Supplements for sleep – why they work and the different types to try

Supplements for sleep could be the natural cure you need...

Supplements for sleep in spoons around a clock
(Image credit: Getty Images / Dannko)

Taking herbal supplements for sleep could be just the solution you need if you’re struggling to drift off at night, or find you keep waking up at regular intervals. 

If you've already made your bedroom a sanctuary by choosing the best pillow, combined with the comfiest mattress and cosy bedding to snuggle down with at night, but find yourself still struggling to doze off, then sleep supplements should be next on your shopping list.

“Natural herbs are experiencing a rise in popularity,” says expert Paul Gurney, from wellness store GreenBox. “There are many that people believe help insomnia. In addition, others believe in herbs which reduce their anxiety and help normalise the sleep-wake schedule.”

What are sleep supplements?

Using supplements for sleep is not the same as taking sleeping pills, in fact they are a natural alternative to prescribed sleep medication. 

“Generally, sleep supplements are natural products or ingredients to promote sleep,” says Dr Tim Bond from Puressentiel. “They are usually plant-based ingredients (eg, herbs) or other natural ingredients present in the body, such as melatonin or a nutrient like magnesium.”  

This makes them a lot safer than prescribed or over-the-counter sleeping tablets, especially if you are taking them over a longer period. 

“Using medication can be a temporarily effective way to help you sleep, but it should only be taken for a short period of time,” says advanced clinical practitioner Shaeeb Ali at MedsOnline247. “Instead, taking supplements and herbal remedies is a more natural way to minimise the need for medical sleeping aids.”

When should you take sleep supplements?

Taking sleep supplements should become part of your nightly wind-down routine. 

“It depends slightly on the ingredient but, in most cases, 30-60 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for a sleep supplement to work,” says Dr Bond. “Popping a sleep supplement at the same time you go to bed may not work for you and leave you lying in bed trying to sleep.” 

Don’t like taking tablets? Herbal supplements can also come in the form of a soothing bedtime drink. “Make the last drink of the day herbal tea, such as chamomile, which is proven to help sleep,” recommends Dr Bond.

Chamomile tea and alarm clock

(Image credit: Getty Images / Anna Blazhuk)

What are the side effects of sleep supplements? 

“In most cases, taking sleep supplements is safe,” says Dr Bond. Therefore, you shouldn't experience any side effects, but always buy supplements from a reputable company to ensure maximum safety and purity.

“If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking any medication, then check with your doctor,” adds Dr Bond. “Also, it's best not to give sleep supplements to a young child under five without checking with a pharmacist or doctor first.”

What is melatonin and can it help you sleep?

“Melatonin is a hormone that your body produces naturally which signals that is time to sleep,” says Dr Bond. 

”Melatonin levels rise in the evening and fall in the morning. Supplements containing melatonin are often used to encourage sleep, but particularly for people suffering from jet lag or for shift workers where sleep rhythm has been lost.” Getting out of a sleep routine can lead to oversleeping, which can have a negative impact on a person’s health. 

Considering taking melatonin? Check with your doctor first. “It is generally safe, but check with your doctor if you plan to try it for the long term,” says Dr Bond. “Plus, a lot more research is needed to see if it is really that effective.” 

the plant Valerian often found in supplements for sleep

(Image credit: Getty Images / itsabreeze photography)

Does valerian root help you sleep? 

Valerian is a herb with sedative effects that has been used for hundreds of years. It’s a supplement to ease anxiety, depression and help sleep. 

“While the attractive fragrance of the valerian flower finds use in perfumes, bath and body care products, valerian root proves its efficacy in promoting relaxation,” says Paul. 

“If your mind gets occupied by racing thoughts at night, valerian root taken in pills, tinctures, capsules, and tea promotes better sleep. Valerian is not new in enhancing sleep. Its root has been in use in ancient Greek and Roman eras.”

If you’re struggling to drift off, this sleep supplement is definitely worth a try. Dr Bond points out that some people do find it effective for getting a better night's sleep.

Does magnesium help you sleep?

The benefits of magnesium are endless. Not only is it essential for reducing tiredness and fatigue, it’s also vital for normal functioning of the nervous system and psychological health. Plus it’s great at enhancing our sleep.

“Magnesium is a mineral found in the diet and food supplements,” says Dr Bond. “It is essential for many body processes and it is lacking in the diets of many people. Lack of magnesium in the diet has been linked to difficulties in sleeping and poor sleep quality. Magnesium’s relaxing effect is thought to be due to its regulation of melatonin production.”

Woman's hand holding pill

(Image credit: Getty Images / Snizhana Galytska)

Is tryptophan good for sleep?

“Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that can be taken as a supplement,” says Dr Bond. It produces serotonin, which can be converted into the hormone melatonin – playing an important role in regulating sleep.

”A few studies have shown it helps you fall asleep fast and that it may improve sleep quality, but a lot more research is needed,” adds Dr Bond.

It's also sometimes referred to as 5-HTP or 5-Hydroxytryptophan.

How do you take passionflower supplements for sleep?

Passionflower is a traditional herbal sleep promoter.

“Also known by the name maypop, the purple passionflower helps cure insomnia and anxiety by boosting the GABA level in your brain,” says Paul. “GABA compound lessens brain activity, which aids in bringing mind relaxation and better sleep.”

Want to give it a try? “Sip a cup of passionflower tea before bedtime to see its positive benefits on your sleep quality,” recommends Paul.

However, studies are still lacking around how effective passionflower is. “Research findings of its value are inconsistent, but it appears to be most efficacious taken in the form of a tea,” adds Dr Bond.

Chamomile plants in a bowl with a spoon

(Image credit: Getty Images / Anna Blazhuk)

Can chamomile make you sleepy?

Chamomile in the form of a tea is a popular herb used for sleep. “Its beneficial effects are thought to be due to its ingredient apigenin, which binds to receptors in brain cells and induce sleep,” says Dr Bond.

And that’s not all. “It can also help free your mind from mental stress,” says Paul. “Adding some drops of chamomile essential oil in your bathwater can help soothe stressed nerves.”

Is magnolia bark good for sleep?

Magnolia bark may not be as well-known as some other ingredients of sleep supplements, but it’s still worth a try.

“If you prefer a natural sleep promoter, magnolia bark is your go-to herb,” says Paul. “The sleep-promoting applications of magnolia bark have a place of pride in wellness practices. Apart from turning off your brain, it helps manage stress and anxiety and protects brain health.”

Not sure how much to take? “A capsule a day is enough to correct your insomnia problem,” says Paul. “While it has promising sleep results, always consult your physician before taking this herbal supplement.”  

Can marjoram be taken for sleep?

Tried most sleep supplements and want to experiment with a different ingredient?

“My recommendation that ticks all the boxes is marjoram,” says Dr Bond. 

“Marjoram is a herb used in cooking that has many uses, but a little known benefit is that it helps to promote sleep. It can be taken internally and also used in the form of a spray for your bedroom or in the form of an oil for a nice relaxing massage before bed.”

Sleep mask and sleeping pill

(Image credit: Getty Images / Chiociolla)

Other natural sleep aids to try...

Here are more natural ingredients worth looking out for, according to Paul:

  • California Poppy
    “Apart from mental calmness, it also reduces restlessness and anxiety. Take 30-40 drops of California Poppy in tincture form at night to feel its marvellous results against insomnia.”
  • Wild Lettuce
    “Nicknamed ‘lettuce opium’ (and yet the plant has no opiates), wild lettuce taken in supplement form has a mild sedating effect for you to relax your body physically and mentally.”
  • CBD
    “Try CBD for sleep. It's an effective sleeping aid with little to no side effects.”
  • St. John’s Wort
    “By stimulating the GABA receptor, it induces sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain. Take supplements, such as capsules and tinctures, to restore your sleeping hours.”
Faye M Smith

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of theHealth Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. 

Currently Acting Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships. In fact, having previously been the go-to sex columnist for Now magazine, there isn't much she won't discuss when it comes to women's health. This makes her the best person to review must-buy sex toys, describe how to have a mind-blowing orgasm or explain how to navigate sex in the shower without it ending in a medical emergency. 

While not anti-gym, Faye’s fitness routine is more focussed on finding inner balance rather than burning excess calories. An advocate of mindfulness, she loves power breathing, yoga and plenty of walking in nearby woodlands rather than a sweaty HIIT class. Follow her @fayetuned