Sleep supplements: Benefits, side effects, risks, uses, types, examples

Are you one of the millions struggling to achieve a good night’s sleep? Recent studies reveal that up to 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders [1], highlighting a critical need for effective solutions. 

Sleep supplements are becoming a popular option for those seeking solace from restless nights. These aids, ranging from herbal mixtures to meticulously crafted compounds, offer a promise of relief from the relentless cycle of sleep deprivation.

This guide will explore the potential benefits, side effects, and risks associated with various sleep supplements to help you make an informed decision about incorporating them into your nighttime routine. 

Let’s explore how these supplements might offer you the restful sleep you’ve been missing.

What are sleep supplements?

Sleep supplements are products designed to enhance sleep quality and duration. They can be made from a variety of ingredients and come in many forms, including pills, liquids, and even teas. 

Their primary role is to interact with your body’s natural processes to encourage a smoother transition to sleep and maintain prolonged sleep periods.

The effectiveness of sleep supplements depends on their interaction with the body’s neurological and biochemical pathways. 

For instance, some supplements target the brain’s neurotransmitters that regulate sleep cycles, such as melatonin [2]. Others might influence the nervous system to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety, which can indirectly improve sleep quality.

Sleep supplements are broadly categorized into two types: natural and synthetic. Natural supplements are typically derived from plants and herbs, such as valerian root, chamomile, and, increasingly, CBD. 

Some natural compounds like apigenin, found in chamomile, are favored for their calming effects and contribution to a holistic approach to sleep enhancement.

On the other hand, synthetic supplements are manufactured through chemical processes and are designed to mimic or enhance the body’s natural sleep-inducing compounds. 

Examples include synthetic melatonin or prescription drugs intended to treat insomnia, offering targeted and often potent solutions to sleep disturbances.

FeatureNatural sleep supplementsSynthetic sleep supplements
SourceDerived from plants, herbs, and natural substances.Manufactured through chemical processes.
Common examplesValerian root, chamomile, lavender, CBD.Synthetic melatonin, prescription sleep aids like Ambien.
Mechanism of actionOften work by enhancing natural bodily functions, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.Directly mimic or alter brain chemicals to induce sleep.
Side effectsGenerally milder side effects.Potentially stronger side effects, may include dependency.
Onset of effectMay take longer to notice effects as the body adapts.Usually have a quicker onset of action.
RegulationLess strictly regulated than synthetic supplements.Strictly regulated by agencies like the FDA.
CostCan vary, often less expensive than some synthetic options.Can be expensive, especially prescription medications.
PerceptionOften perceived as safer and more holistic.Viewed as more aggressive and potent.

What are the benefits of taking sleep supplements?

Sleep supplements offer a range of benefits designed to enhance both the quality and the structure of sleep. Here’s a detailed look at how these supplements can positively impact your sleep health:

1. Improved sleep quality and duration

Many sleep supplements promote deeper, more restorative sleep, resulting in feeling refreshed and energized upon waking up.

Also, certain supplements help extend the total sleep time, especially beneficial for those who typically experience shorter sleep cycles.

2. Reduced sleep latency

Supplements like melatonin are effective in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep. This is particularly helpful for individuals who toss and turn for hours before sleeping.

3. Enhanced sleep phases and regulated sleep cycles 

Ingredients in sleep supplements can influence various stages of sleep, notably increasing the duration of REM sleep—the phase associated with dreaming and memory processing.

Some supplements help stabilize disrupted sleep cycles, essential for overall sleep quality.

4. Benefits for specific populations

  • The elderly – Older adults often suffer from sleep disturbances due to changes in sleep architecture with age [3]. Supplements can help restore a more regular sleep pattern.
  • Those with jet lag – For travelers adjusting to new time zones, melatonin can significantly improve adaptation to local time, reducing the effects of jet lag.
  • Shift workers – Individuals working non-traditional hours may benefit from sleep supplements to realign their sleep cycles more effectively with their work schedules.

While the benefits of sleep supplements are considerable, it is important to approach them as part of a broader sleep management strategy. 

This includes good sleep hygiene practices like creating a comfortable sleep environment, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding stimulants near bedtime. 

Integrating these practices with the appropriate use of supplements can improve sleep quality and daytime functioning.

What are the different types of sleep supplements?
Photograph: Prostock-studio/Envato

What are the different types of sleep supplements?

The types of sleep supplements available today can be categorized into several types based on their active ingredients and intended effects. 

Here, we explore the common types, ranging from herbal supplements to hormones and minerals, each offering unique benefits for sleep enhancement.

1. Herbal supplements

Herbal supplements are often preferred for their natural origins and holistic benefits:

  • Valerian root – Known for its sedative properties and commonly used to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep [4].
  • Chamomile – A gentle, soothing herb used in teas to promote calmness and help ease the mind into sleep.
  • Lavender – Its aroma is credited with reducing stress and anxiety, which can improve sleep quality.
  • CBD (Cannabidiol) – CBD is increasingly popular for managing anxiety, pain, and sleep issues. It does not have the psychoactive effects associated with THC, making it an appealing option for those seeking natural remedies.

2. Hormones

Hormones used as sleep supplements directly influence the body’s sleep-wake cycle:

  • Melatonin – Naturally produced by the pineal gland, supplemental melatonin can help regulate sleep patterns, particularly in people suffering from jet lag or shift work sleep disorder [5].
  • DHEA – Less commonly used for sleep, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) may influence hormonal balance and indirectly support better sleep [6].

3. Minerals

Certain minerals are essential in supporting the body’s natural sleep functions:

  • Magnesium – Known to relax muscles and nerves, magnesium supplements can help create a calming effect conducive to sleep.
  • Zinc – Often used in conjunction with other supplements, zinc plays a crucial role in neurotransmitter function and may help improve sleep quality.

4. Amino acids

Amino acids can affect neurotransmitter levels related to sleep:

  • L-theanine – Found primarily in green tea, it promotes relaxation and can improve sleep quality.
  • GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) – A neurotransmitter that helps calm the brain, GABA supplements are often used to alleviate anxiety and foster sleep.

5. Combination supplements

Many over-the-counter products combine several sleep-promoting ingredients to enhance efficacy:

Examples include products that blend melatonin with herbal extracts like chamomile and lavender or amino acids like L-theanine to maximize relaxation and sleep quality.

chamomile flowers

Comparative table of different types of sleep supplements

TypeExamplesBenefitsUses
HerbalValerian, chamomile, lavender, CBDNatural relief from stress and anxietyUsed to promote relaxation and ease into sleep
HormonesMelatonin, DHEARegulate sleep cycles, hormonal supportHelpful for jet lag, shift work disorders
MineralsMagnesium, zincSupport neurological and muscle functionUsed to calm and relax the body for sleep
Amino acidsL-theanine, GABAImprove neurotransmitter functionPromote relaxation and reduce anxiety
CombinationMixed supplements (e.g., melatonin + l-theanine)Combine benefits for enhanced effectOften used for more comprehensive sleep support

How do I choose a sleep supplement?

Choosing the right sleep supplement can significantly enhance your night’s rest, but it requires thoughtful consideration. To make an informed decision, consider these key areas:

1. Assess your sleep needs

Determine whether your primary concern is difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or not feeling rested.

Then, choose a supplement geared towards addressing your specific sleep challenges.

2. Consult health care providers 

Discuss with a healthcare professional to avoid any adverse interactions with existing medications or health conditions.

Gain insights into which supplements are most effective and appropriate for your needs.

3. Investigate ingredients

Opt for products with clear, straightforward ingredient lists. Look for supplements supported by credible research to ensure efficacy.

4. Consider your lifestyle 

Reflect on aspects like stress levels, diet, and evening routines that might affect your sleep.

Sometimes, simple changes in daily habits can improve sleep quality and reduce dependence on supplements.

By methodically examining these aspects, you can choose a sleep supplement that not only addresses your specific needs but also complements your overall approach to better sleep hygiene.

Is it OK to take sleep supplements?

While sleep supplements can be effective in improving sleep quality, they also come with potential side effects that users should be aware of. 

Understanding these side effects can help manage expectations and ensure the safe use of these products.

1. Dizziness

Some individuals may experience dizziness as a side effect, which can occur either during the night or upon waking. This sensation may affect balance and coordination temporarily.

2. Headache

Certain sleep supplements can trigger headaches, which can vary in intensity from mild to severe [7]. This is often due to the body’s reaction to new substances or changes in neurotransmitter levels.

3. Next-day grogginess

Often referred to as a ‘hangover effect,’ grogginess the following day is common [7], particularly with supplements that induce a deeper than usual sleep. Users may find it challenging to wake up and feel alert the next morning.

4. Stomach discomfort

Some people may experience gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, gas, or bloating, depending on the type and dosage of the sleep supplement [7].

These side effects are typically mild and often resolve as the body adjusts to the supplement. However, if they persist or worsen, it may be necessary to reconsider the specific supplement or its dosage. 

To minimize potential adverse effects, it is advisable to start with the lowest effective dose and gradually adjust as needed, always under the guidance of a healthcare provider. 

Additionally, choose high-quality supplements from reputable manufacturers to reduce the likelihood of unwanted side effects.

What are the risks of taking sleep supplements?

While sleep supplements can offer beneficial effects for those struggling with sleep issues, they are not without risks. Understanding the potential dangers and contraindications associated with these products is crucial for safe usage.

1. Interactions with medications

Sleep supplements can interact with various medications, potentially leading to adverse effects. 

For example, taking herbal supplements like valerian root along with sedatives (such as benzodiazepines) or certain antidepressants can enhance sedative effects, which might be unsafe [8]. 

Always inform your healthcare provider about any supplements you are considering so they can help you avoid harmful interactions.

2. Long-term dependency

Relying on sleep supplements for an extended period can lead to dependency, both psychological and physical. 

Users might find that they become unable to sleep without the aid of the supplement, and discontinuation could result in withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia or increased anxiety.

3. Contraindications

Certain populations should avoid specific types of sleep supplements altogether. For instance, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children are typically advised against the use of synthetic sleep aids unless prescribed by a healthcare professional. 

Additionally, individuals with certain health conditions, such as liver disease or epilepsy, should exercise caution and consult healthcare providers before using sleep supplements.

Who should be cautious about taking sleep supplements?

Sleep supplements, while beneficial for many, can pose significant risks for certain groups of individuals. It’s important for these populations to approach the use of sleep aids with caution or to consider avoiding them altogether.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women are advised to exercise particular caution with sleep supplements. Many supplements, especially those that are synthetically formulated, can affect fetal development. 

Herbal remedies, although natural, are not automatically safe for pregnant women as the effects on pregnancy and fetal health are often not well studied. 

Before using any sleep aid, it’s crucial for pregnant women to consult their OBGYN.

Children

The use of sleep supplements in children should be approached with extreme care. Children’s bodies are still developing, and the long-term impacts of sleep supplements on their growth and development are not fully understood.

This includes common supplements like melatonin, which, despite its widespread use, requires careful consideration and supervision when given to children.

Sleep issues in children are often better managed through changes in bedtime routines, sleep hygiene, and dietary adjustments rather than through supplements. 

If sleep aids are considered necessary, they should only be used under the guidance of a pediatrician.

Elderly

Older adults also need to be cautious when using sleep supplements. The aging body processes substances differently, and older adults are more likely to be taking other medications that could interact negatively with sleep supplements. 

Additionally, they are more susceptible to side effects such as dizziness and confusion, which can increase the risk of falls and injuries.

In general, anyone considering the use of sleep supplements should consult a healthcare provider to ensure that these products are safe and appropriate for their specific health conditions and lifestyle. 

This is especially important for those who fall into the above categories, as the risks may outweigh the benefits.

elderly sleeping

How effective are sleep supplements?

When considering sleep supplements, you might wonder about the scientific backing for their efficacy. 

Numerous studies have provided insights into how these supplements can improve sleep quality, yet there remain some limitations and gaps in current research that are important to understand.

Evidence supporting efficacy

Research has shown that certain sleep supplements can significantly impact sleep quality and duration. 

For instance, melatonin, one of the most studied sleep aids, has been shown to be effective in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and in adjusting sleep cycles in the case of jet lag or shift work disorder. 

Studies indicate that melatonin can decrease sleep onset latency and increase total sleep duration, especially in individuals with delayed sleep phase syndrome.

Herbal supplements like valerian root have also been widely studied. A systematic review published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects that are often associated with synthetic drugs [9].

Limitations and gaps in research

Despite positive findings, the research on sleep supplements is not without its limitations [10]. One major issue is the variability in study designs and the quality of the supplements tested, which can lead to inconsistent results. 

Moreover, many studies are short-term and do not address the long-term effects of using sleep supplements, leaving unanswered questions about their safety over extended periods.

Additionally, while there is considerable research on certain supplements like melatonin and valerian, others, especially newer herbal compounds and combination products, lack robust clinical trials to substantiate their claims fully. 

This gap underscores the need for more rigorous, long-term studies better to understand the effectiveness and safety of various sleep supplements.

What are alternatives to taking sleep supplements?

If you’re hesitant about using sleep supplements or seeking additional methods to enhance your sleep quality, consider a variety of non-supplement alternatives that can offer substantial benefits. 

Integrating lifestyle adjustments and exploring medical or therapeutic options are effective strategies to improve sleep without relying solely on supplements.

Lifestyle changes

1. Sleep hygiene

Establish a consistent bedtime routine. This includes going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends. 

Creating a sleep-conducive environment—cool, dark, and quiet—can also make a significant difference.

2. Diet

What you eat affects how you sleep. Avoid caffeine and heavy meals before bedtime to prevent sleep disruptions. Also, incorporate foods rich in magnesium and melatonin, like almonds and cherries, to promote better sleep.

3. Exercise

Regular physical activity can help you fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper sleep. However, timing is key; exercising too close to bedtime may have the opposite effect.

Medical and therapeutic options

1. CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure)

For individuals suffering from sleep apnea, using a CPAP machine at night can help maintain airway openness and significantly improve sleep quality [11].

2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

This specialized therapy is designed to tackle the underlying causes of insomnia through behavior modification. 

CBT-I helps develop habits that promote a healthy sleep pattern and has been proven highly effective in long-term insomnia management [12].

These alternatives not only provide viable options for those unable to use sleep supplements due to health reasons but also offer a holistic approach to improving sleep. 

Often, combining these methods with good sleep practices yields the best results, enhancing both the ease of falling asleep and the quality of sleep experienced.

Closing thoughts

Sleep supplements can be a helpful solution for those struggling with sleep disorders, offering benefits such as improved sleep quality, duration, and reduced sleep latency.

However, they also carry potential risks like medication interactions, dependency, and side effects that should not be overlooked. 

It is essential to approach sleep supplements with an informed perspective, considering both their advantages and limitations. 

Responsible use involves consulting with healthcare professionals, carefully choosing products, and integrating them with holistic sleep practices. 

Ultimately, sleep supplements can be a valuable part of achieving better sleep when used wisely and in conjunction with other healthy behaviors.

FAQs

What supplement is best for sleep?

Melatonin is widely regarded as the best supplement for sleep due to its effectiveness in regulating sleep cycles and improving sleep quality, especially for those with jet lag or shift work disorder.

Are sleep supplements safe?

Sleep supplements can be safe when used appropriately, but they may cause side effects and interact with medications. It’s crucial to consult a healthcare provider before starting any supplement.

What is the best natural thing to help you sleep?

Chamomile tea is considered one of the best natural remedies for improving sleep, and it is known for its calming effects that help soothe the mind and ease into restfulness.

How do sleep supplements work?

Sleep supplements work by interacting with the body’s natural sleep mechanisms, either by enhancing neurotransmitters that promote relaxation or by regulating sleep cycles directly. They can help reduce sleep latency and improve sleep quality.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4334454/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5300306/
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901/
[5] https://www.sleepfoundation.org/melatonin
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23488643/
[7] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/sleeping-pills-and-natural-sleep-aids.htm
[8] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/valerian/faq-20057875
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901/
[10] https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/15/10/2377
[11] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2022.924069/full
[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10002474/

Photograph: gstockstudio/Envato
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