While supplements are gaining popularity as sleep aids, lifestyle changes should be considered first
Most sleep experts indicate those of us who have trouble getting to sleep—or getting enough quality sleep—are suffering from poor “sleep hygiene,” i.e., daily diet and activities that keep the sandman at bay. Lifestyle changes like limiting caffeine after noon, eating dinner earlier and lighter, and setting a regular wind-down and bedtime are recommended to promote healthy sleep, but most problem sleepers find it difficult to stick with such a regimen.
By some estimates, Americans annually spend more than $32 billion on products promoted as the key to a good night’s sleep. Prescription sedatives work for some but include the risk of potentially dangerous side effects. Over-the-counter remedies—such as sedative antihistamines—can certainly knock you out but feature their own negative issues. Thus “natural” dietary supplements have become the fastest growing segment of the sleep-aid market, despite a paucity of scientific evidence regarding their efficacy.
Melatonin is the most popular alternative sleep aid and has had more clinical scrutiny than most. Our body’s production of this hormone is partly influenced by the level of light around us, increasing with nightfall and waning as morning breaks. Though much is known about the function of this hormone in our wake/sleep cycle, the exact mechanics are still cause for study and debate. It's used by those suffering from jet lag, seasonal affective disorder, and night workers having difficulty sleeping during the day. Its most reported side effects involve daytime grogginess and irritability, but it is generally considered safe.
With nearly as much scientific scrutiny, L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that our bodies can’t produce. It must be ingested. It is found in various plant and animal proteins, most famously as the component of Thanksgiving dinner that knocks you out. Although clinically proven to aid sleep, depression, and anxiety issues, there isn’t enough L-tryptophan in turkey meat to create a soporific state on its own. Overeating on this holiday is what causes us to crash on the couch and miss the end of the football game.
Of the wide variety of herbs said to promote sleep, valerian and chamomile are the most popular and have been in use for centuries. Although some studies indicate a calming effect from imbibing valerian extract, there are at least as many that refute those findings and some even note adverse effects. A mild tea made by steeping the dried flower heads of the chamomile daisy is said to relax the mind and encourage sleep. Research has shown several medically-useful compounds exist in this plant, including anti-anxiety properties that may help a stressed-out mind ease toward slumber.
Though concentrated extracts of the kava plant have been shown to ease anxiety and assist with sleep, recent studies indicate a link between habitual use and liver toxicity, especially in those who also drink alcohol on a regular basis. Lavender, catnip, hops, passionflower, lemon balm, and a host of other plants and substances are sold as insomnia remedies, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal or non-existent.
Essentially, unless you’re suffering from a medical condition that disrupts normal sleep, no supplement or medication can substitute for the lifestyle adjustments required to provide your mind and body with the rest they deserve.