Do Sleep Aids Really Work?

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Sleepy, unhappy woman in bed

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Sleep. Many of us would like to know how to get more of it, do it better, and make it easier. And for good reason: The average person spends more than a third of their life catching Zzs. Recently we published a list of 27 ways to sleep better, full of tips such as journaling, exercising, ditching coffee in the p.m., and sniffing lavender. One of the entries suggested popping a magnesium supplement before bedtime to bring on the sleepiness. I’d never heard of this technique before, and I wanted to find out what the deal is with other sleep aids. Are they effective? Would I snooze through my alarm? Wake up feeling like I could whip out endless reps of pull-ups?

But before test-driving a few sleep-inducing capsules, teas, drinks (and even a lip balm) from my bed, I was curious what the research had to say. Find out which sleep aids left me energized in the morning and which had me feeling like a zombie before I even got to work.

Disclaimer: The following sleep-aid trials are a compilation of my own, very short case experiences. I took these aids sporadically over a 3-week period, and tried them for a minimum of one night each, generally about 30 minutes before bedtime. It’s important to remember that these short tests were personal trials and in no way a controlled clinical study. This article was not controlled for diet or other drug reactions. Please consult your health care provider before starting any supplement regimen.

1. Melatonin
The Science: Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the body, and it helps adjust the body’s internal clock. The melatonin used as a sleep aid is usually made synthetically in a lab. While many studies connect the aid to improved sleep—less time to fall asleep, higher quality sleep, and more total sleep—more research is needed to determine melatonin supplementation’s safety over the long term. And though studies suggest it’s safe with short-term use, there’s no evidence that it’s an effective treatment for the long haul.

The long-term effects of melatonin supplementation are still largely unknown. One controversial issue surrounding melatonin has to do with it’s possible down-regulation—meaning the body starts to produce even less melatonin because it thinks it has enough from the incoming supplement. As with most hormone supplementation, down-regulation is a legitimate concern. However, there is some clinical evidence suggesting short-term melatonin (we're talking just a few weeks) likely won't cause a measureable drop in the body's ability to naturally produce it.

NatureMade VitaMelts Sleep

After dissolving one small 3-milligram tablet on my tongue (sans water), I couldn’t help but think I could eat the darn things as candy with their delicious chocolate mint flavor. Aside from the taste test, I’d say that I fell asleep fairly easily and woke up without the same level of drowsiness that I normally do. I did, however, wake up in the middle of the night with a sneezing fit, though it’ll remain a mystery whether or not it was connected.

Natrol Melatonin Fast Dissolve

These tablets melted on the tongue too (no water necessary). I was extra curious about how these tablets would make me feel considering they’re coined as “fast release,” and at 6 milligrams, they’re nearly double the strength of the other melatonin I tried. The strawberry flavored pill tasted pretty great, and I can confidently say I was more tired when I turned out the light out than I was on any normal night when I didn’t use a sleeping aid. I slept soundly through the night, but I woke up super tired and groggy. I tried reading on the train but passed out after about 15 minutes. The whole morning was a foggy, sleepy haze though I slept a good 7-and-a-half hours.

2. Valerian Root
The Science: A tall, flowering grassland plant, valerian may improve sleep quality without producing harmful side effects. Some people use the herb for conditions connected to anxiety as well as depression. Scientists aren’t positive how valerian works, but some believe it increases the amount of a chemical in the brain called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has a calming effect. While there are many studies touting valerian as an effective and safe sleep aid, a research review suggests the evidence is inconclusive.

Vitamin Shoppe Valerian Root

While most of the other sleep aids instructed me to consume the product 30 minutes before sleep, or just “before bedtime,” this product said to take one to three capsules daily, preferably with meals. After digging around through research, it looks like dosage is unclear, and Valerian seems most effective after taken regularly for two or more weeks. In the one night I tried this supplement, I can’t say that I noticed much of a difference. And as a side note, the capsules had a seriously foul smell.

3. Magnesium
The Science: Many Americans are magnesium deficient (often due to low-levels of magnesium in their diets), a condition that’s been tied to poor sleep quality, though it’s unclear whether low magnesium levels are a cause or a byproduct of poor sleep. While it’s the magnesium that’s known for its sleep benefits, I also tried ZMA, a magnesium-containing supplement popular for promoting restfulness. When used in conjunction with melatonin, a small study found that zinc and magnesium appeared to improve the quality of sleep in an elderly population with insomnia.

Natural Vitality Natural Calm
Dubbed the “anti-stress drink,” this magnesium supplement comes in powder form (stir 2-3 ounces in water). I stirred my sleepy cocktail—made up of both magnesium and calcium—and sipped it before bed (though the label suggests divvying up into two or three servings throughout the day for best results). In trying this supplement for just one night, I wouldn’t say I noticed anything radical.

True Athlete ZMA with Theanine

When I took the two capsules an hour before bedtime (the recommended dose for women), I didn’t have the same “Ooo I’m so sleepy” feeling as I did with some of the other sleep aids. I did sleep through the night without waking up (which I often do), but that may have a connection to the lack of sleep I had the few nights before. I woke up without much grogginess, though I did fall right asleep on the train for 40 minutes despite having had just over eight hours of sleep. This ZMA is marketed as a supplement to enhance athletic recovery, though the jury is still out on its ability to really boost the effects of training.

4. L-Theanine
The Science: A water-soluble amino acid found in mushrooms and green tea, L-theanine is consumed for it's relaxant effects (as well as high levels of antioxidants). Though this amino acid is extracted from green tea leaves, a plant known for it’s ability to energize and revitalize, L-theanine may actually inhibit the excitatory effects of caffeine. And in boys diagnosed with ADHD (a disorder known to disrupt sleep) L-theanine was found safe and effective in improving some aspects of sleep quality.

NatureMade VitaMelts Relax

These meltable tablets, in a green tea mint flavor, were definitely tasty. With a name like “Relax,” this supplement is less about losing the ability to keep your eyes open, and far more about feeling physically relaxed. Which in my case, worked. After taking the four tablets (200 milligrams), I hopped in bed and my body immediately felt extremely tranquil. I could have probably stayed up and read for a while, but the idea of getting up to go to the bathroom or shut off the light seemed like a physical feat I’d rather not partake in.

Vitamin Shoppe L-Theanine
One capsule delivers 100 milligrams of L-Theanine to promote relaxation. Same as the NatureMade VitaMelts, I felt like this product made my body feel physically tired and relaxed, but not in the same fashion that melatonin made my eyes and head sleepy.

5. Rutaecarpine
The Science: Rutaecarpine, found in the Evodia fruit (which comes from a tree native to China and Korea), has been found to interact with enzymes in the body to metabolize caffeine and reduce the amount of it we have in our bodies by the time we hit the sack. In two studies on rats, rutaecarpine was found to significantly reduce caffeine levels both in the blood and urine.

Rutaesomn

This aid isn’t a sleep aid like some of the others on this list. Rather than actually making people feel sleepy, its main function is to kick caffeine out of the system. In fact, I was actually instructed by one of Rutaesomn’s creators to drink some extra caff late in the day before testing out a sample. It seemed pretty crazy, especially because coffee at dinnertime would no doubt leave me restless by bedtime under normal circumstances. But I had no trouble conking off. Just as expected, I felt as sleepy as I would any other night after a long day, but there was no added sleepiness.

6. Multiple-Ingredient Sleep Aids
Dream Water
Dream Water claims to reduce anxiety, help induce sleep, and improve the quality of sleep. The tiny bottle contains three active ingredients—5 hydroxytryptophan, melatonin, and GABA. L 5-hydroxytryptophan, a chemical in the body that may have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, appetite, and pain sensation, has also been found to improve sleep for children who frequently wake from sleep terrors. And in combination with GABA, a neurotransmitter which prevents over-firing of nerve cells, 5-hydroxytryptophan has been shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and increase the duration and quality of sleep. I wasn’t a big fan of how this stuff tasted, probably because I had just brushed my teeth. I definitely felt a rush of sleepiness within about 20 minutes of drinking the bottle. When I woke up I felt a little dazed until my mid-morning coffee.

Natrol Sleep 'N Restore

The big sell on this sleep aid, aside from promoting deeper, more restful sleep, is that it’s got a combination of antioxidants that can supposedly repair cells. I didn’t feel as groggy the next morning as when I took straight melatonin (even though the capsule did contain 3 milligrams). Beyond the valerian and melatonin, this sleep aid includes vitamin-E, L-Glutamine, calcium, and grape seed extract. Vitamin E, an antioxidant, can protect the body against the oxidative stress that comes with sleep deprivation. And for people with sleep apnea, antioxidant intake may improve quality of sleep. Grapeseed oil also has also been recognized for its powerful antioxidants, especially vitamin E, and flavonoids.

Badger Sleep Balm
According to Badger, sleep balm doesn’t make people sleepy. Rubbing the balm on the lips, temples, neck, and/or face is said to help quiet thoughts and clear the mind. With essential oils—rosemary, bergamot, lavender, balsam fir and ginger—the product is formulated, according to Badger, “for nights when you can’t seem to stop the mind chatter.” While Badger (and other essential oil resources) says rosemary is known for promoting clear thinking, begamot is mentally uplifting, ginger is strengthening and confidence-inducing, and balsam fir is refreshing, there are few scientific studies backing these claims. Relatively small studies show that lavender, however, may be beneficial for those with insomnia and depression, and has relaxing effects. To be honest, I really like the moisturizing effects of this balm and now I use it every night before bed. It smells nice, but I’m not sure of its ability to clear thoughts and relax the mind.

Yogi Bedtime Tea

I tried two flavors: Soothing Caramel Bedtime, which includes Chamomile flower, skullcap, California poppy, L-Theanine, and Rooiboos tea (which is naturally caffeine-free), and Bedtime, which includes valerian, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, and passionflower. I really liked how the caramel flavor tea tasted—sweet and spicy. However, the plain Bedtime tea wasn’t as tasty. As for relaxation, the act of drinking tea is relaxing for me in the first place, sleep-inducing ingredients or not. One study suggests that passionflower, in the form of tea, may yield short-term sleep benefits. Though chamomile is the most commonly used herbal for sleep disorders, there’s not a lot of research out there about its efficacy. Small doses have been found to relieve anxiety, while higher doses may promote sleep. Skullcap and California poppy—two herbs that have been used in traditional medicine as sedatives—don’t have much scientific research backing their ability to promote or sustain sleep.

Celestial Seasonings Snooz
With a blend including valerian root extract, L-theanine, and melatonin, Snooz has three of the main sleep aids I tried out separately. Chamomile, lemon balm, hops, and jujube seed extracts round out the sleep-inducing portion of the ingredients list. When combined with valerian, hops was found to help improve sleep quality. While jujube oil has exhibited a sedative effect in mice, the research on lemon balm and chamomile is even more limited. These little drinks come in three flavors—berry, lemon ginger, and peach. The taste was OK, but a bit too sweet for my liking (with six grams of sugar). Shortly after sipping one, I felt really relaxed, almost like I’d been in the ocean all day and by bedtime still felt like the waves were crashing on me (deep, I know).

The Takeaway
At the end of a couple weeks of sleep-aid testing, I think I’ll stick to my old methods of bringing on the Zzs—a good workout, turning my phone to “do not disturb,” and keeping electronics out of the bedroom. I won’t avoid sleep aids at all costs, and I see value in turning to one every once in a while, but I don’t think I need them to fall asleep and stay asleep. For a temporary bout of restlessness, I’d likely suggest Sleepytime Snooz or Dream Water. (I just liked how they worked for me.) I’m glad I had the opportunity to try out some popular sleep aids and dig into the science behind their ingredient labels. And while it was a fun experiment, I learned I don’t need to rely on pills, teas, or sleep-inducing drinks to have a quality slumber.

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