Consider the unflagging popularity of energy drinks, shots, and supplements—not to mention coffee—and it’s clear that Americans feel tired. Yet for many, ironically, good-quality rest is elusive.
Blame it on chronic stress; depression, anxiety, or pain; or simply a compulsion for catching up on Facebook, emails, or favorite TV shows. More than ever, it can be hard to throttle down at the end of the day. And unfortunately, insomnia’s prevalence increases with age.
Inadequate rest is more than just frustrating: Poor sleep has been linked to a greater risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Sleeping pills may help with acute sleep-disturbance problems but generally aren’t helpful for chronic insomnia.
Plus, most carry risky side effects, including addiction or even an increased risk of early mortality. In contrast, the handful of nonaddictive, natural alternatives presented here may gently adjust your body and brain chemistry, promoting relaxation and making it easier to drift off to sleep.
Found primarily in green tea, L-theanine boosts alpha waves in the brain, promoting mental focus and relaxation. Stronger-flavored (and longer-brewed) varieties of Camellia sinensis, such as green and black teas, contain more L-theanine. Some research suggests it helps counter caffeine’s stimulating effects. L-theanine capsules contain no caffeine.
Dose: 50–200 mg up to three times daily.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid serves both as an amino acid, or protein building block, and as a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. It helps the brain filter out the extraneous, thereby promoting a calmer mood. It may be beneficial to combine GABA with L-theanine.
Dose: 500 mg one to three times daily, at least one hour apart from food.
You often store tension in your muscles, making it difficult to relax. Muscle cramps are a common sign of magnesium deficiency, according to Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, medical director of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. Magnesium helps the body relax and produce serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. Choose a well- absorbed form such as magnesium citrate.
Dose: 200 mg twice daily.
L-tryptophan and 5-HTP
L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) are two forms of the same nutrient, an amino acid that serves as a key building block of serotonin and, indirectly, of melatonin. Either form can help you drift off to sleep.
Dose: 50 mg 5-HTP three times daily, with the last dose about 30–60 minutes before bedtime; 500–1,000 mg L-tryptophan before bed.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your circadian, or daily, body rhythm. Melatonin levels normally increase toward nightfall, making you sleepy, and then decrease toward morning. When it’s cloudy or when you spend too much time indoors, you’re less likely to dispose of excess melatonin, leaving you feeling sleepy when you should be sharp. To reset your body clock, start with a low dose. Many people can take up to 3 mg nightly. Don’t drive after taking melatonin, and don’t combine it with alcohol or other sedatives.
Dose: 250–500 mcg one to two hours before bedtime.
Valerian and hops
Traditional sedative herbs, valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and hops (Humulus lupulus) have been used for millennia as folk treatments for insomnia. Several recent studies confirm that taking the herbs together can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve overall sleep quality. Both herbs are available in capsules and tinctures that may contain other soporifics.
Dose: Follow label directions.