“There is an interesting culture-wide presumption that you can swallow sleep—that somehow sleep can secretly be contained in a supplement or medication or turkey drumstick and a glass of milk,” says University of Arizona’s Rubin Naiman. Although he suggests sleep aids to patients, he emphasizes, “By no way do we want to convey to people that a supplement can displace their sleep. People should think about supplements as an appetizer. It can remind them of the taste of sleep, and that can be positive.” 

Sleeping pills, says Naiman, actually damage REM sleep and suppress deep sleep. “Sleeping pills cause counterfeit sleep. It looks like sleep, but it’s not. There is no known medication that replicates normal sleep.

“To sleep well, it is important to have good health. It’s fine to use supplements intelligently, but always couple the use with a behavioral- or lifestyle-change program. You don’t want to be patching something up without addressing the original cause.” Naiman adds that it’s important not to undermine sleep self-efficacy and have people lose faith in themselves that they can’t sleep. “Everyone can sleep.” 

See also 6 Methods for Better Sleep. 

Be sure to consult a sleep specialist or a physician before taking any sleep medications.

Melatonin

Although we naturally produce this hormone, which is involved in the sleep cycle, we tend to take it to help us fall asleep and feel rested when waking. But, Naiman says too often people take too high of a dose. “Generally, less is more. Smaller doses are actually more effective.” He also suggests taking a time-released formulation. “Melatonin normally rises very slowly in the blood and peaks out in the last third of the night. When you take a large, regular dose, you get a release pattern that is opposite of what nature does.” Naiman recommends taking ½ milligram to 1 milligram from a reputable brand. “Good quality, low dose, time release.”

Valerian

In small doses, valerian is used to reduce anxiety; in larger doses it is used for sleep, says Naiman. “Studies show that in contrast to sleeping pills, it does not suppress REM sleep, nor does it suppress deep sleep.” The catch, he says, is that it can take a week or two for it to take effect, but once it does, it will keep working. Naiman recommends trying 500 milligrams of the whole ground root to reduce anxiety. For sleep, you can take up to 800 to 1,200 milligrams. This, he says, can also help people come off other medications. Yet he suggests using this for only a short time, until your body gets the hang of sleeping again. Then use it only occasionally, as needed. 

L-theanine

Like tryptophan, L-theanine is an amino acid, which can offset anxiety before bed. Sometimes fending off anxiety is all people need to sleep, says Naiman. He recommends 150 to 200 milligrams, and a maximum of 300 milligrams, before bed.