Best Natural Sleep Aids: Melatonin, CBD, and Valerian

natural sleep aids

 

Like our phones, we cannot function on a low battery. Sleep is the time the body recharges. But not everyone can get to sleep. 

One in three American adults report not getting enough sleep regularly. Sleep deprivation can cause depression, lower sex drives, impaired judgment, and weaken the immune system.

Getting better sleep may just mean cutting out caffeine, exercising more, or turning off electronics before bed. Yet if those methods fail, other options may need to be explored. 

More and more people are using natural sleep aids like melatonin, CBD, and Valerian root to promote a restful slumber. 

 

What are Natural Sleep Aids?

Nearly 20% of Americans tried a natural sleep aid within the past year, according to Consumer Reports. Natural sleep aids are sedatives that plants or animals organically produce.

There are countless natural sleep aids. Some include: warm milk, essential oils like lavender, and chamomile tea. 

Many people turn to natural sleep aids as an alternative to prescription sleep medication. While sleep medication is rigorously tested for safety and quality, many sedatives like Valium and Xanax may lead to dependency and addiction. 

Natural sleep aids are more accessible than prescriptions and many people see them as safer. However natural does not always mean safe. For example, lima beans naturally release cyanide — a deadly poison. 

While many natural sleep aids are perfectly safe, they are not as closely regulated by the Federal Drug and Food Administration (FDA) as prescriptions or over the counter drugs. 

That means there is less oversight over the safety and quality of many natural sleep aids, usually categorized as herbal supplements. It is important to do plenty of research into any natural sleep aid product before use. 

It is better to be safe than sorry. So consult a healthcare professional before taking a supplement, especially if using other prescriptions or supplements, if pregnant or breastfeeding, or if under the age of three. 

Some of the most popular natural sleep aids are melatonin, CBD, and valerian root. Below, we breakdown the benefits of these natural sleep aids so you can make an informed decision on which is right for you.  

 

Melatonin 

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by humans and animals in response to darkness. It modulates the circadian rhythms, or the body’s internal clock, hence its nickname “the hormone of darkness.” 

Melatonin Sleep Aid

Melatonin products for sale at a drugstore. (Flickr/ Kennejima)

Many people take supplemental melatonin to fall asleep and ease anxiety. It may be a useful treatment for certain sleep disorders, such as jet lag, delayed sleep wake phase disorder (DSWPD), and anxiety before and after surgery, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). 

Melatonin is typically ingested in capsule or tablet form. It takes up to two hours for onset. An average dose ranges from 1 to 10 milligrams. 

Melatonin is the only known hormone created by the pineal gland. The gland is located in the center of the brain, and is not fully understood by researchers. Some spiritualists believe the pineal gland is the “third eye,” or the doorway between spiritual and physical realms. 

There is evidence that suggests aging is a syndrome of the decrease of melatonin production by the pineal gland. However the functions of melatonin need to be studied further.  

The FDA regulates melatonin under the guidelines of dietary supplements. Regulation of dietary supplements is less strict than prescriptions or over the counter drugs. 

It is important to source melatonin products marked “USP Verified.” The U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) is an independent organization that verifies the quality and safety of dietary supplements.  

 

CBD

Cannabidiol — better known as CBD – is one of the main cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. It is legal in all 50 states. CBD on its own is not psychoactive. It does not cause a “high” like the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

CBD Sleep Aid

CBD oil. (Source unknown)

A plethora of studies suggest taking CBD may help with falling and staying asleep. However researchers are not exactly sure why. Some believe CBD may directly address the causes of insomnia such as stress or pain. 

CBD has a broad range of medical benefits from pain relief to treating certain psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety. It can be ingested, smoked, or applied topically. The average dose of CBD ranges widely from 25 to 1,500 mgs. It is best to start with a low dose and increase according to symptom relief.  

CBD does not alter the natural sleep-wake pattern of healthy people, unlike traditional medications for anxiety and depression, according to an NCCIH study. That means CBD may help regulate the body’s circadian rhythms similar to melatonin. 

Unlike melatonin, CBD is not a dietary supplement according to the FDA. It is illegal to market CBD as such. It is also illegal to market it as food, reports the FDA. The only FDA-approved CBD derived drug, Epidolex, treats rare and severe forms of epilepsy. 

Just like with melatonin, it is best to buy CBD from trustworthy brands that are independently verified for quality and safety. It’s important to review the product’s label and lab results

 

Valerian Root

The valerian plant blooms white and pink flowers. Its roots were used since ancient times to promote relaxation and sleep, according to Healthline.  

Valerian Flower Sleep Aid

Pink and White Valerian Flowers. (Wikimedia Commons/ Lairich)

The valerian root is typically consumed as a tea, capsule, or extract. The typical dose is 400 to 900 mgs when extracted, or 2 to 3 grams of dried root steeped in hot water. 

Researchers popularly study valerian for its interaction with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter, meaning it carries messages from the brain to the nervous system. Anxiety and poor sleep are linked to low GABA levels caused by chronic stress, according to the journal Frontiers in Psychology. 

In fact, a study published in 1999 found valerenic acid inhibits the breakdown of GABA in the brain, producing a calming effect. Furthermore the study observed that certain antioxidants found in valerian may limit excessive activity in the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for processing fear and stress. Simply put, valerian may improve the body’s response to stress. 

When used as directed, valerian may improve the time it takes to fall asleep, as well as the quality of sleep, without affecting mental or physical alertness in the morning, according to a 1999 clinical trial. 

The FDA currently regulates valerian as a dietary supplement, like it does melatonin. It is important to buy valerian root from trustworthy sources. Like with all herbs and supplements, valerian is less regulated than medications. 

Valerian root is shown to be fairly safe for most people and side effects are uncommon. In a few cases, people report headaches, dizziness, or stomach pain. 

It is not advised to use valerian root alongside alcohol or sedatives or anti-anxiety medications because it may increase depressant effects. 

 

What is the Best Natural Sleep Aid? 

Everyone reacts differently to medications, food, and supplements. While some love peanut butter sandwiches, others are deathly allergic to peanuts. The effectiveness of a natural sleep aid is dependent on the person. 

Natural sleep aids should be considered a treatment — not a cure – for poor sleep. Everyone has nights they can not get to bed. But chronic insomnia may be an underlying symptom. It is important to first evaluate the reasons for poor sleep before choosing a sleep aid. 

Certain medications may also interfere with sleep quality. Conditions like depression, cancer, and heart disease can cause poor sleep. 

Sometimes the key to healthy sleep is simply healthy sleeping habits. A change in lifestyle — like taking less naps, waking up earlier, or eating healthier– may be all that’s needed for better sleep. 

Other times, a natural sleep aid can also be helpful. They are a great option for people looking for occasional help sleeping and those who do not want to take a prescription medication. 

As more Americans look for sleep aid alternatives to medication, maybe the FDA and federal government will start to recognize the medical benefits of many herbs and supplements.

 

Emerald contributor since January 2021
Kyah Luna is a queer writer and journalist living in New York City. She is currently a student at The New School and is passionate about plant medicine and social justice.

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