There seems to be a disconnect between the way our bodies are built to restore and recharge and how modern life is set up. There are many conveniences of daily living that, while helping us be more productive, seems to leave us feeling exhausted, even after lying in bed for eight hours - if we even get that!
We spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping. Our instinct to sleep stems from the essential functions of the endocrine and immune systems that restore most of our bodies' systems while we sleep, maintaining our physical and mental health.
Sometimes, however, it may feel like we haven't slept at all. Many people suffer from sleep difficulties and disorders, with all detrimental effects on our health and our quality of life. If you've ever asked, 'What can I take to help me sleep?', this article is for you.
We'll explain why sleep is critical to optimal health over the lifespan, how a lack of sleep - whether through an actual health disorder or just by our schedules - can hurt us, and finally, how some natural remedies can help us get more, and better sleep for those who are opposed to more 'man-made' pharmaceutical options.
The Benefits of 'Normal' Sleep
Sleep is a necessary state of perceptual unresponsiveness to our surrounding environment. Our sleep patterns' timing and makeup are the result of complex interactions between our bodies' attempts to maintain homeostasis and our circadian rhythms, or body clock.
The circadian rhythm is the fluctuation of hormone levels and metabolism, influenced by the body's exposure to daylight, sleep, eating, and other behaviors. Our sleep has its rhythm, too. Human rest consists of three to five sleep cycles per night. Each cycle is approximately 90 minutes long and comprises two different states - rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM).
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults sleep between seven to nine hours per night, altering these times for young children and older adults, respectively. Most adults report falling within this range, with around seven and a half hours on weeknights and an extra hour on weekends.
That being said, the most significant influence on our sleep is our control. This makes it hard to define 'normal' sleep because sleep varies significantly from person to person. Electric lights, screens, and alarm clocks often take precedence over our natural sleep rhythms, negatively impacting our health.
Many people experience issues with their sleep. Next, we'll describe several of the most common sleep disorders and their effects on our health and wellbeing.
Common Sleep Disorders
Studies from the National Sleep Foundation have shown that up to 87% of adults in the U.S. deal with sleep problems. These are identified in the International Classification of Sleep Disorders in seven main groups, the most common being: insomnia disorders, sleep-related breathing disorders, circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders, sleep-related movement disorders, and parasomnias.
In addition to primary sleep disorders, these conditions can be caused by other medical conditions, psychiatric problems, or be induced by different drugs or other substances. Sleep specialists with polysomnography testing test severe conditions; this is often conducted in a sleep center, recording brain activity, eye movements, muscle tone, and breathing.
Most people experience insomnia, whether intermittently or chronically, as difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the night or too early, failure to get back to sleep, and feeling fatigued after sleep.
Sleep apnea syndromes occur when the airway becomes blocked, causing snoring and periods when oxygen can't get into the body. Parasomnias include things like sleepwalking, teeth grinding, and night terrors; these are most common during childhood.
Another serious chronic sleep disorder is narcolepsy. This inability to control falling asleep can lead to hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and cataplexy. This is a phenomenon when the muscles lose tonicity in response to extreme emotions.
So, many factors can disturb our ability to get a regular, restful sleep at night. What are the downsides to not getting enough quality rest.
The Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation
When the sleep cycle and circadian rhythm are disrupted, it creates imbalances in our hormones and metabolism. This desynchronization has many pathological effects on mood, memory, and cognitive function to heart health, diabetes, and obesity.
Insufficient sleep slows general response speed, alertness, and attention. But even more than cognitive performance, sleep deprivation has been found to negatively affect mood - which could explain the 'getting up on the wrong side of the bed' phenomenon.
On a more serious note, the fatigue and decline in performance from a lack of sleep lead to significant economic costs from work-related injuries, motor vehicle accidents, and lost productivity. Besides, hormone imbalances can also play a role in the development of depression.
The cardiovascular system also works by the circadian 'clock', lacking sleep, leading to high blood pressure, resting heart rate, and stress response. This combination can ultimately lead to a higher risk of heart attacks or stroke in the early morning.
Later in the day, sleep deprivation can cause increased cortisol levels, meaning more stress. Because stress is a factor in aging, sleep restriction has also been shown to accelerate aging. Other endocrine and metabolic changes from less sleep include impaired carbohydrate tolerance and suboptimal levels in hormones related to hunger; this deregulation of food intake and appetite can lead to diabetes and obesity.
It's clear then that a good night's sleep is critically important. But if you're struggling to achieve this, there are natural sleep aids that can help.
How Natural Sleep Aids Help
Natural sleep aids are commonly used for the treatment of sleep difficulties. Because these products come from natural plant, mineral, or body-made sources, they often infer additional overall health benefits as well as helping you sleep.
Several benefits of natural sleep aids include relaxation, decreasing the time it takes to get to sleep, increasing the body's natural chemicals that induce and maintain healthy sleep cycles, decreasing daytime drowsiness, and more.
These products are also less likely to result in the side effects of many pharmaceutical sleep aid options, including becoming habituated or addicted to these drugs. That being said, precautions should still be taken with any sleep aid; these will be discussed in a later section.
Many natural sleep aids contain polyphenols, a type of phytochemical with hypnotic effects. A major receptor in these polyphenols' body is the gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor (GABAA), so a lot of research is being done on how natural sleep aids can have sleep-enhancing effects via this receptor.
So, what is the most effective natural sleep aid? Here we present some of the best natural sleeping helpers on the market today, separated into plant-based and synthetic remedies.
8 of the Best Natural Sleep Aids
Hormones, Minerals, and Amino Acids
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. This hormone helps synchronize the circadian rhythm, making it a major driver of the sleep-wake cycle. Our concentrations of melatonin decrease as we age, and it has a delayed secretion.
Melatonin can provide corrective shifts to the circadian rhythm, aligning the timing of the hormone's release with the desired sleep schedule. It also has a direct drowsiness effect, so you should take precautions as to the timing of taking this supplement.
Because of this ability to balance the sleep-wake cycle, melatonin is one of the most widely researched and requested natural sleep aids on the market. It is especially popular with those who have to deal with altered sleep schedules from jet-lag or shift work.
Melatonin can be found at most pharmacies, health food shops, or online; it comes in tablet, liquid, spray, gummy forms, and others. Next, we'll look at some of the alternatives to melatonin.
Magnesium is a mineral that occurs naturally in the body as a trace element. It can be acquired through a balanced diet or supplementation form.
Magnesium is recognized as having effects on sleep through its neuroendocrine function. One of these functions is aiding in decreasing the nocturnal release of the stress hormone cortisol. It also has long term benefits in reducing falling asleep during the day for some individuals.
Magnesium also has benefits as an anti-aging treatment and can help with depression as a mood stabilizer.
Some foods high in magnesium include leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. The supplemental form usually comes as a capsule, available at most retailers.
Glycine is an amino acid made in small amounts by the body and contained in many proteins. Glycine is a supplement for its many positive health benefits, including detoxifying, relaxing, and supporting brain and muscle function.
Some of the improvements reported by participants in a glycine study included less fatigue and more clear-headed and energetic after waking from sleep. This improved memory performance and lessened drowsiness later in the day.
Further research showed that glycine improved sleep efficacy - meaning a higher amount of time spent in bed was spent asleep. This may result partly from glycine's ability to significantly decrease core body temperature, which is necessary and a natural function of the body during sleep.
Glycine typically comes in a herbal capsule form and is taken before bed. It is available at most pharmacies and online supplement retailers.
Valerian has been used medicinally for almost 2000 years. It is also one of the most popular natural sleeping aids for its sedative effects. The supplement is an extract from the root of the plant. The main benefit of valerian root vs. melatonin is that it comes from a plant and does not have to be made synthetically.
Valerian is considered in the research to be generally safe and well-tolerated, improving sleep quality without producing any major side effects. It's one of the common alternatives to melatonin and one of the best herbs for sleep.
Valerian can induce sleep and improve sleep quality, and it is most effective when used over a longer period rather than as a one-off treatment.
Valerian is typically taken in a drop form, either directly, in water, or on a sugar cube. It can be taken in combination with some of the other supplements on this list, such as passionflower.
Lavender is a plant species with over 30 varieties, traditionally found around the mediterranean sea. The flower of the plant is distilled to extract the oil for use as a supplement.
Lavender has been extensively studied and has many therapeutic properties. For helping sleep, lavender acts as a sedative, mood stabilizer, and anticonvulsive, among other features, helping to induce relaxation in the user.
One study showed lavender improved sleep quality for a group of university students experiencing sleep difficulties, with the initial effect on their improved sleep remaining even at a later follow-up session.
Lavender is typically used for sleep by rubbing the oil or an oil-infused balm into the skin or smelling the lavender oil through a diffuser before bedtime. Even a few drops in a warm bath before bed can produce a deep, relaxing sleep and have you waking up refreshed.
Chamomile is another organic sleep aid from the dried flowers of its plant family, with several varieties, including Roman chamomile, German chamomile, and others. Chamomile contains apigenin, which also binds to the GABAA receptors in the brain to induce relaxation.
The tranquilizing effects of chamomile have significantly improved sleep quality and reduced sleep latency for many populations. Studies show its benefits for postpartum women to a safe modality of promoting healthy sleep in older adults.
Although chamomile has more acute effects as a sleep aid, it is very safe and can be taken nightly, 30 to 45 minutes before bed, to relieve anxiety and promote sleepiness.
Chamomile tea is the most common way to use this natural sleep aid, however, it is also available in other forms at your local pharmacy, health food store, or online.
The ginseng root has been used for centuries in oriental regions as a herbal remedy. As a treatment for insomnia, ginseng has been found to increase time spent in deep sleep and reduce shallow sleep. Other studies have shown a significant reduction in time spent awake overnight, strengthening ginseng evidence as a sedative aid.
Ginseng contains properties that make it anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and protective for the nervous system, which may indirectly aid in restful sleep.
Ginseng is available as a herbal supplement in tea, powder, dried herbs, or capsule. Two popular types of ginseng you may want to explore are American ginseng and Asian ginseng.
The passionflower is a plant native to the tropical regions of America. Its extracts are commonly used to reduce anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Research has shown significant increases in total sleep time, time spent in NREM, or deep sleep.
Passionflower works similarly to some of the other insomnia supplements hereby increasing GABAA levels in the brain, making the user more relaxed.
This traditional herbal sedative is one of the popular herbs for sleep and is usually consumed in tea before bed, although it does come in a tablet and other forms. It may be most appropriate for short term benefits in those with mild fluctuations in their rest quality.
Precautions for Taking Natural Sleep Aids
So, what is the best natural sleep aid? Before trying any of the herbal sleeping pills or other homemade sleeping aids mentioned in this article, it is essential to consult with your doctor. Although all of these supplements are natural, they are not classified as 'drugs', and therefore are not regulated by the FDA. Thus, not all supplements are created equal.
Even natural supplements can also have side effects on the body, including nausea, blurred vision, tremors, dry mouth, constipation, and more. This is especially true if you have any other medical conditions, are taking any medications, or in situations like being pregnant.
Please take the necessary precautions and visit your preferred health professional before taking any sleeping aids, natural or otherwise. That way, you can rest assured that your chosen method is safe and effective and will allow you to get a good night's sleep.
We hope this article has helped explain the benefits of quality sleep and provided options for you to explore. Let us know any natural sleep aids which have helped you in the comments below!