Are you considering adding a sleep aid like melatonin to your nighttime routine? Here’s what to know about supplements and sleep.
Sleeping pills and prescription medications are sometimes used as treatments for poor sleep. Dietary supplement sleep aids, such as melatonin, are also a potential remedy that don’t require waiting for a prescription. Although most supplement sleep aids are readily available in stores, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional beforehand about risk factors and potential side effects.
Common dietary supplements marketed as sleep aids include melatonin and valerian root, along with dozens of other possible ingredients, such as chamomile and magnesium. Learn more about sleep aids and how they work.
Be aware that in the United States dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for their effectiveness or safety.
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in the body that works with the circadian rhythm to induce drowsiness as our natural bedtime approaches. The day-night cycle influences the timing of our biological clock so that we produce little melatonin during the day and high amounts at night beginning a few hours before we normally fall asleep. The actions of the circadian rhythm promote wakefulness in the late afternoon and evening. As melatonin rises later in the evening it helps to decrease mental arousal, allowing us to fall asleep at our normal bedtime.
Some factors can decrease melatonin production, like the light from electronic screens used in the evening (the blue light tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime and thus reduces melatonin secretion, making it harder to fall asleep at night). Avoiding bright lights in the evening might allow our own melatonin to be released earlier to help us fall asleep faster.
Some people do find it easier to fall asleep when they take a melatonin dietary supplement within an hour or two of their planned bedtime. While it may help with difficulty falling asleep, melatonin may be recommended for short-term sleeping problems, like jet lag, time changes, or shift-work disorder. Pediatricians may occasionally recommend it for certain sleep disorders in children. Taking melatonin can reduce sleep onset latency (or the time it takes from being fully awake to sleeping), increase total sleep time, and improve sleep quality. The side effects of taking melatonin for sleep can include headaches, nightmares, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability. Recent research also suggests that melatonin can have a negative impact on how we metabolize food, so it should be taken at least two hours following our last meal of the day.
Valerian root is an herb that has been used for centuries to promote relaxation and drowsiness. It contains valerenic acid, isovaleric acid, and a variety of antioxidants, all of which may promote sleep and reduce anxiety.
Researchers believe valerian root works by interacting with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin. Low GABA levels have been connected to anxiety and low-quality sleep; valeric acid impedes the breakdown of GABA in the brain, leading to feelings of serenity. Side effects of valerian root are uncommon, and research has found no connection between taking valerian root and decreased alertness the next day.
Other Dietary Supplement Sleep Aids
In addition to melatonin and valerian root, many other ingredients may be included in dietary supplement sleep aids. Some products have a single ingredient, but often the sleep aids have many substances, such as magnesium, chamomile, hops, lavender, skullcap, passionflower, tryptophan, L-theanine, and glycine. Some of these are traditional remedies and others have some theoretical support for their use.
Safety of Dietary Supplement Sleep Aids
While research on the possible side effects of supplement sleep aids is limited, fortunately most are considered to be safe in the recommended doses. One possible exception is kava, for which there have been warnings about potential liver damage.