Sleep is the most important restorative process in the body. As simple as the concept of sleep may seem, it can be quite complicated when you start digging. The human brain is an intricate piece of hardware, but it performs most of its life-sustaining functions on autopilot. When the brain struggles to automate critical sleep-inducing tasks, restlessness, sleep deprivation, and insomnia may occur.
If you suffer from insomnia, whether mild or chronic, you’re a member of a not-so-exclusive club that embodies one-third of the entire population. Approximately 35% of individuals get fewer than the minimum recommendation of 7 hours of sleep per night. Numerous studies have shown that sleeplessness adversely impacts physical health, cognitive capacity, and mental focus, and even increases mortality rates. Some studies have gone as far to suggest that sleep deprivation will claim a life quicker than starvation. While there are plenty of brain supplements and energy boosters out there to give you a “pick me up” on sleepless nights, restful sleep is still the best way to maintain your health and your mental edge.
How to Improve Sleep Using All-Natural & Herbal Remedies
According to a survey conducted by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), an estimated 4 percent of U.S. adults rely on prescription sleep aids to combat insomnia. Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril, Sonata, and Halcion have become household names. Widespread adoption of prescription sleeping pills and habit-forming sleep medicines are not only a global health concern, but they’re temporary solutions to underlying problems.
Chronic sleep deprivation and dangerous medications have led to the rise of many natural sleep aids and over the counter (OTC) remedies to try to address insomnia. These supplements provide alternative pathways through all-natural and herbal homeopathic treatments aimed at improving sleep in a safer fashion. The goal of this article is to educate on safe non-prescription sleep aids for both children and adults.
What Causes Insomnia?
What causes insomnia? Insomnia is caused by the brain’s inability to control sleep-wake cycles. The process of sleep requires synchronization of two body systems called the circadian biological clock and sleep-wake homeostasis.
- The circadian biological clock governs endogenously generated circadian rhythms, which are 24-hour internal clocks that regulate the timing of physiological functions. These tasks include sleeping patterns, body temperature, eating habits, hormone production, and cell regeneration.
- Sleep-wake homeostasis is the innate timer that balances sleep with wakefulness. This internal biochemical system regulates the accumulation of hypnogenic (sleep-inducing) substances in the brain. Sleep-wake homeostasis reminds the body that it needs to sleep after a certain amount of time has elapsed.
The body undergoes active inhibition of its waking functions before reaching a natural recuperative sleep that boosts energy and rejuvenates health. Our brains contain a small region of cells within the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN controls our circadian rhythm by responding to external stimuli such as light. In other words, our internal circadian clock and the 24-hour light-dark cycle are directly aligned.
- When it’s dark out, the eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus, which then signals to the brain to increase production of inhibitory neurotransmitters and sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin. The inhibitory process calms the nervous system, relaxes postural muscles, closes the eyes, and suspends consciousness.
- When it’s light out, the brain increases production of attention and alertness-producing neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and acetylcholine—the most prominent chemical messenger for memory and learning.
Studies have shown that even the blue light emitted from electronic devices like cellphones, can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Technology usage is a significant factor in melatonin suppression and disruption of our circadian rhythm. When our circadian biological clock and sleep-wake homeostasis are misaligned, it may cause insomnia or sleep deprivation.
Besides technology usage, other potential causes of insomnia are poor diet, lack of physical activity, anxiety and depression, and even workplace or relationship stress. If you’re not consciously aware of these factors, it’s easy for the complexities of modern society to disrupt natural sleeping patterns.
Best Natural Over the Counter Sleep Aids 2020
Before we dive into our list of herbal and natural OTC sleep aids in 2020, understand that making positive lifestyle changes to support healthy sleep cycles is the best cure for insomnia. These adjustments include a regular exercise regime, healthier eating habits, outdoor activities designed to reduce stress and improve your mood, limiting technology usage, and even practicing meditation and relaxation techniques. Getting a handle on things that can disrupt our circadian rhythm is often the best remedy for chronic sleep disorders.
With that said, there are times when external factors can upset your sleeping patterns, and a natural sleep supplement can work wonders. Stressors such as jet lag, final exam week, or preparing for an important business meeting, to name a few. These situations may leave you in search of a safe herbal sleep aid to help you get the restorative sleep you need.
It’s always best to avoid prescription sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril, Sonata, and Halcion if you have not been prescribed these medications by your healthcare professional. These drugs can cause tolerance development, dependency issues, and a variety of other adverse side effects. For safety reasons, we recommend the homeopathic treatment of insomnia instead of prescription sleep medicine in most scenarios.
Our list of the top 12 best natural over the counter sleep aids includes the following pills and supplements: Melatonin, Lemon Balm, GABA, L-Theanine, Magnesium, Valerian Root, Chamomile, Passion Flower, Hops, L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP, and Calcium.
Often referred to as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin’s job is to communicate the status of environmental lighting to the rest of the body. Most people produce enough melatonin during evening hours to help them fall asleep quickly. Insomniacs often have much lower levels of this hormone which makes it difficult for them to reach a deep REM sleep. Our brain’s pineal gland produces melatonin and releases it into the bloodstream when the suprachiasmatic nucleus detects darkness. This process helps relax the body and prepares it for sleep.
Melatonin has a reputation for being the best natural sleeping aid for over the counter purchase. Studies have shown that melatonin can improve sleep quality, sleep latency, and alertness during the day. It’s important to start with a small dosage to assess tolerance. Most users find 1-3mg, one or two hours before bedtime, to be the right dosage to help with their sleeplessness. Be wary of supplements that load up on melatonin using 5-6mg, as more is not always better. These sleeping pills may cause you to wake up feeling drowsy or mentally fatigued instead of rested and refreshed.
2. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a calming herb from the mint family of plants. Medical professionals as far back as the Middle Ages recommended lemon balm as a natural sleep aid. While lemon balm is known as one of the top herbs for sleep and insomnia, it also has other health benefits. These benefits include protecting against liver and heart problems, improving concentration and mood, and serving as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Frequently used in teas, essential oils, and other non-prescription home remedies for sleep, lemon balm works as a sedative within the body to reduce stress and anxiety. Studies have shown the calming effect promotes relaxation and can treat anxiety-related insomnia. Although lemon balm hasn’t been studied extensively in isolation, the results are well-documented when paired with other soothing herbs such as hops extract, chamomile, and valerian root.
GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is a self-regulating and naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain. The primary duty of GABA is the suppression of excitatory neurotransmitters, notably glutamate and norepinephrine. Glutamate, the most abundant neurotransmitter in mammalian brains, is involved in nearly every primary excitatory function. When the body lacks sufficient inhibitory amino acids to suppress glutamate, anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia may occur.
Studies have shown that insomnia sufferers have 30% less GABA in their brains. GABA levels are also lower when individuals suffer from depression and other mood disorders. This research opened the door for using GABA supplements as a natural sleep aid for insomnia relief. There are a few studies that question the blood-brain barrier permeability of GABA. However, other double-blind placebo-controlled studies confirmed that GABA improves time to fall asleep as well as sleep duration. These results suggest GABA can potentially be an effective and safe nighttime sleep aid.
Similar to natural herb lemon balm, L-Theanine reduces stress and anxiety to help promote calmness throughout the body. Theanine derives from the tea leaves of Camellia sinensis plants. Therefore, due to lack of dietary means to obtain L-Theanine, most of us are deficient in this non-essential amino acid. Advocates tout green tea for its relaxation and antidepressant properties, but the amount of L-Theanine in green tea is negligible at best. For this reason, most people require a supplement to achieve its anxiolytic and sleep aid benefits.
Often, the best over the counter sleeping pills contain L-Theanine because it helps increase levels of GABA and glycine in the brain. GABA and glycine are arguably the two most critical inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain that work to counterbalance glutamate. By reducing the excitability of neurons, L-Theanine effectively lessens the transmission of negative signals in the brain while simultaneously increasing the amount of “feel good” chemicals. This sedative benefit helps relax the body and mind, making L-Theanine an excellent natural sleep aid. Numerous smart pills also take advantage of L-Theanine as a way to counteract excessive stimulation from caffeine.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you’ve probably considered a magnesium supplement before. It’s not a sleeping pill or an insomnia medication, primarily. However, studies have shown that it may improve sleep quality in elderly individuals with a magnesium deficiency. When undersupplied with magnesium, we can experience enhanced bodily inflammation, increased oxidative stress, and sleep deprivation. The body also requires magnesium to assist in protein synthesis, nerve function, blood pressure regulation, energy metabolism, and neurotransmitter release.
Magnesium is a calming nutrient that can help counteract anxiety and depression. This OTC sleep aid functions by inhibiting NMDA (a type of glutamate receptor) and by promoting GABA production. But, unless you have a magnesium deficiency, this may not be the first natural sleeping remedy to try.
There seems to be a significant portion of users that experience a stimulatory effect causing nighttime restlessness when taking magnesium—quite the opposite of its intended use. The exact reason for magnesium’s periodic negative impact on sleep is up for debate. It could be due to a lower quality supplement, or your body is using the magnesium for energy production. If you want to try magnesium to help with insomnia naturally, we recommend taking it as a standalone supplement to assess its effects accurately.
6. Valerian Root
Those in search of safe herbal sleep remedies often turn to valerian root extract (Valeriana officinalis) for help. Valerian is arguably one of the best non-prescription herbs for improving sleep. This perennial flowering plant originates in Europe, Asia, and has since found a home in North America. Traditionally, valerian root served its purpose as a sedative and anxiolytic agent in herbal teas. The anxiety-reducing effects make valerian a powerful all-natural sleep aid that is safe for use in adults, children, and even toddlers at smaller dosages.
Many insomniacs use valerian root for sleep because it works similarly to prescription sleeping pills like benzodiazepines. Valerian increases levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, in the brain. It performs this task by causing the brain to release more GABA and by slowing the enzyme-induced breakdown of GABA. As mentioned earlier, GABA is necessary to reduce the excitability of neurons. This inhibition is crucial for us to reach a deep and restorative REM sleep. Compared to other sleep aids and insomnia remedies, valerian root is gentle, mostly side-effect free, well-tolerated, and non-habit forming.
Another great over the counter sleep aid to consider is chamomile, a daisy-like flowering herb used in tea for centuries. Traditionally, chamomile offered numerous medicinal health benefits regarding anti-inflammation, immune system support, muscle aches, indigestion, and tenseness. It’s quite a versatile herb, having a presence in wine flavoring, teas, cosmetics, air fresheners, and even hair products. Chamomile is one of the best herbal remedies for sleeping due to its apigenin content. Apigenin is a bioflavonoid compound responsible for the sedative and anxiety-reducing effects of chamomile.
For chronic sleeplessness, many natural sleeping pills contain chamomile in combination with other relaxing herbs, such as valerian root and passion flower. Research suggests chamomile can impact vital neurotransmitters in the brain. The phytochemicals in chamomile bind to GABA receptors, helping calm and moderate brain activity. These phytochemicals can also influence the monoamine family of neurotransmitters (serotonin and dopamine), which are heavily involved in mood and sleep regulation. Lastly, studies show chamomile can act on the neuroendocrine system, improving melatonin production.
8. Passion Flower
Many home remedies for insomnia popularized the use of passion flower extract (Passiflora). This homeopathic sleep aid is a genus of the Passifloraceae family of flowering plants found in the neotropical regions of Mexico, and Central and South America. The plant is a perennial climbing vine with unique floral structures. Like chamomile-based herbal sleep aids, passion flower supplements offer numerous calming and anti-anxiety benefits. Besides its anxiolytic properties, passion flower may also help reduce the effects of menopause, stabilize blood pressure, lower insulin resistance, treat ADHD, and reduce inflammation.
Many of the best natural over the counter sleeping pills contain passion flower extract. Studies have shown passion flower to be nearly as effective as prescription sleep medicine, benzodiazepine oxazepam. A four-week double-blind study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder showed similar efficacy. Oxazepam worked slightly faster, but passion flower functioned just as well with fewer side effects. The results of this research suggest passion flower is a safe, natural sleeplessness remedy that may reduce anxiety and sleep deprivation.
Hops extract derives from the herbaceous perennial flowers (seed cones) of the hop plant referred to as Humulus lupulus. Used primarily as an antibacterial and flavoring agent in beer, hops extract also appears in many non-prescription OTC sleeping pills. This herbal medicine has shown promise for the treatment of restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. Anecdotal evidence dating back to the 9th century in Europe suggested hops may have a sedative effect, and studies have recently confirmed this theory. Other health benefits of hops include anti-inflammation, immune support for certain types of cancer, and antioxidant activity.
One of the best things to help you sleep is reducing anxiety levels. Hops extract has demonstrated a significant anxiety-reducing effect when used in conjunction with valerian root. The best natural sleep aids will usually contain both herbs together in the same supplement. Hops extract works by assisting in the process of lowering body temperature—a crucial physiological step toward deep REM sleep. When core body temperature declines, sedation occurs, causing drowsiness and furthering the body’s inhibition process. Hops may also assist in boosting GABA levels in the brain.
L-Tryptophan is one of the eight essential amino acids obtained through dietary means. Since the body is unable to synthesize L-Tryptophan naturally, we consume it through protein-rich foods such as milk, yogurt, eggs, fish, red meats, poultry, oats, and even chocolate. L-Tryptophan serves many crucial metabolic functions that make it one of the best over the counter sleep aids and natural sleeplessness remedies. These duties include the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin.
The conversion process begins when L-Tryptophan converts into 5-HTP, which then synthesizes serotonin. Neurotransmitter serotonin plays a significant role in mood balance and cognitive function support. The synthesis of serotonin leads to melatonin production in the pineal gland. Melatonin is a light-sensitive sleep-regulating hormone that helps the body through the inhibition process. Studies have shown that L-Tryptophan can reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality very reliably. If you’re in the market for safe and natural sleep supplements, L-Tryptophan can help you fight insomnia.
A widespread debate in the world of dietary supplements is 5-HTP vs. L-Tryptophan. As mentioned above, L-Tryptophan is the immediate precursor to 5-HTP, which then converts into serotonin. Due to their relative effectiveness, both supplements find themselves in many of the best sleeping pills for OTC purchase. Research suggests 5-HTP is better for mood enhancement, while L-Tryptophan works better for promoting sleep. However, both natural sleep aids work tremendously well when responsibly used.
L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP both need to cross the blood-brain barrier to influence sleep and treat insomnia. The sole purpose of 5-HTP is for the conversion of serotonin and melatonin. On the other hand, L-Tryptophan can be used by the body for converting into niacin and for protein synthesis.
The primary difference is that 5-HTP requires one less step for serotonin production. This benefit is why many people use 5-HTP as a natural alternative to Adderall. That might sound better on paper, but experts think there may be a long-term downside to 5-HTP. There is a slight risk of tolerance development when using 5-HTP instead of L-Tryptophan in over the counter sleep aids. L-Tryptophan is a safer and subtle version of 5-HTP without the potential pitfalls of damaging your body’s natural serotonin production.
The last all-natural supplement for sleep that we’re going to cover is calcium, a common micromineral in dairy products with a wide range of health benefits. Calcium supports bone health, cardiovascular health, and promotes deep sleep cycles. A study published in the European Neurology Journal identified a link between the absence of deep REM sleep to individuals with calcium deficiencies. Researchers were able to reduce sleep disturbances and normalize sleeping patterns once they restored the blood calcium level of its subjects. This study suggests that calcium is not only good for your teeth and bones, but it belongs in the conversion with other non-prescription natural sleeping remedies.
Calcium helps with sleeplessness by converting L-Tryptophan into serotonin and melatonin. Most people get enough calcium in their diet from foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, kale, and almonds. Since milk also contains small amounts of L-Tryptophan as well, there is some truth to the tried and true method of drinking a warm glass of milk before bed. If you regularly avoid calcium-rich foods, we suggest an additional calcium supplement to take alongside safe OTC sleeping pills to help improve your sleep. Herbal sleep aids are usually enough to prevent sleep deprivation. Though, if you’re calcium deficient, you may need some additional help.
Final Thoughts on OTC Natural Sleep Aids for Insomnia
Sleep is the most essential restorative physiological process in the body. Sleep deprivation and chronic insomnia can have several adverse consequences on your body and mind. From weakened immune system function to reductions in mental cognition, these are side effects everyone would like to avoid. Quality sleep is the best way to boost focus and concentration, enhance energy levels, and heal the body naturally.
Reliance on prescription sleeping pills has become an issue globally. This rising problem has led to the development of safe over the counter sleep aids for addressing sleep problems and improving sleep quality. Prescription medications such as Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril, Sonata, and Halcion should only be used as directed with a proper prescription from your medical professional, and if possible be avoided long-term in favor of home remedies to help you sleep. Most non-prescription homeopathic treatments are non-habit forming, non-drowsy, and safe for use in adults, children, and even toddlers. Which of the above herbal and natural sleep aids have you tried? Let us know what you think about the best natural sleep aids in the comments below.
- L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications
- Attenuation of laboratory-induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm).
- Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future
- Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Melatonin for Treatment of Sleep Disorders: Summary