume an over-the-counter sleep aid. Sleeping pills are the first thing that spring to mind when we think of what might help us get better rest, but natural remedies may also be chewed or drunk as tea.
Edible Natural Sleep Aids
Not to be confused with “sleep aid edibles”, which are typically cannabinoid products designed to help with rest (more on these later!) Some natural aids can be chewed or eaten as part of a meal. South-East Asian culinary herbs such as ginger and lemongrass are known to help regulate digestion and promote healthy sleep cycles, and can easily be incorporated into your evening meal for a delicious-tasting natural remedy.
Another very popular natural sleep aid is valerian root, which is typically powdered or incorporated into sleeping pills but can be chewed in its raw form. Some people like it as natural as it comes!
We associate sleeping pills with synthetic chemicals, but it's very possible to create sleeping pills using all-natural ingredients. All-natural ingredients can be reduced, ground, or distilled into powder, which can then be bound together in an easy-to-ingest pill.
You should read the label carefully on any bottle of sleeping pills you purchase, whether it's as an over-the-counter sleep aid or a prescription. You should also keep them well out of the reach of children, even if they only contain mild substances. If you're unsure about any ingredient you see on the side, take the bottle to your doctor and show them.
Ingredients are sometimes used as binders in sleeping pills that you won't have read about in natural sleep aid guides, e.g. gelatin is sometimes used as a coating for capsules. Remember - always ask if you're confused.
Soluble Sleep Supplements
Not everyone enjoys swallowing pills. Some of us find it physically difficult, while others simply dislike the sensation. The overtly medical connotations of a pill can also be off-putting for some people - soluble sleeping supplements provide a way around this.
Some pills that come in capsule form can also be ingested as solubles. Make sure that this is the case before you try it, or you might just end up with a glass of water full of gritty powder!
Teas for Sleep
Tea is a classic and very natural-feeling way of ingesting a sleep aid. You can also control the temperature of tea - an iced tea in summer can help regulate your body temperature and cool you down before you get some rest. A hot cup of lemon & ginger tea in the winter, perhaps with some honey, is a warming balm before bedtime. Some might even add a sly dash of whiskey for the perfect Hot Toddy, although we'd never recommend alcohol for promoting high-quality sleep.
Tea can also have a psychologically beneficial effect before bed. It feels pleasant and soothing. This means that if you're taking your over-the-counter sleep aid in the form of sleeping pills, there's nothing wrong with pairing it with a cup of tea to give yourself the best chance of a full night of high-quality rest.
Best Natural Sleep Aid Ingredients
Let's take a look at some of the most popular ingredients in a natural sleep aid, and how they help your body relax. Remember that many of the ingredients on this list affect people in different ways - no experience is universal, and sleeping pills that combine several of these ingredients often stand a better chance of helping you rest.
Here are the top 'make you sleep’ ingredients.
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that the body produces to help regulate the sleep cycle. Melatonin levels are typically low in the morning and high in the evening - this is one reason that irregular sleep patterns tend to produce lower-quality sleep. If you're working night shifts and sleeping primarily in the daytime, your body won't know when to produce melatonin, and the quality of your sleep may suffer as a result.
Melatonin is among the most common ingredients used in over-the-counter sleep aids. Many are sold simply as melatonin supplements without additional ingredients. While melatonin supplements have been documented as having a positive effect on sleep patterns and have even been used successfully to treat more serious sleep disorders, it performs a very specific role and may not be as appropriate for treating all types of insomnia or poor-quality rest.
For example, jetlag and night shift work disrupts the body's ability to produce melatonin, which means that it makes sense as a supplement. However, if you're trying to get to sleep at a normal hour and still find that you're getting poor-quality rest or can't doze off, lack of melatonin might not be the main issue. For this reason, some sleeping pills combine melatonin with other natural sleep aids for a more well-rounded treatment.
It's considered safe for long-term use, which makes melatonin one of the most popular choices for over-the-counter sleep aids that try to steer clear of substances with addictive properties.
Valerian root is a widely-known and commonly used natural sleep aid. Valerian is native to Europe and many parts of Asia and has been used for its sedative properties for millennia. The Ancient Greeks used valerian to treat insomnia.
The root is considered the most effective part of the plant today and is often powdered as a component of natural sleeping pills. Valerian root contains an oil that can be extracted and used in medicine.
Because the herb is fairly easy to grow in temperate climates, keen gardeners might wish to grow valerian at home. If you decide to give this a try, note that as with many Mediterranean herbs (including lavender - see below), it flourishes in poor, dry soil compared to nutrient-rich soil and will produce a better oil yield. It's also worth noting that the oil is very pungent when extracted from the root; the smell is somewhat cheesy and may not be to everyone's taste.
Most natural sleep aids containing valerian root mask the sometimes offputting flavor of the oil with other, more pleasant herbs and ingredients. Overall, it has a good reputation for promoting good-quality rest and is one of the most popular options in the U.S. today.
Magnesium is a chemical element that occurs naturally in the body and is also part of many foods that we eat. Trace quantities of magnesium are also present in drinking water. It helps to regulate many processes within the body and is present in the majority of over-the-counter sleep aids.
One of the key effects of magnesium is to mediate melatonin production (see above). A lack of magnesium might impact the body's ability to produce melatonin when it's needed most, so many supplements that contain melatonin also use magnesium as a regulator.
In addition to this, magnesium is considered to have a regulating effect on the brain, helping to calm thoughts and reduce stress. This makes it an important component of so many over-the-counter sleep aids, as one of the most common reasons for poor-quality rest is stress.
Increasing the amount of magnesium in your diet is a great start if you want to have better rest. Older people especially tend to experience magnesium deficiency, and key sources include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel
- Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate and nuts are popular after-dinner treats, and there's a good reason for this. Increasing those magnesium levels can help promote good rest. They also pair excellently with herbal teas, many of which also have positive effects on your sleeping habits. Check out our article about magnesium glycinate for sleep if you want to learn more about this mineral.
Magnesium citrate is a compound of magnesium that has extra applications in regulating bodily processes. A key area where magnesium citrate helps is in regulating bowel movements; it's commonly used as a laxative.
While laxatives and over-the-counter sleep aids might seem to have the potential for an unfortunate mix-up, well-regulated digestion is very important to high-quality sleep. Going to bed immediately after eating generally causes very poor sleep and digestive problems throughout the next day. Magnesium citrate is often used in natural sleep aids because it promotes consistent patterns throughout the body, which is the foundation of good sleep.
Goji berries, also known as wolfberries, are known for being nutritionally rich as well as helping to promote good-quality rest. Goji is native to northwest regions of China and has been used in traditional medicine for many centuries, especially for its sedative properties.
They tend to be cooked or dried before they're consumed. Drying intensifies the medicinal properties and makes it possible to powder them, which is why goji can be used in sleeping pills. While there hasn't been a wealth of academic study into the sedative properties of goji berries, they're regarded as a useful and pleasant-tasting agent in promoting high-quality rest.
It's worth noting that goji berries can interact poorly with some other drugs. For this reason, you should speak to your doctor if you're using any other medications before you try an over-the-counter sleep aid containing goji berries.
Lavender is a Mediterranean herb that is widely known for its wonderful smell as well as its soothing properties. Lavender oil can be applied to bedding, as it's believed that even the scent of lavender can promote relaxation and healthy sleep. It's a popular choice in scented candles for the same reason.
Dried lavender flowers are safe to consume and can be used in tea as well as powdered for use in over-the-counter sleep aids. It's considered beneficial in treating common causes of sleep loos such as anxiety.
Another benefit of lavender is that it can be easily grown in the garden. Different varieties suit different climates - French lavender tends to flourish in drier, warmer areas, but many varieties of English lavender are popular in cool climates because they're extremely hardy and produce rich-smelling blossoms in the warmer months.
Like valerian, lavender tends to flourish in poor-quality, sandy soil. If you're thinking about growing lavender at home as a natural sleep aid or dabbing lavender oil around your bed, you should also note that cats dislike the smell of lavender. This is one reason that it might be best to enjoy its properties as an ingredient in natural sleeping pills.
Passionflower is another natural ingredient with a beautiful smell, which is why it's such a popular choice in natural sleeping pills. Passionflower is considered to have relaxing properties that help treat anxiety and racing thoughts and is believed to be especially effective when consumed as tea.
This might be because pleasant-smelling teas are soothing for “soft reasons” compared with the harder reasons of their chemical properties. As noted, drinking a delicious tea is a relaxing pastime and can help people to settle down in the evening before they try to sleep.
Combining the soothing effects of a cup of passionflower tea with sleeping pills that incorporate passionflower extract is a good way to double up the effects. Passionflower is considered safe for consumption in adults, so the extra dose is unlikely to cause any strange side effects. If you suspect you might be sensitive to passionflower, as ever, it's best to check with your doctor.
Tryptophan is a well-known amino acid that can be found in a wide variety of foodstuffs and is also commonly used as a natural sleep aid. L-Tryptophan can help reduce the length of time it takes for users to fall asleep, making it one of the most popular supplements for sleeping pills.
L-Tryptophan acquired a negative reputation in the U.S. after a manufacturing incident in the 1980s caused a large batch to be contaminated. This had nothing to do with the chemical itself and was a regrettable setback, as L-tryptophan is considered one of the safest and most effective natural sleep aids. Foods containing tryptophan include:
- Nuts & seeds
Dairy products are known to assist with sleep but tend to be less amenable for use in sleeping pills. Isolated L-tryptophan is therefore an incredibly useful addition to many over-the-counter sleep aids and among the most effective ingredients out there.
Chamomile tea is among the most popular types of tea enjoyed for its soothing properties. Chamomile has been used for many years as a natural sleep aid, and while its gentle, pleasant aroma is very soothing, modern studies have suggested that its relaxing properties might be due to its flavonoid content.
Chamomile contains apigenin, which interacts with receptors in the brain to produce a sedative effect. Chamomile is such a popular choice in over-the-counter sleep aids today because compared with many natural ingredients that have “softer” reasons for inclusion, chamomile has active sedative properties.
Again, chamomile is safe for consumption for most adults, which means that you can easily double up your evening cup of chamomile tea with natural sleeping pills that contain chamomile extract. A very small percentage may experience allergies. If you know that you're allergic to chamomile, don't use any medication that contains it, no matter how small the quantity. Ask your doctor if you're unsure.
Ginger is a popular culinary ingredient. This root boasts amazing health benefits and can be enjoyed raw, chopped up, or grated in food, or as a tea.
Ginger's all-around health benefits contribute to its use as a natural sleep aid. Related effects include:
- Lowering blood pressure. High blood pressure is a common reason for poor-quality rest, as it makes it harder to relax. Ginger is good for your heart and helps act as a muscle relaxant, reducing blood pressure and having a soothing effect on the body.
- Reducing inflammation. If you struggle to rest well because of soreness, ginger helps to combat inflammation throughout the body.
- Anti-oxidants. 6-gingerol is the main chemical component that gives ginger its health benefits. It has anti-oxidant effects and helps to reduce physical stress levels, making it easier to achieve long, deep sleep.
- Reducing nausea. Nausea makes it very hard to rest, as your body doesn't want to shut down when it thinks it needs to “get something out”. Ginger can help reduce nausea and even help to combat morning sickness.
- Regulating digestion. The importance of good digestion for high-quality rest can't be overstated. Ginger helps keep your digestion regular, which in turn helps you sleep more easily at night.
Ginger can be powdered and included in over-the-counter sleeping pills. Powdered ginger is also commonly used in tea. If you enjoy the taste enough, it can even be eaten raw, although consuming too much can cause unpleasant drowsiness (and not the type you want from a natural sleep aid).
Ginger is extremely easy to grow at home. Fresh ginger can be purchased from most supermarkets and a small chunk can be planted in a pot, where it will develop into a full root in around 8 months - note that it doesn't like freezing outdoor temperatures. There's a huge difference in quality and health benefits between ultra-fresh ginger and the older, drier product you might find at the store.
It also combines brilliantly with garlic, which is similarly easy to grow and also has wide-ranging health benefits.
Lemongrass is another South-East Asian culinary herb with a lot to offer as a natural sleep aid. It can be made into a tea or consumed as part of a delicious, healthy meal. Lemongrass oil can even be used as a massage oil due to its relaxing, pain-relieving properties.
Lemongrass helps with sleep partly because it causes the release of serotonin. Serotonin helps to improve and stabilize your mood, which makes this an especially good remedy for anyone who finds it hard to rest because of depression or anxiety.
Lemongrass is easy to grow in warm or temperate climates and extremely easy to propagate. Note that it can grow up to 1.5m tall and the leaves can be very sharp to the touch - this is a hazard if you have small children.
Its flavor profile also combines very well with ginger. A cup of lemongrass and ginger tea made from plants you grew yourself is a powerful mood-booster and can significantly augment the power of your over-the-counter sleep aid. In case you hadn't realized yet, we love gardening - besides growing ingredients used in relaxing teas and sleeping pills, gardening can also be a natural sleep aid!
Turmeric is a root used in South Asian cooking and is widely known to have positive effects on digestion. In addition to helping regulate digestion, which is an important factor in any over-the-counter sleep aid, turmeric has also been shown to help combat sleep deprivation in studies on mice.
Culinary herbs and ingredients are an important part of any strategy for improving the quality of your rest. They can enhance and augment the effects of natural sleeping pills and cover as many bases as possible, making it more likely that you'll be able to find high-quality sleep.
Glycine is a common ingredient in over-the-counter sleep aids but is also a naturally occurring amino acid in the body. It's believed that glycine helps to regulate the body's temperature at times of rest. If you find that you struggle to doze off because your body temperature is too high, you may be suffering from low glycine levels.
An over-the-counter sleep aid containing glycine might help you fall into deep slumber more quickly. This can mean that even if you don't sleep for as long as would be ideal, the quality of the rest you get could be substantially higher than if your glycine levels remained low.
This natural sleep aid is especially useful because studies have observed its effects by monitoring sleeping participants, rather than relying on self-reporting. A common issue with scientific studies of natural sleep aids is that it's difficult to accurately and routinely monitor a significant sample of sleeping participants. This means that users' accounts of how well they rested are often used instead, which adds an unhelpful degree of subjectivity.
Like turmeric, glycine may also help reduce the effects of sleep deprivation and improve concentration. While the primary focus of any natural sleep aid should be in improving the duration and quality of rest, combating symptoms of deprivation is an extra benefit.
Lemon balm is a herb native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean that has been used for its relaxing properties since ancient times. It has a pleasant, lemony aroma in common with many other plants used as sleep aids, especially in teas.
It possesses antioxidant properties that may help it promote good rest. Oxidative stress is a common cause of low-quality rest, as the body struggles to go through its natural routines and processes. Good rhythms are so important to maintaining healthy sleeping habits.
Like most members of the mint family, it's extremely easy to grow, and it will flourish in any temperate climate. This makes it an excellent choice for home-grown tea as well as a well-regarded component in many over-the-counter sleep aids and sleeping pills.
Hops are probably best known for their use in beer production. Although alcohol is known for its sedative properties, we'd never recommend it as a natural sleep aid because although it makes you drowsy, it causes low-quality sleep and there's nothing refreshing about waking up with a hangover.
One study found that using hops in non-alcoholic beer produced sedative effects, meaning that alcohol isn't necessary for bringing out these properties. For this reason, hops are gaining popularity for use in natural sleeping aids and sleeping pills - they've also got a long history of use in traditional European medicine, dating back over 1000 years.
Ginkgo biloba is a species of tree native to China. The order it belongs to, Ginkgoales, is one of the most ancient orders of trees still alive today - Ginkgo biloba is the last member of this order. Its leaves are considered to possess properties that help people to relax and sleep more easily.
Limited research has been done on the effectiveness of this treatment, but it's been suggested that it may have a positive effect on REM sleep. High-quality REM sleep is incredibly important to feel rested when you wake up.
L-theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid. It's used in many over-the-counter sleep aids and popular sleeping pills today due to its relaxing properties; a study tested its effectiveness as a natural sleep aid on children with ADHD and results seemed generally positive.
L-theanine is found in many green and black teas. It's a great choice for an evening cup of tea if you enjoy the flavor of darker teas, and it can also be found in some mushrooms. As it doesn't occur in a wide variety of foods, it's helpful to get extra L-theanine from natural sleeping pills.
The human body produces taurine in many areas, including the eyes, heart, and brain. It's also found abundantly in bile, which is produced in the large intestine - it's estimated that up to 0.1% of your body's total weight is taurine. It's considered an anti-oxidant and helps the body repair itself when under stress, which is why it's used as a natural sleep aid.
You may not enjoy the idea of consuming something that is heavily produced in the large intestine - “bile” isn't a very appetizing word. However, in most over-the-counter sleep aids that use L-taurine, it's mostly tasteless except for a mild sulfuric quality. Its benefits to promoting good rest far outweigh any issues around taste for most users, and it's often combined with better-tasting ingredients such as passionflower to mitigate this.
St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort is a flowering plant native to Europe and many parts of Asia. It's been used for a long time as a natural sleep aid and to treat issues such as depression and anxiety. More recently, it's become an extremely popular ingredient of over-the-counter sleep aids due to the wide range of biologically active agents it produces when consumed.
St. John's Wort can be dried and powdered, making it appropriate for use in natural sleeping pills. When used in conjunction with other herbal remedies, it helps produce soothing, healing rest and can also combat inflammation. This makes it useful for anyone who struggles to sleep due to aches and pains.
Skullcap is a plant native to North America. It's been used in traditional medicines for centuries and is noted for its soothing properties and ability to work as a sedative. Don't worry about the slightly threatening name - skullcaps are so-called because they resemble a medieval helmet and the derivation from the Latin name, Scutellaria.
These flowering plants can help to regulate body heat before sleep, making them perfect when used in iced tea or over-the-counter sleep aids if you struggle to rest on hot summer nights. Skullcap is a popular component in many natural sleep aids today.
Asian ginseng is a popular herb, native to China and other far-east parts of Asia. It's been suggested that Asian ginseng has antioxidant properties and can combat poor heart health and blood pressure. This makes the body more able to regulate its temperature and fall into healthy rhythms when you go to bed.
These properties are also positive because they reverse some side effects of consistently poor sleep. Low-quality rest increases blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, and while getting your sleep back on track is the best way to prevent this, consuming a plant that improves heart health as part of your over-the-counter sleep aid is very beneficial.
As one of its main effects is to improve blood flow, Asian ginseng has also been noted as a potential aphrodisiac. If you're searching for natural sleep aids because poor sleep has impacted your sex drive (which is common), remedies including Asian ginseng might be doubly beneficial.
Ashwagandha is a plant native to several parts of Asia and Africa. It's been used as a natural sleep aid in many cultures for centuries. Core properties include improved mood and a sense of relaxation, which can be very helpful when combating sleep loss due to stress or anxiety.
Medical research on ashwagandha is still somewhat limited, but a review has suggested that it's safe for use as an over-the-counter sleep aid in small quantities.
Inositol (Vitamin B8)
Inositol has been considered among the best natural sleep aids for pregnant women. It is present in many over-the-counter sleeping pills and natural remedies today and is broadly considered an effective sedative.
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)
GABA is well-understood as an important sleep regulator. It plays a part in many over-the-counter sleep aids and occurs naturally in the body. Its main role is as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, helping the mind remain in a peaceful state when you're sleeping. GABA supplements can ensure that your mind remains switched off when you're asleep, so if you find that you frequently wake during the night, it might be because your GABA levels are too low.
As one of the most heavily researched and best-understood components of over-the-counter sleep aids, GABA is foundational to many sleeping pills available today.
5-HTP helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. It's used in many over-the-counter sleep aids for this reason, as it combats anxiety and low mood, which can bring about poor-quality rest.
5-HTP is a good example of why you shouldn't give up on a natural sleep aid if it doesn't seem to work after a few nights. It can take several weeks for serotonin levels to consistently increase when using 5-HTP, but once you achieve this level, the benefits are consistent and long-lasting. It's also safe for regular use, which is why 5-HTP is such a popular choice in natural sleeping aids.
Kava has been increasingly popular in the U.S. in recent years. This South Pacific plant may have sedative properties, but it can also lead to wider health complications such as liver damage. Its production and distribution are unregulated, meaning that users should proceed with extreme caution and speak to a doctor before considering kava.
Kratom is another unregulated substance with purported sedative benefits. This plant hails from South East Asia and has been used for centuries in local medicine. While it's growing in popularity in the U.S., it is considered to be addictive and might have other negative side effects. It's not recommended compared to most over-the-counter sleep aids.
Cannabinoids are now legal in several states. CBD is a popular cannabinoid product that reportedly helps to reduce stress and may have some sedative effects. CBD is legal and is widely available as an oil, a vape, or an edible product.
Cannabinoid products containing THC have also been reported to have some benefits as a natural sleep aid. However, products containing THC are illegal in some states, and its benefits as a sleep aid are disputed. You should speak to your primary care provider before using cannabinoid products as an over-the-counter sleep aid.
Common Synthetic Ingredients for Sleep Aids
Synthetic ingredients may also be used in an over-the-counter sleep aid. We'd generally advise caution if using a sleep aid containing synthetic ingredients. Natural sleep aids are based on compounds that either appear in the body or in foodstuffs that are safe to consume. They typically have fewer side effects as a result and are easier to treat if you experience an adverse reaction.
Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine, meaning that it can help to regulate the diet. It's an active component in many medications used to reduce discomfort in the stomach including Benadryl. While good regulation of the digestive system is a primary goal of many natural sleep aids, it's better to achieve this with a healthy diet and all-natural ingredients wherever possible.
Diphenhydramine is sometimes considered an effective sleep aid because it tends to cause drowsiness. However, drowsiness isn't necessarily the same thing as high-quality rest. Alcohol tends to make people drowsy, but your body has to do a lot of work clearing up other negative side effects. This makes it ineffective as an over-the-counter sleep aid.
Doxylamine succinate is another antihistamine. It's sometimes used to help with sleep for the same reason as diphenhydramine - it can cause drowsiness, and it helps to regulate the digestive system.
These products are generally safe to use in low quantities and situationally. However, they should be kept for use as antihistamines rather than treated as an alternative to a good natural sleep aid. High-quality rest is best achieved by balancing the natural compounds in your body and enjoying the benefits of healthy, organic ingredients.
What to Expect When Taking a Sleep Aid
What should you expect to gain when trying a natural sleep aid? We explain how they typically work and how you should approach their use.
Most natural sleep aids will work most effectively if you take them consistently over a few weeks or months. For this reason, you should never judge them after a week or two, because you might not have experienced what makes them effective.
It's important not to expect “Popeye physics”. Yes, spinach promotes muscle growth - but you're not going to lift boulders after one spinach-rich meal! The same is true of natural sleep aids. Using them consistently will help your body regulate itself more effectively and can improve your long-term mood and disposition. This helps you to fall asleep more readily.
Some ingredients have active sedative qualities. These are more notable in the short term. However, remember that there's a key difference between over-the-counter sleep aids and hypnotic sedatives; they're not designed for the same purpose. Indeed, if you used hypnotic sedatives consistently, you'd suffer addiction and other negative side effects.
Contributing Factors, not a “Knockout”
Key benefits of natural sleep aids include:
- Improved mood. Several common ingredients in natural sleep aids increase serotonin production. This helps to improve and balance your moods, making it easier to keep negative or anxious thoughts away when you're trying to rest.
- Better digestive regulation. Never underestimate the importance of good digestion to high-quality rest. Many of these ingredients help keep your digestion regular, which means that your body can switch off more easily.
- Lower blood pressure. This helps to reduce heart rate and stress. Your heart should be able to achieve a slow, steady resting rate easily when you try to sleep.
- Some ingredients have active sedative properties. These will help clear your mind and get you to sleep more quickly.
Good sleep is a long-term goal. The non-addictive, non-toxic qualities of most natural ingredients mean that they can be enjoyed routinely and can benefit your sleep for a lifetime, rather than acting as a risky short-term “quick fix”.
Combining Natural Sleep Aid Ingredients
Most natural sleep aid ingredients can be combined for a more effective, restful experience. This also means that users are more likely to benefit from a wider range of effects - for example, you might get sedative effects from one ingredient, mood-lifting effects from another, a sense of relaxation from another, etc.
A natural sleep aid supplement should contain a variety of beneficial ingredients that interact harmoniously and have a well-documented ability to promote healthy, natural sleep. It should be easy to find the complete list of ingredients and there should always be clarity - never trust a label that says “other ingredients” even if it specifies that these “others” are in negligible quantities. You should always know what you're trying.
Potential Sleep Aid Side Effects
Any type of sleeping pills or other supplements can have side effects. If you experience any of these, stop taking the supplement immediately. Show the ingredient list to your doctor and describe your experiences - your physician might be able to identify what's causing it.
Drowsiness isn't strictly what natural sleep aids set out to achieve. While it's good if you can lull yourself to sleep more easily, drowsiness might persist into the next day. If you feel drowsy when you wake up, you should stop taking the medication immediately.
Drowsiness can cause loss of focus, which is especially dangerous if you're driving.
Feeling nauseous is a common symptom of many medications. It shouldn't be something that you “decide to live with” - if any medication makes you feel nauseous, discontinue its use immediately and speak to your doctor.
Nausea can range from a sense that you're about to be sick to headaches and dizziness. Nausea might mean that you've had too much of something - it's important to start with lower doses when trying any new natural sleep aid.
Most natural sleep aids are very safe - you're unlikely to have “too much” of any ingredient because the levels tend to be quite low. However, when the body decides to vomit, it's because something 100% shouldn't be in your system.
Feeling dizzy or light-headed may mean that your blood pressure is very low. As many ingredients in natural sleep aids tend to lower blood pressure, this is one of the more common side effects.
If you know that you have a history of low blood pressure, you should check with your doctor to ensure that none of the ingredients are likely to affect you seriously. If you start feeling dizzy, find somewhere to sit down and stop taking the medication immediately.
Allergic reactions to natural sleep aids are always a risk. If you have any known allergies, check the label over with your doctor before you try the medication. It's generally a good idea to make sure someone else is around the first time you try any new medication just in case you have a bad reaction.
Who Shouldn't Take Sleep Aids or Supplements?
Some conditions mean that sleep aids and supplements are less appropriate for you. People who might want to avoid sleep aids include:
- Older people. Those aged 65+ are at greater risk when using many prescriptions and brand-name sleeping pills. Check with your doctor to find out if a natural sleep aid will work for you.
- People with very low blood pressure. If your blood pressure is extremely low, you might want to stay away from over-the-counter sleep aids that can reduce blood pressure even further. Ask your doctor if you're at risk from these types of ingredients.
- Grapefruit lovers. Surprised? If you can't live without the world's most divisive citrus fruit, you might want to stay away from sleeping pills and other medications. Grapefruit has some fascinating properties that render a lot of drugs useless or counterproductive. If you're happy to replace it with lemon and ginger tea for your citrus fix, you can use natural sleep aids more effectively.
The best policy is always to speak to your physician before you try a new over-the-counter sleep aid. Your doctor will appreciate that you're looking to try natural remedies rather than going straight for prescription sleeping pills, which can be harmful and are inappropriate for long-term use.
Best Natural Sleep Aids and Supplements - Final Thoughts
Looking for an over-the-counter sleep aid that uses 100% natural ingredients and helps your body regulate itself is the best way to improve your sleep. Lifestyle changes are easy to recommend but sometimes more difficult to fit in - not all of us can sleep in every day! However, we can help ourselves settle down to rest quicker with a high-quality natural sleep aid.