When you can’t sleep, the temptation to pop a sleeping pill is strong. But there’s a large body of research indicating that sleeping pills may contribute to as many as 500,000 deaths each year in the United States. Most sleeping pills are “sedative hypnotics”— a class of drugs used to treat anxiety. Examples include Xanax, Valium, Lunesta, and Ambien. Most of these drugs are highly addictive and come with a range of side effects, such as dizziness, drowsiness, and impaired coordination.
Here are four natural products that can help improve sleep quality—without the deleterious side effects.
The most popular natural aid for sleep is melatonin. Supplementation with melatonin has been shown in several studies to be very effective in helping induce and maintain sleep in both children and adults, and in both people with normal sleep patterns and those with insomnia. However, the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin are most apparent if melatonin levels in the body are low. In other words, using melatonin is not like taking a sleeping pill. It has a sedative effect only when one’s melatonin levels are low.
Melatonin supplementation appears to be most effective in treating insomnia in the elderly, in whom low melatonin levels are quite common. A dose of 3 mg at bedtime is usually enough, because doses as low as 0.1–0.3 mg have been shown to produce a sedative effect when melatonin levels are low.
Melatonin appears to have no serious side effects as long as one takes the recommended dosage.
5-HTP is converted in the brain to serotonin—an important initiator of sleep. It is one step closer to serotonin than L-tryptophan, and has shown more consistent results in promoting and maintaining sleep, even though used at lower dosages.
One of the key benefits of 5-HTP is its ability to increase REM sleep (typically by about 25%), while increasing deep sleep stages 3 and 4 without lengthening total sleep time. The sleep stages that are reduced to compensate for the increases are non-REM stages 1 and 2—the least important stages. To take advantage of the sleep-promoting effects of 5-HTP, the recommended dosage is 50–150 mg, 30–45 minutes before retiring. Start with the lower dose for at least three days before increasing it if necessary.