Do Sleep Aids Really Help You Fall Asleep — & Stay Asleep?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Nicole McDermott
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Sleep — many of us would like to know how to get more of it, how to do it better, and how to make it easier. (Plus, who wouldn't want to become a morning person?) The average human spends more than a third of his or her life catching ZZZs.
Recently, we published a list of 27 ways to sleep better, full of tips such as journaling, exercising, ditching coffee in the afternoon and evening hours, and sniffing lavender. One of the entries suggested popping a magnesium supplement before bedtime to bring on the sleepiness. I’d never heard of this technique before, and I wanted to find out what the deal was — with magnesium and other sleep aids. Are they effective? Would I snooze through my alarm? Would I wake up feeling like I could do 50 pull-ups?
Before I began test-driving sleep-inducing capsules, teas, drinks, and even a lip balm, I wanted to see what the research had to say. Ahead, find the science behind the substances — and learn which sleep aids left me energized in the morning, vs. those that turned me into a commuting zombie.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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Melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the body, and it helps adjust the body’s internal clock. The melatonin used as a sleep aid is usually made synthetically in a lab. While many studies connect melatonin to improved sleep — plus less time to fall asleep, higher quality sleep, and more total sleep — more research is needed to determine melatonin supplementation’s safety over the long term. Though studies suggest it’s safe for short-term use, there’s no evidence that melatonin is an effective treatment for the long haul.
One controversial issue surrounding melatonin has to do with its possible down-regulation — meaning the body starts to produce even less melatonin because it thinks 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 use (we’re talking just a few weeks) likely won’t cause a measurable drop in the body’s ability to naturally produce it.
NatureMade VitaMelts Sleep
After dissolving one small, three-milligram tablet on my tongue (sans water), I couldn’t help but want to eat the darn things as candy; they have a delicious, chocolate-mint flavor. I fell asleep fairly easily and woke up without the same level of drowsiness that I normally have. I did, however, wake up in the middle of the night with a sneezing fit, though it will remain a mystery whether or not the sneeze and the sleep aid were connected.
Natrol Melatonin Fast Dissolve
These tablets also melted on the tongue (no water necessary). I was extra curious about how they would make me feel; at six milligrams, they’re nearly double the strength of the other melatonin supplements 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 I passed out after about 15 minutes. The whole morning was a foggy, sleepy haze — even though I'd slept a good seven and a half hours.
Valerian Root
A tall, flowering grassland plant, valerian may improve sleep quality without producing harmful side effects. 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 inconclusive.
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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 appears that standard dosage is unclear, and valerian seems most effective after you take it 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.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Magnesium
Many Americans are magnesium deficient, often due to low levels in their diets. This condition has been tied to poor sleep quality, though it’s unclear whether low magnesium levels are a cause or a byproduct of poor sleep. While magnesium is known for its sleep benefits, I also tried ZMA, a magnesium-containing supplement that's popular for promoting restfulness. A small study found that, when used in conjunction with melatonin, zinc and magnesium appeared to improve the quality of sleep in an elderly population with insomnia.
Natural Vitality Natural Calm
Dubbed the “anti-stress drink,” this magnesium supplement comes in powder form (you stir two to three ounces of it in water). So, I stirred my sleep cocktail — made up of both magnesium and calcium — and sipped it before bed (though the label suggests divvying it up into two or three servings throughout the day for best results). I didn't notice any radical results after one night.
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True Athlete ZMA With Theanine
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 training. When I took the two capsules an hour before bedtime (the recommended dose for women), I didn’t have the same Ooh, I’m so sleepy feeling as I did with some of the other sleep aids. I did sleep through the night without waking up, though — but I often do that. I woke up without much grogginess, though I then proceeded to fall right asleep on the train, for 40 minutes, despite having just slept for over eight hours.
L-Theanine
A water-soluble amino acid found in mushrooms and green tea, L-theanine is consumed for its relaxant effects (as well as its high levels of antioxidants). Though this amino acid is extracted from green tea leaves, known for their ability to energize and revitalize, L-theanine may actually inhibit the excitatory effects of caffeine. In boys diagnosed with ADHD (a disorder known to disrupt sleep) L-theanine was found to be safe and effective in improving some aspects of sleep quality.
NatureMade VitaMelts Relax
These meltable tablets, in a green-tea-mint flavor, were definitely tasty. True to its title, this "Relax" 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 into bed, and my body immediately felt tranquil. I could have probably stayed up and read for a while, but getting up to go to the bathroom or shut off the light seemed like a physical feat I preferred not to participate in.
Vitamin Shoppe L-Theanine
One capsule delivers 100 milligrams of L-Theanine to promote relaxation. As with the NatureMade VitaMelts, I felt like this product made my body physically tired and relaxed, but not in the same way that melatonin made my eyes and head feel sleepy.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
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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 urine.
RutaSleep
This 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 your system. In fact, I was actually instructed by one of RutaSleep’s creators to drink some extra caffeine late in the day before testing out a sample. This sounded crazy, especially because it seemed obvious that coffee after dinner would leave me restless by bedtime. But, despite the extra caffeine consumption, I had no trouble conking off after taking RutaSleep; I felt as sleepy as I would any other night after a long day.
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. 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 terrors. 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, while increasing the duration and quality of sleep. I wasn’t a big fan of how this stuff tasted — probably because I had just brushed my teeth — but 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, which includes melatonin, is that it’s got a combination of antioxidants that can supposedly repair cells. When I used this supplement, I didn’t feel as groggy the next morning as when I took melatonin by itself. In addition to valerian and melatonin, this sleep aid also includes vitamin-E, L-Glutamine, calcium, and grapeseed extract. Vitamin E, an antioxidant, can protect the body against the oxidative stress that comes with sleep deprivation. Grapeseed oil has been recognized for its powerful antioxidants, especially vitamin E and flavonoids. And, for people with sleep apnea, antioxidant intake may improve quality of sleep.
Badger Sleep Balm
According to Badger, sleep balm doesn’t make people sleepy — but rubbing the balm on the lips, temples, neck, and/or face is said to help quiet thoughts and clear the mind. The product — which includes essential oils such as rosemary, bergamot, lavender, balsam fir, and ginger — is formulated “for nights when you can’t seem to stop the mind chatter,” the brand explains. Badger (and other essential oil resources) says rosemary is known for promoting clear thinking. Similarly, bergamot is said to be mentally uplifting, ginger to be strengthening and confidence-inducing, and balsam fir to be refreshing. There are few scientific studies backing these claims; however, relatively small studies show that lavender may be beneficial for those with insomnia and depression. All in all, I really like the moisturizing effects of this balm, and now I use it every night before bed. I’m not sure of its ability to clear thoughts and relax the mind, but it certainly smells nice.
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Yogi Bedtime Tea
I tried two flavors: Soothing Caramel Bedtime, which includes chamomile flower, skullcap, California poppy, L-Theanine, and rooiboos, and Bedtime, which includes valerian, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, and passionflower. I really liked how the caramel-flavored tea tasted — sweet and spicy. The plain, Bedtime tea wasn’t as tasty. For me, the act of drinking tea is relaxing in the first place — sleep-inducing ingredients or otherwise. One study suggests that passionflower, in the form of tea, may yield short-term sleep benefits. Though chamomile is the most commonly used herb for sleep disorders, there’s not a lot of research out there to support its efficacy. 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 abilities 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 has been found to help improve sleep quality. While jujube oil has exhibited a sedative effect in mice, the research on lemon balm and chamomile is even more limited. These little drinks come in three flavors — berry, lemon ginger, and peach. The taste was okay — 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, I 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 ZZZs — 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 on a regular basis. For a temporary bout of restlessness, I’d likely suggest Sleepytime Snooz or Dream Water as my favorites. 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 actually need to rely on pills, teas, or sleep-inducing drinks for high-quality slumber.
Disclaimer: These sleep-aid trials are a compilation of my own (very short) case experiences. I took these aids sporadically over a three-week period, and I tried them for a minimum of one night each, generally about 30 minutes before bedtime. It’s important to remember that these short tests were personal trials and in no way a controlled clinical study. This article was not controlled for diet or other drug reactions. Please consult your health care provider before starting any supplement regimen.