What Is the Best Supplement to Aid Sleep?
Life can be hectic — working all day, taking care of the kids, running errands — it never stops. Do you ever feel like you want to sleep at the end of a chaotic day, but your brain doesn't agree? If you have trouble getting to sleep at night, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans report having difficulty sleeping, and it’s becoming an increasingly common problem in younger adults (Chong, Fryer, & Gu, 2013).
So, what helps you go to sleep? It’s always best to try lifestyle changes, like more exercise or not drinking caffeine too late in the day, before adding a sleep aid. For many people, though, following tips for better sleep isn’t enough, and that’s OK. The consequences of not getting enough sleep, like an increased risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, and heart disease, are serious. Sometimes a sleep aid is the right choice.
How Does a Sleep Aid Work?
All sleep aids work differently, but in general, they help you get to sleep by changing the levels of different chemical messengers in your brain. They work by calming your central nervous system.
Natural Sleep Supplements
For some, natural sleep aids are a logical step because they want to avoid a lab-created option or prescription medication. For others, they turn to natural sleep supplements because conventional options aren't working or cause unwanted side effects. Clinical studies have shown that natural supplements work as well at helping people get to sleep as many medications commonly prescribed for trouble sleeping (Cauffield & Forbes, 1999).
What is the best natural sleep aid? Most sleep supplements are a combination of different ingredients. Some common ones you might see on labels include:
While most natural sleep supplements are a blend of ingredients, most contain melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that's naturally produced by your body. Within your brain, there's a tiny part of your endocrine system called the pineal gland. Melatonin, which helps your body regulate sleep and circadian rhythm, is the primary hormone produced by your pineal gland.
Melatonin has been shown to help you fall asleep, stay asleep longer, and get higher quality sleep. Unlike most over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids, melatonin doesn’t tend to cause many side effects or lead to dependence, even when used long term (Xie et al., 2017).
Another component common in natural sleep supplements is valerian root extract. In Europe, valerian root has been a popular choice for improving sleep for decades, and it is becoming increasingly popular as a sleep aid in the United States (Bent, Moore, Patterson, & Mehling, 2015).
Valerian has been used for thousands of years. Its medicinal benefits were documented by Hippocrates (known for the famous Hippocratic Oath), and it was prescribed to treat sleeplessness by the famous Greek physician Galen (NIH, 2013).
While studies have shown that valerian improves sleep, we don’t know exactly how it works. It’s likely not only one of the compounds found in valerian root that makes it effective, but more than one working together (Sharma, Jain, Patel, & Gupta, 2010).
While it’s not as common in sleep supplements as melatonin or valerian, we know that magnesium plays a vital role in sleep. The amount of magnesium in your body affects a chemical called GABA, which is involved in sleep regulation (de Baaij, Hoenderop, & Bindels, 2015). A diet that doesn’t contain enough magnesium has been shown to have a negative effect on the quality of sleep (Depoortere, Francon, & Llopis, 1993). In other words, low magnesium levels might make the sleep that you’re getting less beneficial than it could be.
Though they’re decreasing in popularity, conventional sleep aid options are still chosen by many people with insomnia or other sleep problems. How are these options different from natural supplements?
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
A surprising number of over-the-counter sleep aids you can buy at the store are nothing more than diphenhydramine, more commonly known as Benadryl. Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine that was created in the 1940s. Intended initially to relieve allergy symptoms, a conspicuous side effect of diphenhydramine was drowsiness. The side effect was so severe that diphenhydramine eventually began being sold as a medication to help you sleep. Sometimes you'll find other medications, like pain relievers, that are sold as a nighttime or "PM" version. In most cases, these simply have diphenhydramine added.
Unfortunately, diphenhydramine has a lot of downsides. Its side effects include dry mouth, dry eyes, upset stomach, constipation, and the list goes on. The most concerning side effect for someone trying to improve their sleep is daytime drowsiness, which can throw off sleep cycles. Recent studies have found that taking drugs like diphenhydramine (anticholinergics) are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia (Gray et al., 2015).
Diphenhydramine doesn't always make people drowsy. Sometimes it does the opposite. Researchers call this "paradoxical excitation" (de Leon & Nikoloff, 2008). This reaction is more common in children but can happen to someone at any age.
Prescription Sleeping Pills (The Nuclear Option)
Many people with insomnia or other sleep problems are given prescription sleep medications by a doctor. Prescription sleep aids include drugs like Ambien and Lunesta. You may hear these medications referred to as “hypnotics”, a word that can be used to describe any drug that is sleep-inducing. There’s a reason these medications aren’t available over-the-counter — taking them involves more risk. Prescription sleeping pills can lead to dependence, so they should be used carefully and only under the close supervision of a physician.
There are various types of prescription drugs for sleep. Some of the most common are actually antidepressants, which cause drowsiness as a side effect. Other sleep medications include benzodiazepines. These can help people fall asleep, but, in addition to being habit-forming, they decrease sleep quality once someone is asleep (Poyares, Guilleminault, Ohayon, & Tufik, 2004). Like anticholinergics, these drugs are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Billioti de Gage et al., 2014). Newer drugs, which work like benzodiazepines but are chemically different, are unsurprisingly called "nonbenzodiazepines." Nonbenzodiazepines can also be habit-forming and, like benzodiazepines, are associated with an increased risk of dementia (Chen, Lee, Sun, Oyang, & Fuh, 2012).
How to Get More Deep Sleep Naturally
Many conventional sleep aids can help you get to sleep but are detrimental to the quality of sleep you experience. They also tend to have more side effects than natural sleep supplements, and many can be habit-forming. If you’re looking for high quality, deep sleep, natural supplements may be the best option when other strategies like getting more exercise or cutting out caffeine aren’t enough.
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Benadryl® is a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson. Ambien® is a registered trademark of Sanofi. Lunesta® is a registered trademark of Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc. Use of these trademarks does not imply any affiliation with or endorsement by their respective owners.
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