Do Sleep Aids Really Work?

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.


1. Melatonin

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 think 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 itThe amplitude of endogenous melatonin production is not affected by melatonin treatment in humans. Matsumoto, M., Sack, R.L., Blood, M.L. et al. Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, Asahikawa Medical College, Japan. Journal of Pineal Research, 1997 Jan;22(1): 42-4..

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 also melted on the tongue (no water necessary). I was extra curious about how these tablets would make me feel, considering they’re coined as “fast dissolve,” 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 felt more tired than I typically do (without sleep aids) when I turned out the lights. I slept soundly through the night, but I woke up super tired and groggy (likely because of the amplified dosage). 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 seven-and-a-half hours.

2. Valerian Root

A tall, flowering grassland plant, valerian may improve sleep quality without producing harmful side effectsValerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta- analysis. Bent, S., Padula, A., Moore, D., et al. Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, CA. American Journal of Medicine, 2006 Dec;119(12): 1005-12.Critical evaluation of the effect of valerian extract on sleep structure and sleep quality. Donath, F., Quispe, S., Diefenbach, K., et al. Institute of Clinical Pharmacology, Charite University Medical Center, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany. Pharmacopsychiatry, 2000 Mar;33(2): 47-53.Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Taavoni, S., Ekbatani, N., Kashaniyan, M., et al. Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran. Menopause, 2011 Sep;18(9): 951-5.. 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 inconclusiveValerian for insomnia: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Stevinson, C., Ernst, E. Department of Complementary Medicine, School of Postgraduate Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK. Sleep Medicine, 2000 Apr 1;1(2): 91-99..

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

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 sleepMagnesium supplementation improves indicators of low magnesium status and inflammatory stress in adults older than 51 years with poor quality sleep. Nielsen, F.H., Johnson, L.K., Zeng, H. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, Grand Forks, North Dakota. Magnesium Research, 2010 Dec;23(4): 158-68.. 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 insomniaThe effect of melatonin, magnesium, and zinc on primary insomnia in long-term care facility residents in Italy: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Rondanelli, M., Opizzi, A., Monteferrario, F., et al. Section of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Department of Applied Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Azienda di Servizi alla Persona di Pavia, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy. Journal of the American Geriatric Society 2011 Jan;59(1): 82-90..

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 trainingEffects of Zinc Magnesium Aspartate (ZMA) Supplementation on Training Adaptations and Markers of Anabolism and Catabolism. Wilborn, C.D., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I., et al. Exercise & Sport Nutrition Lab, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2004 Dec 31;1(2): 12-20..

4. L-theanine

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

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 urineEffects of rutaecarpine on the metabolism and urinary excretion of caffeine in rats. Noh, K., Seo, Y.M., Lee, S.K., et al. College of Pharmacy, Yeungnam University, Gyeongsan, Korea. Archives of Pharmacal Research, 2011 Jan;34(1): 119-25.Effects of Evodia rutaecarpa and rutaecarpine on the pharmacokinetics of caffeine in rats. Tsai, T.H., Chang, C.H., Lin, L.C. National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine, Taipei, Taiwain. Planta Medica, 2005 Jul;71(7): 640-5..

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 terrorsL -5-Hydroxytryptophan treatment of sleep terrors in children. Bruni, O., Ferri, R., Miano, S., et al. Exercise & Sport Nutrition Lab, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2004 Dec 31;1(2): 12-20.. 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 sleepA randomized, placebo-controlled trial of an amino acid preparation on timing and quality of sleep. Shell, W., Bullias, D., Charuvastra, E., et al. Targeted Medical Pharma, Inc., Los Angeles, CA. American Journal of Therapy, 2010 Mar-Apr;17(2): 133-9.. 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 deprivationThe neuroprotective effect of vitamin E on chronic sleep deprivation- induced memory impairment: the role of oxidative stress. Alzoubi, K.H., Khabour, O.F., Rashid, B.A., et al. Department of Clinical Pharmacy, Faculty of Pharmacy, Jordan University of Science and Technology, Jordan. Behavioural Brain Research, 2012 Jan 1;226(1): 205-10.. And for people with sleep apnea, antioxidant intake may improve quality of sleepOxidative stress and obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Singh, T.D, Patial, K., Vijayan, V.K., et al. Department of Pysiology, V P Chest Institute, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Science, 2009 Oct-Dec;51(4): 217-24.. Grapeseed oil also has also been recognized for its powerful antioxidants, especially vitamin E, and flavonoids.

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 benefitsA double- blind, placebo-controlled investigation of the effects of Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) herbal tea on subjective sleep quality. Ngan, A., Conduit, R. School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia. Phytotherapy Research, 2011 Aug;25(8): 1153-9.. Though chamomile is the most commonly used herbal for sleep disorders, there’s not a lot of research out there about its efficacyPreliminary examination of the efficacy and safety of a standardized chamomile extract for chronic primary insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled pilot study. Zick, S.M., Wright, B.D., Sen, A., et al. University of Michigan, Department of Family Medicine, Ann Arbor, MI. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011 Sep 22;11: 78.. 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 qualityValerian-hops combination and diphenhydramine for treating insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Morin, C.M., Koetter, U., Bastien, C., et al. Universite Laval, Ecole de Psychologie, Sainte-Foy, Quebec, Canada. Sleep, 2005 Nov;28(11): 1465-71.. While jujube oil has exhibited a sedative effect in mice, the research on lemon balm and chamomile is even more limited[Sedative, hypnotic and antiseizure effects of compound gardenia oil and jujube seed oil in mice]. Li, B.L., Chen, Y.H., Hu, R., et al. Department of Pharmacology, Yan’an University, Yan’an, China. Nan Fang Yi Ke Da Xue Xue Bao, 2008 Aug;28(9): : 1636-9.. These little drinks come in three flavors—berry, lemon ginger, and peach. The taste was OK, 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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