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Sleep Supplements: Benefit or Danger to Healthy Sleep?

It’s understandable to want a quick fix when you’re tired and lack energy. But sleep supplements aren’t the answer for the naturalistic sleep your body needs.
12 MINS

Scrolling through Instagram stories, you come across a promo for CBD gummies for sleep. Pausing the ad, a light bulb goes off in your head, and you think you've found the cure to sleepless nights.

Unfortunately, sleep supplements aren't the cure-all marketing ads make them out to be. Sure, they may help in certain situations, like travel jet lag and shift work. But, in general, sleep aids are not a viable long-term solution to catching zzz's at night.

Below, we explain how sleep aids work and why you should use them sparingly. For the record, we stand by improving your sleep hygiene as the best way to help you get the naturalistic, healthy sleep your body needs.

Please note: The information provided is not intended as medical advice.

Manufactured Sleep Is a Long Way Off From Naturalistic Sleep

sleep supplements: man sleeping soundly with his mouth open

The use of sleep aids is steadily rising as we grapple with sleep problems more than ever. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 56% of Americans experienced a rise in sleep problems ever since 2020. This coincided with a boom in sleep aid consumption — melatonin supplement sales surged 42.6% in 2020, raking in roughly $825 million alone. In 2019, one study reported that as many as 35.4% of older adults aged 65-80 use over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids, including herbal supplements.

The growing reliance on sleep medications raises concern, primarily because these aids "manufacture" sleep — a far cry from the naturalistic, healthy sleep your body needs, which incidentally depends on the two laws of sleep. Sleep aids disrupt the two laws of sleep by:

  • Inflating your sleep debt (the amount of sleep you've missed out on in the past 14 days), and
  • Thwarting your circadian rhythm (the body's internal clock)

To envision how sleep drugs aggravate sleep debt, we'll use benzodiazepine (a prescription sedative for insomnia and anxiety) as an example. Scientific evidence indicates benzodiazepine reduces REM sleep, an essential sleep stage for creativity and emotions. Benzodiazepine withdrawal also manifests as REM sleep rebound (you spend longer in REM sleep than usual), potentially disrupting your natural sleep patterns. Consequently, you aren't meeting your sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs), leading to greater sleep debt.

Sleep medicines can also throw off your body clock, inciting circadian misalignment. Many OTC antihistamines are used to induce sleep but affect daytime functioning. Case in point: Benadryl contains diphenhydramine, a sedating antihistamine that inhibits acetylcholine activity. For the uninitiated, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that regulates vital brain functions like alertness, learning, and memory. As a result of this blocking mechanism, sleep inertia (wake-up grogginess) worsens, and you struggle to wake up the next morning. Daytime drowsiness also intensifies, flattening your energy peaks and deepening your energy dips.

When you experience grogginess and drowsiness from sleep medicine, you're probably reaching for your coffee mug more frequently than before. Be warned, though, this could be further adding to your poor sleep, as caffeine can stay in your system for up to 10 hours. Drinking it too close to your bedtime makes it harder for you to fall asleep, contributing to a vicious cycle of ever-growing sleep debt and subpar energy levels.

The Perils of Sleep Medications

Aside from feeling lousy the next day, OTC and prescription sleep drugs pose long-term health risks, too. According to a 2015 study, regular consumption of "diphenhydramine found in two Benadryl or two Extra Strength Tylenol PM pills" over 10 years significantly heightened one's risk for dementia.

Most alarmingly, sleep medications are closely associated with early death. A large-scale study involving more than 30,000 individuals compared those who were prescribed hypnotic sleep aids against others with similar health histories but did not take sleeping pills. The findings were harrowing:

  • The sleep aid group was "more than four times as likely to have died" during the follow-up 2.5 years later than those who didn't take the pills
  • The prescription group also showed a "35% increased risk of cancer" than the placebo group
  • Consuming less than 18 sleeping pills a year is sufficient to increase your mortality rate by three-fold

Indeed, these results are more than enough to keep you up at night.

Unpopular Opinion: Natural Sleep Supplements Aren't Any Better

pills spilling from a paper bag

Given the less-than-laudable effects of OTC and prescription sleep drugs, many may turn to natural sleep supplements with the mindset that “natural” means “better.” Unfortunately, sleep supplements aren’t closely regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). In which case, issues of product safety and quality control abound. For example, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that melatonin supplements from 16 different brands showed a broad discrepancy range of 83% less to 478% more active ingredients than what the labels claimed.

But the lack of product regulation is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to natural remedies for sleep. These dietary supplements often come with unwanted side effects and scanty clinical evidence that will make you think twice before consuming them.

Here are some of the most commonly used natural sleep aids:

  • Melatonin: Your body already produces sufficient melatonin levels on its own — a far superior version than the bottled and pilled forms in your local drugstore. Some melatonin supplements contain serotonin (a mood-regulating neurotransmitter), which can be harmful at low doses.
  • CBD (cannabidiol): CBD (extracted from the cannabis plant) is another popular sleep aid. Not many people realize that it’s better at calming anxiety than promoting sleep, and any observed sleep improvements did not last long. CBD may also interact with other drugs like blood thinners. Possible side effects include fatigue and dry eyes.
  • Magnesium: Research suggests magnesium boosts GABA production in the body, contributing to a calmer state of mind to induce sleep. As this mineral is naturally synthesized in our bodies, the sleep-related benefits are more pronounced for those with magnesium deficiency.
  • Valerian root: This sleep-promoting herbal supplement may reduce anxiety and has been reported to improve “sleep quality” (even though there is no scientific consensus on what "sleep quality" means). Of significance, valerian has been implicated in herb-induced liver injuries, which begs for careful consideration before supplementing with it.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile is another calming herbal supplement that encourages relaxation to help you fall asleep more easily. That said, chamomile can cause drowsiness and even vomiting in large doses.
  • Passionflower: Although this herbal remedy is widely used for insomnia, the scientific literature casts some doubts on its efficacy. One human study highlighted passionflower tea led to subjective improvements in sleep but not objective ones.
  • Tryptophan (l-tryptophan): Tryptophan is an essential amino acid obtained through dietary and supplementary means. Although tryptophan may be used to improve sleep, it can trigger drowsiness, nausea, and dizziness. When taken with antidepressants, tryptophan "enhances serotonin function," which may incite severe side effects like delirium and coma.
  • L-theanine: This amino acid, present in green and black teas, helps soothe anxiety and stress without causing sleepiness. That said, more research is needed on its dosage recommendations and long-term use to determine its efficacy and safety.

As you can see, many of these sleep supplements don't work directly on sleep parameters, like improving sleep efficiency (how much time you spend asleep while in bed). Instead, they focus on relaxing your mind and body to encourage restful sleep, which incidentally can be achieved with good sleep hygiene — minus the side effects mentioned above.

How to Use Sleep Supplements — If You Want to Take a Chance on Them

sleep supplements: woman drinking water

As much as we don't advocate sleep aids, we acknowledge there may be a time and place for them. For example, melatonin supplements can help with insomnia, shift work, jet lag, and resetting your sleep-wake cycle in the short term (although the scientific literature weakly recommends them). 

Doctors may prescribe sleeping pills for patients who have just completed surgery to ease their pain and fall asleep more easily. If you plan to take a sleep supplement or OTC sleep aid, always consult your primary doctor to ensure your compatibility and avoid potential drug interactions. Follow the dosage and frequency of use specified on the product packaging or per your doctor's instructions. The same goes for prescription sleep aids.

That being said, sleep supplements and drugs should only be used as a temporary stop-gap. Research highlights these aids tend to lose their effectiveness after the first few nights. For most of us, natural sleep supplements like melatonin and magnesium aren't even necessary — your body is already secreting enough of them to help you meet your sleep need naturally. Rather than resort to sleep aids, the trick is to improve your sleep hygiene. 

Check out our step-by-step Sleep Guide for tips on how to do that.

If you still have trouble sleeping even after rigorously practicing good sleep hygiene, it's time to consult a sleep specialist. Perhaps you have a sleep disorder or an underlying medical condition preventing you from meeting your sleep need. Your healthcare professional may also recommend other long-term sleep strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) and relaxation techniques in place of sleep aids. These strategies are less likely to trigger drug dependency, withdrawal symptoms, and unwanted health consequences over time.

Ditch the Supplements; Embrace Good Sleep Hygiene

Instead of researching the best sleep supplements, you need to ask yourself, “Why am I not sleeping well?” Most of the time, the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night is due to poor sleep hygiene

The RISE app uses the two laws of sleep to help you improve your daytime and nighttime behaviors to keep your sleep debt low and your circadian rhythm on track. This helps you get the sleep you need the natural way for better energy during the day — all without sleep aids.

Sleep better. Sell more.

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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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