Snooze Tonight: 10 science-backed supplements to help you sleep

Tossing and turning all night? You’re not alone. As many as 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, and roughly half of all adults experience occasional bouts of insomnia. And that’s a problem: studies link lack of sleep with increased risk of heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Reduce your risk, and get ready to crash, with these eleven supplements that guarantee you’ll snooze.

1. Melatonin, a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland, signals your brain that it’s time to snooze. The production and release of melatonin are driven by the circadian clock, so levels are naturally higher in the evening and lower in the morning. As we age, the body produces less melatonin—one reason why older people have difficulty sleeping—and several studies show melatonin can improve insomnia in the elderly. Taking melatonin also helps regulate sleep in those who work night shifts or are experiencing jet lag, and it’s effective in treating insomnia unrelated to travel or shift work: studies show 2 to 5 mg of melatonin can significantly increase total sleep time, shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, and improve overall quality of sleep. Some research suggests time-release formats are the most effective.

2. Magnesium, a mineral involved in multiple bodily processes, has a calming effect on the nervous system, and insufficient levels of magnesium in the body have been linked to insomnia and sleep disturbances, as well as depression—one key factor in disturbed sleep. It’s thought to work in part by regulating circadian rhythms, ensuring regular and restful sleep, and by decreasing the release of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Some research also suggests magnesium helps regulate melatonin production and influence brain levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that’s associated with calm and relaxation. Several studies show taking supplemental magnesium before bed can reduce the time it falls to sleep, improve sleep quality and duration, and reduce night time waking.

3. L-tryptophan is an amino acid that occurs naturally in high-protein foods, like turkey, milk and eggs; it’s been used for decades to safely treat sleep disturbances. In the body, tryptophan is converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is then converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that impacts sleep, mood, cognition and other functions. It’s also key in melatonin production. A number of studies show tryptophan improves insomnia, shortens the time it takes to fall asleep and increases total sleep time, sometimes with doses as low as 250 mg, and may also improve obstructive sleep apnea, without causing daytime sleepiness.

4. Lavender, a flowering plant prized for its volatile oils, has long been used to promote calm and sleep. It’s high in linalool and linalyl acetate, compounds thought to reduce anxiety by interacting with neurotransmitters and the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system associated with rest versus activity. A number of studies show lavender eases anxiety, stress and depression, and inhaling lavender essential oil before bed can improve sleep quality and duration, while enhancing morning wakefulness and vigor. In one study, an essential oil extract of lavender was more effective than placebo in treating anxiety, and those who used lavender oil showed significant improvements in sleep duration, sleep quality and the length of time it took to fall asleep.

5. Valerian, a perennial herb used for centuries to treat anxiety, stress and insomnia, is rich in valerenic acids and valepotriates —compounds that are thought to promote sleep by influencing GABA and serotonin. A number of studies show 300 to 900 mg of valerian taken before bed can shorten the time to sleep, increase total sleep time, reduce night time waking and improve subjective sleep quality. And in one study, valerian worked as well as oxazepam a commonly prescribed drug for insomnia, without causing grogginess the next morning.

6. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a member of the mint family, is traditionally used to reduce stress and enhance sleep. It’s rich in a variety of active components, including flavonoids, polyphenolic compounds and others, that are thought to influence GABA and impact other neurotransmitters to promote a sedative and calming effect. Studies show lemon balm can calm anxiety and stress, decrease restlessness and promote sleep. And in one study, lemon balm worked as well as triazolam (Halcion), a prescription drug used to treat insomnia. It may be most effective with valerian; some studies show a combination of valerian and lemon balm significantly improved quality of sleep, without causing morning drowsiness or “hangover.”

7. 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is naturally produced by the body from tryptophan as a step in the process of making serotonin; it’s also indirectly involved in the production of melatonin. Because it’s effective at easing anxiety and improving mood, it may be especially helpful for insomnia related to anxiety or depression. Other studies suggest 5-HTP can treat symptoms of fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain and is often linked with sleep disturbances, and taking 5-HTP may reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality in people with fibromyalgia. Other studies suggest is especially effective when combined with GABA supplements; one study found the combination shortened the time it took to fall asleep and increased sleep duration.

8. Kava kava, traditionally derived from the root of a Pacific Island herb, has been used for thousands of years to treat sleep disturbances, especially those related to anxiety, tension and restlessness. It’s rich in kavalactones, compounds that influence GABA and encourage calm, relaxation and sleep. A number of studies show kava eases anxiety, reduces time to fall asleep and improves sleep quality and duration. Heavy kava use has been linked in some reports with liver toxicity; however, other studies have refuted that finding, and some research suggests toxicity is related to products that incorporate stems and other parts of the plant, in addition to the roots. Buy yours from a reputable source, ideally one that’s been third-party tested.

9. Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric root, can promote sleep in several ways. Research suggests up to 88 percent of people with chronic pain also have sleep disorders, and at least half of people with insomnia suffer from chronic pain. A number of studies show curcumin can ease arthritis and other kinds of pain frequently linked with disturbed sleep. Curcumin may also be effective in treating depression and anxiety, important if sleeplessness is caused by mood disorders. Because it’s poorly absorbed by the body, look for formulations that include piperine or black pepper extract; it’s shown to enhance absorption by as much as 2000 percent.

10. L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, can reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, ease depression and encourage sleep. Several studies suggest L-theanine can improve insomnia and enhance self-reported sleep satisfaction. It may be especially useful for encouraging sleep in people with certain psychiatric or cognitive disorders; in one study, 400 mg of L-theanine was safe and effective in improving sleep quality in boys diagnosed with ADHD. Other studies show a combination of L-theanine and GABA decreased the time it took to fall asleep and improved sleep quality and duration, better than either supplement alone.

References available on request; contact me.