by Caitlin Reid
You likely don’t need us to tell you that great sleep is considered a luxury in the modern world, with more than 50 million Americans struggling with sleep disorders, and even more with intermittent sleep problems every year. We can struggle with everything from poor sleep quality (think tossing and turning all night long or never slipping into that sweet REM sleep state), waking repeatedly throughout the night, and not clocking enough hours counting sheep. Michael Breus (aka “The Sleep Doctor”), a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep, told The Cut: “There are many different flavors of insomnia. There’s the I-can’t-fall-asleep kind; there’s the I-can’t-stay-asleep; there’s the I-wake-up-too-early; there’s insomnia associated with anxiety.” He advises that the natural sleep remedy you choose should depend on your specific sleep-related issue.
One of the most popular supplements those suffering with poor sleep turn to is melatonin. Melatonin is naturally produced in your body's pineal gland and signals to your brain it's time to sleep (aka the "hormone of darkness"). But, is melatonin really the best option for you? Because melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone, it is sourced either from the glands of animals or produced synthetically in a lab. So if you are looking for a natural or vegan supplement, you may need to look elsewhere. Luckily, the following four super-ingredients make for great melatonin alternatives. And unlike many prescription options, these natural sleep supplements aren't documented to have as many adverse effects either. Before you start looking into natural supplements though, it’s handy to understand which melatonin alternatives work for your specific sleep issue.
Unlike melatonin, 5-HTP is sourced from the seeds of the African plant Griffona simplicifolia, making it a 100% plant-based option to help you unlock better sleep. 5-HTP is a by-product of the amino acid L-tryptophan that naturally occurs in your body and is vital in the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, anxiety, and your sleep and waking cycle — all the important stuff, really.
With many sleep doctors citing daily stress and anxiety as a cause of poor sleep, 5-HTP may provide an answer to both. Dr. James Lake said that “taking 5-HTP at bedtime improves sleep and reduces daytime anxiety.” Thanks to this double action, 5-HTP reduces the time it takes to fall asleep while also increasing the length of time you’re asleep. (Talk about a potential win-win situation.)
Research agrees. One study found 5-HTP increased the total amount of REM sleep from 5% to 53% of total sleep time in adults.
5-HTP is also popular thanks to its other positive side effects. This serotonin booster has been shown to decrease migraines and eliminate sleep terrors.
Valerian Root and melatonin are the most studied non-prescription sleep supplements on the market. Valerian Root, when used in conjunction with hops, has a mild sedative effect, making it a popular natural option. Both Valerian and Hops boost the production of GABA, a relaxing brain chemical that helps promote sleep as well as reduce anxiety. While the taste isn’t great, the actions are cited as being similar to those of popular prescription sleep aids. Research on Valerian shows:
- Compared with the placebo, Valerian extract resulted in a statistically significant subjective improvement in the time required to fall asleep.
- One study found that when participants took 450 milligrams of Valerian extract, the time it took for them to fall asleep fell from 16 to 9 minutes.
- Another study showed that after 28 days, the group receiving the Valerian extract experienced fewer nights of sleeplessness compared with the placebo group.
Compared to Valerian’s plant-based origins, melatonin is a hormone found in your own body (and the bodies of animals — which is where natural melatonin supplements are derived from). Both have been shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, as well as increase overall sleep time. When considering taking a hormonal sleep supplement versus a natural sleep supplement, experts agree it helps to talk to your doctor.
CBD is the new “super” natural sleep supplement, with the ability to reduce sleeplessness and increase the length of your sleep thanks to its ability to boost feelings of relaxation and calm a busy mind. Plus, it’s been shown to help with acute pain and everything from chronic pain to fibromyalgia and anxiety. CBD helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, and unlike other cannabis-related supplements, it has no associated “high.” In other words? Research says you’ll sleep better, plus you won’t feel overwhelmed and zoned out in the process.
The adaptogen Ashwagandha has been widely used in Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, for thousands of years, and it’s now showing up in the Western world. Ashwagandha is derived from Withania somnifera leaves and contains triethylene glycol, and has traditionally been used to treat everything from arthritis and anxiety. Recent studies have focused on its sleep-inducing properties, and one study found that triethylene glycol is an active sleep-inducing component of Ashwagandha leaves, making it a possible treatment for insomnia therapy. The herb is also thought to be a nootropic or a substance that can improve memory and increase cognitive abilities.
Purple Passion Flower
This calming flower, also known by maypop, has shown in early research to improve quality of sleep. A perennial climbing vine, native to tropical regions of North, Central, and Southern America, its use dates back to Native Americans and Aztecs and is known to soothe the effects of anxiety and insomnia as it boosts GABA in your brain. It's most commonly taken in herbal sleepy-time teas or as a nighttime supplement like FOCL Night. It's synergistic with many other natural sleep aids like Hops flowers, 5-HTP and Valerian root which work even better together to promote rest and reduce stress.
Many consider chamomile the ultimate tea remedy for sleeplessness. Chamomile contains an adaptogen, apigenin, which has positive benefits on the brain, allowing for the body to relax and fall asleep. Research of this sleep inducer has shown that when taken before bed quality and deepness of sleep improve.
Another beautiful plant that can help you get some much needed shut eye is Lavender. Grown all over the world, Lavender has many benefits, including stress relief and sleep. Like an anxiolytic, anxiety reliever, it acts as a sedative and interacts with GABA to quiet the mind brain and cancel out restlessness. You can incorporate Lavender into your bedtime routine from teas, pillow sprays or essential oils.
Rapidly growing in popularity, this trending supplement is a key player in your body biochemistry. Studies show that healthy levels of magnesium promote better sleep. Magnesium deficiency in US adults is common and often associated with insomnia. A deficiency can be counteracted with a balanced diet. Magnesium is a mineral found in dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts, squash, legumes, meat, chocolate, and even coffee!
Melatonin Alternatives to Avoid
Where it concerns sleep many often look for quick fixes. While melatonin may or may not be the right choice for you, there are some melatonin alternatives you should try to avoid. Over-the-counter sleep aids like antihistamines or drugs with diphenhydramine (found in Benadryl, ZzzQuil, Unisom Sleep Gels and Sleep Melts), induce drowsiness, but often cause daytime sleepiness and grogginess, and can even lead to a dependency. These are often not as effective at improving sleep quality as many of the plant-based alternatives to melatonin.
Whether you’re struggling to get to sleep, or you can’t stay asleep for long, there is a natural sleep supplement for you. Thankfully, we here at FOCL have created a Night wellness stack specifically for sleep, blending the best of the best all-natural sleep aids into one supplement. Good sleep is everything. It’s central to your health and well-being, and sleeping better is the difference between you and your next-level life.
Caitlin Reid is a freelance journalist, copywriter and PR coordinator with over 10 years of experience with clients around the world. She is also a physiotherapist with a special interest in holistic and environmental well-being, blending the realms of evidence-based medicine with inspiring holistic health.
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Good sleep is something that evades all of us from time to time—but there are some supplements that claim they can help. And in terms of valerian root vs melatonin, two of the most popular on the market, the results might surprise you.