Person clutching a pillow in front of their face, as if struggling to sleep

Does This Thing Work? Sleep Experts Share the Truth About 4 Common Sleep Aids

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Samantha Domingo, Psy.D.
February 12, 2024

Sleep. We all need plenty of it, but the trials of everyday life can make it difficult to get enough sometimes. The result? Nearly one-fifth of adults don't get enough rest each night. When you’re craving a good night’s sleep, it can be tempting to run to the pharmacy or health store to pick up something over the counter to help ease the way to slumber. But do these sleep aids work as promised?

We turned to sleep experts for their insight into the safety and effectiveness of these common sleep aids, plus their tips for getting more restful shut-eye, supplement free.

1. Melatonin

When it gets dark outside, your body naturally produces a hormone called melatonin, which helps encourage sleep. It’s also available as a supplement, and there's some research that suggests it's effective, especially for sleep problems like jet lag.

“Over-the-counter melatonin can be used to shorten sleep latency [the amount of time it takes to fall asleep] in small doses,” says Philip Greenspan, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at Northeast Medical Group, part of Yale New Haven Health, in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Depending on what time of day you took it, how many hours before you lie down or wake up, or what time you’d like to go to bed, it could be more or less effective.” He recommends working with your doctor or a sleep specialist if you’d like to use melatonin.

This sleep aid is also safe for most people to use, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). However, melatonin is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means products can vary. Use caution when buying a supplement, and look for or ask your doctor for reputable brands.

There’s also not much research into melatonin’s safety for long-term use, so talk to your doctor about how long to use it. And if melatonin isn’t working for you as a sleep aid after a week or two, stop using it, advises the NCCIH.

2. Valerian Root

The root of the valerian plant has been used for thousands of years to help treat insomnia, fatigue, migraine, and stomach cramps, according to the NCCIH. Although it appears to be safe for short-term use, the safety of long-term use is unknown. What’s more, it’s not clear whether it’s effective in helping a person doze off and sleep well.

“Studies on valerian root are small, and the data is mixed,” says Shiven Chaudhry, M.D., an integrative medicine specialist with a private practice in Las Vegas. A 2020 review published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine suggests that valerian root may help promote sleep in some people, but outcomes were pretty inconsistent. Researchers attributed that to the variable quality of herbal extracts, related to such factors as their shelf life and methods of manufacturing. So, results may vary.

3. Tryptophan

Tryptophan is needed to help create hormones that regulate sleep—namely, melatonin and serotonin. It's found in food sources like turkey, chicken, fish, soy beans, milk, and peanuts. A study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology suggests that eating foods with tryptophan may improve sleep quality by boosting natural melatonin levels.

Although tryptophan is safe to consume in foods, it may cause minor side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness when taken in supplement form (known as L-tryptophan), according to the Mayo Clinic.

While we know that tryptophan has a role in regulating sleep, there’s not yet enough data available to support using it as a supplement for sleeplessness, Chaudhry says.

4. Antihistamines

Over-the-counter antihistamines are designed to treat allergies and colds. Because they also tend to cause drowsiness, some people have used antihistamines off-label—that is, to treat a condition for which the drug wasn’t officially approved—to aid sleep. But it turns out, that's usually not a great option.

“Antihistamines can shorten the [time it takes to fall asleep] a little bit, but they don't necessarily get you deeper sleep or keep you asleep,” Greenspan says.

There are other reasons to avoid these as sleep aids, Chaudry adds. “Newer research suggests that they actually worsen the quality of sleep, as they change the sleep architecture and how much time people spend in REM [rapid eye movement] and deep sleep,” he says.

Antihistamines can also cause next-day drowsiness, as well as side effects like dry mouth, difficulty urinating, vision changes, and heart arrhythmias, Chaudhry says. These risks can be greater in older adults.

Bottom Line: Do Sleep Aids Work?

Other sleep aids are available, as well—although research is also limited on them, Chaudhry says. These include lavender, passion flower, hops, kava, and ashwagandha. But these and most over-the-counter sleep aids are not the magic bullets they’re marketed as.

"In general, sleep aids are not very effective,” Greenspan says. “While some of them can make you more tired, they probably aren't going to improve the quality of your sleep.”

Chaudhry agrees. “Generally, I do not recommend sleep aids for occasional sleeplessness—but on a case-by-case basis, they may be used,” he says. He also advises that sleep aids should not be used long term.

If you do choose to try a supplement for sleep, check with your doctor first to make sure it won’t interact with any medication you’re currently taking, Greenspan says. If you’re pregnant, it’s especially important to check with your doctor before trying any sleep aid, even a natural one.

“When using supplements, it’s best to work with a doctor who is familiar with interactions, safety profile, and side effects,” Chaudhry says.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without Supplements

So, with limited evidence on how well these options work, what’s a person to do? Greenspan recommends skipping the supplements and trying the following techniques:

  • Stimulus control. This means using your bed only for sleep and sex. If you’re not doing either of those things, find somewhere else to be. “If you're tossing and turning after trying for 20 minutes to sleep, get out of bed. Go to a different room and open a boring book and relax until you feel tired—and then go back to bed," Greenspan says. In addition, keep your phone or clock turned away so you aren't staring at the time, getting frustrated that you can't sleep.
  • Sleep hygiene. This involves tips like going to bed and getting up at around the same time each day, even on weekends and nonwork days, and avoiding caffeine after the early afternoon. These techniques can help keep your sleep-wake cycles more regular, which will encourage better sleep.

Chaudhry also recommends good nutrition, mind-body medicine (things like meditation, breathwork, yoga, and tai chi), light therapy, and exercise as better options for managing occasional sleeplessness.

If sleep issues start to affect your functioning, or if struggling to sleep is making you feel anxious, talk to your doctor or a mental health treatment provider. There are many effective strategies and treatments for improving your sleep. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is a brief, evidence-based treatment that helps you learn strategies to clarify and reframe challenging thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that contribute to the symptoms of insomnia. This can help promote more restful sleep.

Your doctor can also talk to you about your sleep habits and identify other opportunities for improving your rest.

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