If you struggle to sleep, you’ve probably considered trying natural sleep remedies. In any health shop or website, you’ll find loads of products that claim to help you get restful sleep. But which ones really work – and what do you need to know about them?
Natural sleep aids include things that come directly from plants, such as herbal remedies and essential oils, and things made in a lab that are similar to natural substances found in your body, or in plants or food.
Lots of sleep aids come as tablets or capsules, but you’ll also find natural remedies in other forms, such as drinks, pillow sprays and bath blends.
There hasn’t been enough research into natural sleep aids for us to know for sure which ones are effective, or to understand exactly how they work. Most have very little evidence behind them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t worth trying – many have been used traditionally for a long time, and some people find them very helpful.
With sleep problems, it’s a good idea to look at your sleep hygiene first, to make sure you’ve got all the right things in place to help you sleep. You may also need to check if you have any underlying conditions that could be keeping you awake. Once you’ve done that, you could try a natural sleep aid. Read on to learn what the science says about some of the sleep remedies you may have heard about.
Just because something’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Some natural remedies can still cause side effects, and everyone reacts differently. And because there hasn’t been much research into most of them, we don’t always know a lot about the side effects they may cause.
It’s a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist before you try a natural sleep aid – especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or you’re taking another medicine or have a health condition.
In general, though, lots of people prefer natural remedies to sleeping pills. This is because they can have fewer side effects – avoiding the morning-after ‘hangover’ you can get from sleeping tablets – and you’re less likely to become dependent on them.
Natural ways to get better sleep
Traditionally used for insomnia and anxiety, valerian root is 1 of the most widely taken sleep supplements in the US and Europe. Here’s what the research says:
- a large review of the available studies found valerian may improve sleep quality – but because of the way the studies were carried out, researchers couldn’t draw firm conclusions
- another review of studies found it may help if you take it for 4 to 8 weeks
- some research has found it may be especially helpful for sleep problems linked to menopause
- scientists can’t say for sure how much valerian helps, but it’s been shown to have few and minor side effects, so it could be worth trying
Often used as an oil, lavender is famous for its calming effects. Here’s what you need to know about lavender for sleep:
- in 1 study, new mums sniffed lavender before bed each night for 8 weeks, and the researchers found they fell asleep more quickly and had better sleep quality
- other research has found that diffusing lavender oil for 20 minutes in the evening can help improve sleep in midlife women with insomnia. It’s thought that it has a soothing effect on your nervous system
- lavender essential oil has been found to be more effective when you use it along with sleep hygiene techniques (try these steps to perfect your pre-sleep routine)
- if you’re using lavender as an aromatherapy oil, you can try diffusing it in your bedroom, spraying it on your pillow, or simply placing a few drops in your hands and sniffing it
- unlike most essential oils, it’s safe to use undiluted – although it’s a good idea to use just a small amount to start with, to check it doesn’t cause irritation
- some research has found it can be effective for anxiety and sleep if you take it as a capsule, although there’s a lack of long-term safety information. Only choose products that are designed to be used in this way – you should never take standard aromatherapy oils internally
Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone that your brain makes when it gets dark. Some people take a man-made form of melatonin to help them fall asleep, usually as a tablet or liquid. Here’s what you need to know:
- in the US, it’s available as a food supplement from health shops, but you can only get it on prescription in the UK and some other countries
- it’s sometimes prescribed for sleep problems in people aged over 55, and more rarely in other cases
- some research has found that taking extra melatonin can be helpful for specific sleep issues – including getting over jet lag – but scientists don’t have enough evidence to say it can help with general sleep problems
- so far, it’s only been shown to be safe for short-term use. If it’s prescribed, you’ll usually take it for 1 to 4 weeks, although it may be prescribed for up to 13 weeks
Magnesium is a mineral that your body needs for many different functions, including your brain and heart health. Here’s what you should know about magnesium and sleep:
- there’s some limited evidence that it may improve sleep quality by helping your body to relax and regulate sleep, though more research is needed
- you can start by focusing on increasing magnesium in your diet – it’s found in green leafy vegetables, soy products such as tofu, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, and beans and peas (legumes)
- there’s a question mark over whether a supplement only helps if you’re actually deficient in magnesium, but it could be worth trying. You’ll need to stick with it for a few months to tell whether it’s making a difference
- if you take a supplement, be aware that high doses can cause diarrhoea and cramping
Used as a traditional herbal remedy, passionflower has some very limited evidence to back up its effectiveness for sleep:
- in 1 small study, people drank a cup of passionflower tea before bed, then researchers asked them to fill out a sleep diary, as well as using polysomnography – a way of studying sleep that measures brain waves and oxygen levels. Drinking the tea was found to slightly improve sleep, but the study wasn’t big enough to be conclusive
- other research has had mixed results
- passionflower is thought to be safe for most people in the short-term, but it may cause drowsiness or confusion, and you should avoid it if you’re pregnant
Research into sleep and cannabidiol (CBD) – a chemical compound that’s found in the cannabis plant – is in its early stages. Here’s what we know so far:
- in 1 study, people with anxiety and sleep problems took a CBD supplement (the people with sleep problems took it after their evening meal). The study found that CBD could help ease anxiety and had some mild benefits for sleep – but the researchers aren’t sure how much it would help in the longer term
- you can try CBD in a number of different ways, including as gummies, oil or capsules
- side effects aren’t common, but some people have reported diarrhoea and drowsiness
GABA is a brain chemical that promotes relaxation and sleep. Some people use a version of this taken from plant sources (such as rice) as a sleep aid. Here’s what the research says:
- 1 small study found taking it as a supplement may help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and have better sleep quality. It’s thought this may be due to its mood-stabilising effects – but much more research is needed
- a small number of people in the study reported side effects, including mild stomach ache and headache
The amino acid glycine plays an important role in the way your nervous system works. It’s found naturally in some foods, including green leafy vegetables and beans. There’s limited evidence about glycine and sleep:
- some research has suggested it may have a role in sleep – it’s thought that it helps by lowering your body temperature to the level needed for good sleep
- the studies have been very small, so it’s hard to say how well it works, and more research is needed