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​The Best Natural Sleep Aids Are the Ones Money Can’t Buy

Want the best natural sleep aid? It’s not on the shelves of a local store. Working with your circadian rhythm and good sleep hygiene are the aids you need.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Women in bed with glass of water in one hand and pills on the other: best natural sleep aid

It’s 1:45 a.m., and you’re wide awake. After tossing and turning and trying to fall asleep for well over an hour, you reach for your phone and start Googling desperately: “best natural sleep aid,” “sleep supplements,” “insomnia cures,” “What is wrong with me, and why can’t I fall asleep?” 

Your queries produce seemingly endless results — from herbal supplements and prescription sleeping pills to meditation apps and essential oils. Next thing you know, 45 minutes have passed, and you’ve worked yourself into a search frenzy that has only made you more anxious and restless. 

As anyone who has found themselves sleeplessly slipping down a similar rabbit hole can attest: Sleep problems are beyond frustrating. And not getting the sleep your body needs can cause a cascade of symptoms that may feel more like an avalanche: excessive daytime drowsiness, low energy, irritability, brain fog, and loss of productivity.

Well, what if we told you that the best natural sleep aid isn’t something you can buy? It’s something you can do — and it won’t require you to get out your credit card or arrange for shipping. 

It starts with getting to know your circadian rhythm, your internal body clock, and tweaking your daily habits to set you up to get the sleep you need for more energy during the day. Being strategic about the timing of your light exposure, adjusting your daily habits, and setting up the best possible sleeping environment can help you trade poor sleep and low energy for the restorative sleep that will help you power up for a good day.

In this article, we’ll explain why the myriad sleep aids on the market simply cannot compare to your body’s built-in capacity for achieving naturalistic, restorative sleep. It’s just a matter of adopting the right sleep hygiene habits and working with your circadian rhythm to prime your body, your brain, and your environment for the best sleep you can get.

Naturalistic Sleep vs. Natural Sleep Aids

If you're having trouble sleeping but want to avoid the side effects of sleep medications, you might have heard of using homeopathic or natural remedies like valerian root, passionflower, lemon balm, essential oils, magnesium supplements, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), l-theanine, tryptophan, or 5-HTP. Clearly, there is no shortage of over-the-counter (OTC) sleep supplements claiming to give you better sleep.  

While herbal supplements and other dietary supplements may feel safer than sleep medicines because they’re labeled and marketed as “natural,” they often aren't closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means there’s no way to know if they’re completely safe, if they actually work, or if you’re even getting what’s printed on the bottle. The good news? You really don’t need them. 

Here’s the thing: Most of us are biologically good sleepers (more on sleep disruption caused by medical conditions later). It’s the things we do on a regular or even irregular basis that can impede our sleep — such as keeping an erratic sleep schedule, drinking caffeine too late in the day, using bright lights at night, and staying up too late — and make us think we need external help to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. 

In reality, you just need to remove those obstacles so that your body can do what it was born to do: get the naturalistic sleep you need to feel as good as possible and fuel your day.

But what exactly is naturalistic sleep? It’s the kind of fully restorative sleep you can get without common impediments — like the ones listed above and other life circumstances — that may stand in the way of your natural ability to get the amount of sleep your body biologically needs and cycle through the stages of sleep as your brain requires. Naturalistic sleep is the sleep you get without the use of sleeping pills or sleep-promoting supplements (the latter is what’s referred to as “manufactured” sleep). 

If you’re someone who often struggles to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, the best way to meet your sleep need with naturalistic sleep and keep your sleep debt low is to maintain circadian rhythm alignment through good sleep hygiene. If any of those terms sound unfamiliar, don’t worry. We’ll explain everything in the next section.

The Definition(s) of Better Sleep 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app keeps track of your sleep debt and maps your circadian rhythm, so you'll know when to expect your energy peaks and dips each day.

To untangle your sleep problems, start with the basics. Seeing how the different components of naturalistic sleep fit together will help you draw a clear line between your habits, how you sleep, and how you feel.

Sleep Need

How many hours of sleep should you be getting each night? That’s not a trick question. But it’s not a simple answer either because the exact number varies from person to person. Every individual requires a genetically determined amount of sleep that’s ideal for them. 

The RISE app uses data from your phone, along with sleep-science-based models, to learn your particular sleep biology and calculate your sleep need in hours and minutes. The more you fall short of meeting your sleep need, the more sleep debt you’ll accumulate.

Sleep Debt

A running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed (as compared to your sleep need) over the past 14 days, sleep debt is the single number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. Although maintaining a zero balance would be ideal, it’s usually not feasible or realistic. 

Rise recommends keeping your sleep debt below five hours. At that level, you can still feel good and function at or near your best. One of the keys to keeping your sleep debt low is circadian alignment.  

Circadian Rhythm

Heavily influenced by the changes in light associated with the rising and setting of the sun, your circadian rhythm is an internal body clock that governs the timing of your natural sleep-wake cycle and other bodily processes. In the RISE app, we call it your Energy Schedule because it also accounts for the natural peaks and dips in energy you experience during each roughly 24-hour period. 

Aligning your sleep schedule with your circadian rhythm will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. And what’s the key to circadian alignment? Good sleep hygiene.

Sleep Hygiene

The term “sleep hygiene” refers to the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep — from being strategic about the timing of your light exposure, caffeine, and alcohol consumption to exercising during the day and taking time to wind down at night. 

Following a specific set of sleep hygiene guidelines will go a long way toward helping you fall asleep more easily and meet your sleep need with naturalistic sleep. You can think of these habits and behaviors as the most powerful and natural sleep aids you’ll ever find — because that is exactly what they are.

Good Sleep Hygiene = The Best Natural Sleep Aid 

Best natural sleep aid: person pressing a "Change your Routine!" button

Rather than looking for “quick fix” sleeping pills or supplements to combat sleepless nights, taking a more holistic approach is the best way to get the naturalistic sleep your body needs. Following these sleep hygiene guidelines can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.

  • Stay on schedule: Because your circadian rhythm thrives on consistency, it’s important to stick to a regular wake time and bedtime. So do your best to avoid staying up too late and sleeping in too long on weekends, as the disruption in your sleep-wake cycle can lead to circadian misalignment. 
  • Step into the light: Getting natural light — outdoors most preferably and through a window as a last resort — soon after waking is one of the best ways to set yourself up for more energy during the day and better sleep at night. Exposing your eyes to sunlight in the morning helps increase your body’s production of serotonin, a precursor to the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Hours later, after the onset of darkness, the serotonin will be converted into melatonin to help promote better sleep that night.
  • Move that body: In addition to the cardiovascular benefits it provides, physical activity during the day can actually make it easier to fall asleep at night. Just don’t put your workout off until the last possible moment because exercising during the hours before bed can raise your body temperature and disrupt your sleep.
  • Stop sleep sabotage: Because alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals all have the potential to disrupt your sleep, be mindful of when you consume them. It’s best to avoid caffeine 10 hours before bed, big meals three hours before bed, and alcohol 3-4 hours before bed. (The RISE app will tell you the exact time, based on your unique biology, to start limiting each one.) Although some people mistakenly believe a night cap is a sleep aid, alcohol actually leads to sleep fragmentation. It’s a sneaky sedative that causes drowsiness at first, but later causes you to wake up a number of times during the night. And even one drink too close to bedtime can suppress melatonin production.
  • Embrace the dark: Since darkness is the brain’s primary signal to ramp up melatonin production, it’s important to avoid or minimize your light exposure — especially bright light and blue light — in the hour or two before bedtime. But because operating in complete darkness can be difficult, blue-light blocking glasses are a must-have accessory to prevent light from interfering with sleepiness at night.
  • Take time to unwind: Instituting a nightly wind-down period can help you disconnect from the stress and busyness of the day as you approach your bedtime. For some people, journaling or listening to relaxing music helps calm the mind. For others, sipping chamomile tea while reading a chapter of a novel can have a calming effect.
  • Warm up to cool down: It may sound counterintuitive, but taking a hot bath or shower before bed can help your body cool down in preparation for sleep. Because heat from the water causes blood vessels near the surface of your skin to dilate, as soon as you step out of the water and your skin is exposed to cool air, your body responds by accelerating the process of cooling itself back down. A lower body temperature makes it easier to transition into sleep.
  • Create a sleep sanctuary: To optimize your sleep, keep your bedroom cool (65-68 degrees), dark, and quiet. Blackout curtains or blinds, an eye mask, and ear plugs can help you create the perfect environment for getting the sleep your body needs. 

For more information and sleep hygiene tips, check out our step-by-step Sleep Guide. We also dive deeper into 6 science-backed ways to sleep without sleeping pills here.

What About Melatonin Supplements?

Of all of the sleep supplements available on the market, high-quality melatonin supplements are the ones most likely to be worth the investment. Of course, practicing good sleep hygiene to support our bodies’ natural melatonin production is the best way to achieve naturalistic sleep, but there are certain situations where a melatonin supplement can be useful.

If you’re boarding a long flight and you know jet lag usually makes it difficult to adjust your sleep schedule to a new time zone, packing a bottle of melatonin in your carry-on, or using it to shift your sleep schedule in advance, might not be a bad idea. Likewise, melatonin supplements may help shift workers sleep during the day when they have to work the night shift. 

Persistent Insomnia? Talk to Your Doctor

In some cases, even flawless sleep hygiene is just not enough. If sleepless nights are negatively impacting your health or quality of life, it’s probably time to consult your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. He or she might recommend relaxation techniques or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). 

If it turns out that your chronic insomnia stems from a sleep disorder or another underlying health condition, your doctor may want to explore treatment options tailored to your specific issues before addressing their associated sleep problems. 

Sleep Is Your Superpower No “Magic” Pill Needed 

Person waking up and stretching

With the ever-increasing number of products being marketed as natural sleep aids, trying to separate the potentially worthwhile supplements from the snake oil pills can feel almost impossible. It’s a good thing you don’t have to bother with all that. After all, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, better sleep is always within reach because good sleep hygiene is something you can control.

When you realize you have the power to make the little changes that add up to a big difference in your sleep, you can get on the right track for more energy and better days. And the RISE app makes the perfect companion for just such a quest. It gives you a clear picture of your circadian rhythm, keeps track of your sleep debt, and sends you reminders about your sleep hygiene habits. It's time to make the sleep and daily energy you’ve always dreamed of a part of your everyday life.


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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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