What Do Sleep Supplements Do?
Who Are They For & How Do They Work?
Sleep is such an important part of our lives it barely needs pointing out. We spend a third of our lives asleep, or we should do at least. Our sleeping patterns affect every aspect of our lives; our physical health, our ability to grow muscle, our mental health, our cognitive performance, and our emotional well-being. A chronically poor sleeping cycle can have a disastrous effect on your life.
If you ask anybody if sleep is important, they will respond with a laugh and an emphatic “yes”. This is true for everyone, from medical professionals to total laymen.
So why do so few of us prioritize sleep?
Why are so few of us getting enough sleep each night to keep us healthy and functional?
When did we stop caring about sleep?!
There is a lot of somewhat conflicting data on this subject. Some reports suggest that it is mainly older people who are sleeping less. Other reports suggest that the problem is more widespread, with the average US citizen getting 6.8 hours each night. It is an international problem too; almost a third of people in the UK report sleeping less than the recommended 7 hours per night.
People have posited many reasons why we seem to be getting less sleep these days. Some blame our hectic lifestyle, some blame our smartphones, and others think it is a result of dietary changes. But whatever the reasons are, one thing is for certain; sleep has become less of a part of our lives and more of a problem.
It is no wonder then that sleep supplements have become such big business. All of the major supplement manufacturers are moving to make their own specialist, natural sleeping aids. New sleep supplements are hitting the shelves every single week. These products are becoming increasingly sophisticated as brands invest more into research and development.
For people who have never used a natural sleeping aid before, it can be really hard to know where to begin.
This guide is hopefully going to solve that problem.
We are going to try to tell you everything you need to know about sleep supplements. We’ll explain what they are supposed to do, who they are designed for, and how they work. We are going to lay out the latest scientific literature in support of natural sleep aids, as well as some evidence showing their limitations. We’ll discuss the potential side effects associated with natural sleep aids, and the long-term health risks.
In the end, we’ll tell you who we think can benefit from sleep supplements, and who can’t. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to post in the comments section at the bottom! Of course if you want to share your experiences with these kinds of supplements, do so in the comments.
Who Are Sleep Supplements For?
When we say “sleep aids”, we are exclusively referring to natural sleep supplements. We mean herbs, minerals, and plant extracts that are known to promote sleep in various ways. What we are not referring to are the pharmaceutical-grade sedatives and sleeping pills most people are already far too familiar with.
The main purpose of natural sleep aids is to provide a safer, health-promoting, natural alternative to synthetic sleeping pills. The sleep aids reviewed on this site are supposed to be non habit-forming by design. If they aren’t safe, side effect-free and non-habit forming, they serve no purpose; they would be delivering all the risks of synthetic sleeping pills without any of the potency.
So who are they designed for then?
Natural sleep aids are designed to help the following people:
- People with chronic sleeping problems – insomnia, apnea, involuntary limb movements
- People with stressful jobs who struggle to switch off at night
- People who want to maximize cognitive function
- People who want to avoid synthetic sleep drugs
- Shift workers
- Regular travelers
- People suffering from jet lag
- Athletes who need to enhance recovery
- Anyone with a busy schedule who wants to maximize sleep quality
- People looking to promote lucid dreaming
That is quite a broad selection of people.
Indeed, we think a lot of people stand to benefit a great deal from natural sleep aids. As discussed at the beginning of this article, few of us are getting enough sleep each night. The modern working schedule has no beginning or end; most of us are constantly ‘on-the-clock’. We’re sleeping for fewer hours every night, and an increasing proportion of that time is spent in low quality, disrupted sleep.
This means that we need to make every hour of sleep count – we need to maximize high quality, restorative, deep sleep.
On top of that, there is something of a sedative epidemic going on right now. The use of potent sleeping pills, anxiolytics and sedatives is skyrocketing. More people are relying on these drugs to get to sleep each night; as a result, more people are using them recreationally.
Natural sleep aids are a great solution to both of these problems.
But how do they work?
What are their mechanisms of action?
Is there some solid science backing these mechanisms, or is it all manufacturer-driven hype?
How Do Natural Sleep Aids Work?
Good natural sleep aids will work to enhance your sleep in a number of different ways at once. Some focused stacks will concentrate on just one or two aspects of sleep quality. But we think the best way to go is usually a complete, full-spectrum sleep stack. It is very difficult to know precisely what the problem is with your sleeping patterns; addressing multiple different aspects at once is the fastest and easiest way to see results in our opinion (and missing sleep isn’t something you want to do for very long).
Here are some of the main ways in which natural sleep aids actually work.
One of the main ways that natural sleep aids work is by reducing stress and anxiety.
Feelings of anxiety can cause severe disruption to rest and relaxation. This is partly why chronic anxiety is so destructive to health and performance.
Anxiety – and its symptoms – keeps you awake in several different ways.
For one thing, when you are experiencing stress or anxiety, your cortisol levels rise.
Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone; it facilitates certain bodily processes which are necessary for your ‘fight or flight’ response. Arguably the most notable effect of cortisol is increased alertness and wakefulness. It is actually a cortisol spike which wakes you up in the morning. Going to bed feeling anxious or stressed out is therefore going to severely reduce your sleep quality – or prevent you from sleeping altogether.
You are also probably all too aware of how anxiety can keep your mind far too busy to fall asleep.
When we’re feeling genuinely stressed, it can be almost impossible to stop obsessively thinking about the source of that stress. We lie awake at night turning our problems over and over in our mind. We know it isn’t going to help, but we can’t stop. Before we know it, the sun is starting to rise and we’ve spent all night thinking about things that might never happen anyway.
Natural sleep aids can help with anxiety in a number of different but inter-related ways:
- Reducing blood pressure
- Depressing the CNS
- Promoting serotonin release
- Promoting GABA release
- Suppressing cortisol levels
- Promote clear thinking
Not every sleep aid will do all of these things at once, nor do they need to. A top quality sleep aid will target a couple of these pathways in an attempt to reduce anxiety and help you get to sleep easily each night.
Another way in which sleep aids work is by combating the other kind of tension; physical tension.
This is particularly important for athletes, for whom restful sleep is a top priority.
Your muscles don’t grow in the gym; they grow while you sleep. Actually, it is during deep sleep that you repair all of your damaging tissues – skin, tendons, bones, brain cells; everything. If you’re in training, then you need to get as much sleep as possible. But an unfortunate side effect of intense training is muscle cramps, spasms, and pain. Having sore muscles can really damage your sleep; you can’t seem to get comfortable, and you keep waking yourself up when your muscle twinges or goes into spasm. Overcoming this issue is a top priority for anyone looking to optimize athletic performance.
But it isn’t just athletes who could use some physical relaxation.
Most of us walk around with a lot of built-up tension, and this can manifest itself in tight muscles. We’re sure a lot of you are familiar with the feeling of being tightly wound; your have a stiff neck, your back hurts, and you can’t get comfortable. Although a lot of people are skeptical about the link between internal, mental anxiety and physical tension, it does exist. Increasing physical relaxation can have a profound effect on your ability to get a complete, restful night’s sleep.
Sleep aids can help with physical relaxation by:
- Promoting serotonin and dopamine levels
- Promoting growth hormone levels
- Depressing the CNS
- Producing a mild sedative effect
Again, a supplement doesn’t have to do all of these things at once to help with physical relaxation and muscle tension.
But a good sleep supplement will effectively promote feelings of physical relaxation in a safe, natural way that doesn’t bring also bring about feelings of sedation or intoxication. That is, they shouldn’t reduce pain in the same way as alcohol or other depressant drugs!
Perhaps the main way in which natural sleep aids work is through melatonin manipulation.
Melatonin is the hormone which governs your sleep and wakefulness cycles. It is released by the pineal gland around the time that you are supposed to go to bed. For most people, melatonin levels begin to rise sharply as the time nears 10pm, and they reach their peak at around 1am. They then begin to fall rapidly, reaching their natural baseline low by 7-8am. When your melatonin levels reach their bottom, your cortisol levels spike, and you get nature’s wake-up call.
Manipulating your melatonin levels is therefore the most direct and reliable way to enhance the quality and duration of your sleep.
It is not always possible to directly influence things like hormones or neurotransmitters through supplementation. But melatonin is one of the few hormones which you can supplement with and actually see results.
Supplementing with high quality melatonin can help you re-calibrate your sleep cycle. Taking a decent dose of pure, natural melatonin shortly before bed can hasten the onset of drowsiness without making you feel sedated or overly sleepy. If you’re suffering with jet lag or your sleeping cycle is just completely out of whack, this can be a total life saver!
Consuming melatonin before bed can also elevate melatonin levels at the right time of night, boosting deep, restorative, health-promoting sleep. This is important if you have an extremely busy schedule and you need to really get the most out of every hour of sleep each night.
In order to reliably raise melatonin levels, you should use a highly potent, readily absorbed form of melatonin. We think the closer melatonin is to its naturally-occurring state the better the end results will be.
As we showed above, meltaonin and cortisol exist in a symbiotic relationship. Together, they control our sleep/wakeful states.
And just as raising melatonin can make us feel drowsy and promote deep sleep, suppressing cortisol levels can also help you feel sleepy at the right time each night and help keep you in a deep, restful state of sleep.
Cortisol spikes makes us feel extremely alert. This is partly why you find it difficult to switch off when you’re extremely stressed, or just after you’ve done strenuous exercise (try sleeping immediately after a fast-paced run – it just doesn’t happen).
Sadly, lots of us live extremely stressful lives, and we have elevated cortisol levels pretty much around the clock.
Certain natural substances can reliably and effectively reduce cortisol levels. A select number of substances are able to reduce cortisol concentrations acutely; that is, within hours of consumption. Supplementing with these substances on a regular basis can help keep your cortisol levels under control 24 hours a day.
We think every sleep aid worth its salt needs to contain something that can reliably combat high cortisol levels. If it doesn’t, then it needs to contain a potent anxiolytic, which will help suppress cortisol indirectly.
Do Natural Sleep Supplements Work? – A Look At The Science
That’s enough waffling. Let’s take a look at what natural sleep aids have actually been proven to do.
How can these supplements help?
What have they been shown to do by hard, clinical trials?
Several natural substances have been proven to rapidly accelerate the onset of sleep and to reduce sleep latency in people with chronic sleep problems.
In this study, for example, researchers found that 5g of L-Tryptophan prior to bedtime was able to significantly reduce sleep onset latency (the delay in sleep onset).
It is worth noting that the study authors also noted that: “Besides a significant decrease of delayed latency times until the appearance of the light sleep stages, an influence was seen on the quantitative sleep parameters such as sleep period time and total sleep time.”
These results have been recorded since the late 1970s. This placebo-controlled trial, first published in 1979, found that 3g of L-Tryptophan prior to sleep dramatically reduced sleep latency.
Of course, tryptophan isn’t the only substance to have been shown to have this effect on sleep latency.
Supplementation with melatonin has been shown to be incredibly reliable at reducing sleep onset latency in a range of people, including people suffering from various sleep disorders.
As this meta-analysis states, melatonin supplementation “decreases sleep onset latency, increases total sleep time and improves overall sleep quality.”
The effect seen on sleep quality in this study is really fascinating.
Have any other studies found a link between natural supplementation and sleep quality?
Yes, they most certainly have!
As you might have guessed, the substance with the best scientific pedigree in this area is melatonin.
Multiple studies have shown that melatonin is incredibly effective at improving sleep quality, whether this is measured by actually monitoring slow wave sleep patterns, or through subjective questioning. Either way, melatonin seems to be amazingly efficient, well tolerated, and safe.
Check out this paper published in Nutrition Journal in 2014. Here researchers looked at the efficacy of melatonin when it comes to promoting healthy sleep. They looked at over 30 studies on this topic and assessed them for accuracy, reliability, and strength of conclusions. They found that there was a correlation across all studies between melatonin supplementation and improved sleep quality.
They state: “Overall, according to Grading Recommendations, Assessment Development and Evaluation (GRADE) methodology, weak recommendations were made for preventing phase shifts from jet lag, for improving insomnia in both healthy volunteers and individuals with a history of insomnia, and for initiating sleep and/or improving sleep efficacy.”
Some studies returned uninspiring results, but that is to be expected across such a breadth of trials. The fact that a positive correlation was established is really encouraging.
This is particularly true when you begin to look at more of the studies done on melatonin and sleep quality.
In this paper, researchers concluded that “PR-melatonin is the first drug shown to significantly improve quality of sleep and morning alertness in primary insomnia patients aged 55 years and older suggesting more restorative sleep, and without withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation.”
This clinical trial looked specifically at slow-release melatonin and found similarly encouraging results.
But melatonin isn’t the only substance to have this property.
We have been fascinated to learn that magnesium has the ability to improve sleep quality in all users, whether they’re healthy or living with some sort of sleeping disorder.
This clinical trial was first published in the Journal of Research in Medicinal Science in 2012. It is easily one of the most convincing studies carried out on magnesium and sleep to date.
The conclusion of this paper is pretty damn emphatic: “Supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI score, sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening, and likewise, insomnia objective measures such as concentration of serum renin, melatonin, and serum cortisol, in elderly people.”
Magnesium isn’t just useful for improving sleep quality though, as the previous trial suggests.
This study, published in 2002, came to very similar conclusions: “Our results suggest that Mg(2+) partially reverses sleep EEG and nocturnal neuroendocrine changes occurring during aging. The similarities of the effect of Mg(2+) and that of the related electrolyte Li+ furthermore supports the possible efficacy of Mg(2+) as a mood stabilizer.”
There are literally volumes of studies on natural substances and their ability to promote various aspects of sleep: onset latency, quality, regularity, and so on.
We strongly advise you to do your own research in this area. We have not tried to be exhaustive at all here; not by any stretch of the imagination. We have simply given you a few examples of some hard, robust, scientific studies showing that the ingredients typically used in modern sleep supplements can and do work.
Of course, not all so-called sleep supplements work. There are lots of manufacturers out there pushing stacks that contain unproven, over-hyped garbage.
You can learn more about what works and what doesn’t from our list of the best natural sleep aids. We update this list constantly, and we try to go into as much detail as we can whenever we can. Check it out and let us know if you have any further questions. We hope you use this as a springboard for your own research in this fascinating and burgeoning area of the supplement industry!
Sleep Aid Side Effects – What Are The Risks?
Generally speaking, natural sleep supplements are extremely safe.
They tend to be made with 100% natural, nature-sourced herbs, minerals and plant extracts. The good ones, at least!
The kind of ingredients you will typically find in a sleeping supplement – the kind discussed on this site – are all well understood, they have been thoroughly tested on humans, and have been found to be perfectly safe for regular consumption.
As we said in the introduction to this article, natural sleep aids should be non habit-forming and completely free of serious side effect risks. If they fail either of these tests, then there is little point in using them; you may as well roll the dice with some of the many dangerous sleeping pills out there!
Natural sleep aids should offer a safe alternative to the risky sedatives people often use to get to sleep every night – they should not just be a weaker but equally dangerous version of Xanax!
However, we are speaking very generally here. Not every sleep supplement is equally sfae. Some are not at all suitable for long-term use. Others may cause short-term side effects.
You absolutely MUST look at each product individually to decide whether or not it is safe for you to use.
Our standards are very high when it comes to safety. When we see a sleep aid that has even the slightest chance of causing side effects, we make sure we point that out to you. We keep up to date with the latest scientific publications as best we can, and when evidence comes out showing that a substance may be dangerous, habit-forming, or anything like that, we update our reviews accordingly.
But that is still merely our opinion. We are not medical professionals, nor do we pretend to be. It is ultimately up to you to do your own research and to consult a doctor if you think that might be even remotely necessary.
Natural sleep aids are not a cure for chronic sleep problems or serious sleeping disorders. Not getting enough sleep for a long period of time is no joke; it can cause serious health and mental issues.
If you haven’t been sleeping for several nights, you need to talk to a doctor NOW.
Please read and remember the following facts while reading the information presented on this site:
- We are not doctors
- This is not intended to be medical advice, nor should it be taken as such
- You must do your own research before using ANY natural supplements discussed on this site
- It is VITAL that you talk to your regular family physician before you even consider taking a new supplement like a sleep aid
Natural sleep aids are generally safe, but they are not all 100% safe, nor are they safe for everybody. We don’t know you or your personal medical history. We can only speak generally based on our research and experience. You may have some allergies, pre-existing conditions or sensitivities which make certain substances completely unsuitable for even short-term use. Talk to a doctor before you do anything stupid!
If you think you have chronic insomnia or another serious sleeping disorder, seek medical attention right away. Those things can get serious pretty quickly!
If you have any questions, or if you’ve had any negative experiences with sleep aids, let us know in the comments section below! The other visitors to this site would love to hear what you have to say, as would we.
How Important Is Sleep?
The answer to that question is an unqualified “extremely important”.
Sleep is integral for every single bodily function.
A healthy sleep cycle is perhaps the most basic, fundamental variable that affects physical performance, physical fitness, cognitive performance, and mental health.
Not getting any sleep for even a couple of days can be seriously mentally damaging, causing psychotic breaks, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, and hallucinations. We really can’t state this clearly enough: sleep is crucial for your long-term health, longevity, and emotional well-being.
Sleep also has a profound effect on cognitive performance.
Missing out on even a few hours of good quality sleep per night can have a tremendous effect on your ability to learn, focus, recall information, and process information quickly.
Whether you care a lot about your mental performance, your productivity, or simply your long-term health and happiness, it is absolutely VITAL that you try to get enough sleep every single night.
We’ve written about these topics at great length in separate articles. We advise you to check them out if you have the time:
We’re refining and adding to these articles all the time. We recommend checking them out before going on to consider whether or not a sleeping supplement is something you could benefit from.
Ways To Naturally Enhance Sleep Quality
There are lots of ways to enhance sleep quality, increase time spent in deep sleep, and so on without using exogenous substances.
We’re talking about simple, cheap, natural methods that you can employ today to get more, better quality sleep.
Some of these may sound overly simplistic. You may not believe that such simple changes can have a meaningful effect on your sleeping patterns. But it is often the most basic of changes that can have the most profound results.
Many of these changes are free. They can all be implemented immediately, starting tonight. Try a few of them now and see if they work for you!
Here are our top recommended ways to get more high quality sleep every night:
- Take a hot bath or shower right before bed
- Stop drinking caffeine after 1pm
- Swap coffee for black tea, preferably decaffeinated
- Consume foods high in magnesium, melatonin or tryptophan
- Listen to calming music for an hour before sleep
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- Have the same 30 minute routine leading up to bed
- Stop looking at digital screens at least 60 minutes prior to going to bed
- Eat a high fat, high protein meal as your last meal of the day
We will discuss some more tips for getting a better night’s sleep in a separate article in the near future.
Here are some very interesting videos on the importance of sleep, how it affects health and cognition, and how you can get a better night’s rest every single night.
These videos should give you a good, well-rounded introduction to the world of sleep science.
Let us know if you have a video on the topic of your own, or if you know of one that we should feature here. We’ll be happy to add it if it’s genuinely helpful and informative.
Should You Use A Sleep Supplement?
Whether or not you should use a sleep aid depends very much on your own particular circumstances. They are certainly not necessary, nor even particularly beneficial for everybody.
If you have very occasional problems getting to sleep, but you can generally drift off without issue and get a solid 7-8 hours in, then you probably don’t need a sleep supplement. You might just need to identify the causes of those irregular nights of poor sleep and address them.
However, if you constantly find yourself struggling to get to sleep at the right time, or you find that you just aren’t feeling refreshed in the morning despite getting 7 hours of sleep (according to the clock at least), then you might be a perfect candidate for a natural sleep aid.
Similarly, if you regularly travel and you find that it takes you far too long to get over jet lag, a sleep supplement might be just what you need.
You need to really appraise your own circumstances and make up your own mind here. But if you really think a sleep supplement could benefit you, then you should make sure that you use the right one.
We have reviewed dozens of natural sleep aids, and we’ve ranked the best to help you make the best possible buying decision.
Check out our top 3 rated sleep supplements. We update this ranking after every review (when applicable of course).