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6 Natural Sleep Aids That Actually Work! (& Aren’t Melatonin)

If you have trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. Nearly 50% of older adults suffer from insomnia, trouble getting to sleep, waking up early, or feeling groggy upon waking. And not getting enough quality sleep is an expensive business…

Consumer Reports estimates Americans will spend $52 billion on sleep aids by 2020! Currently, $378 million is spent annually on melatonin alone –– a brain hormone that helps regulate your body clock. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

After all, melatonin is a common entry on sleeping aid lists. But while there’s some encouraging research behind the effectiveness of supplemental melatonin, it doesn’t work for everybody. Plus, the chances are you’ve already heard of (or maybe even tried) melatonin, so it doesn’t make my list!

Instead, I want to share some natural sleep aids you may not have heard of before. They could be just the remedy for restless nights you’ve been looking for. AND, some of these natural sleep aids work wonders for your bone health too!


Understanding Your Sleep Cycle

You might be surprised to learn there’s more than one phase of sleep. And if any of these several stages are disturbed, it can mean you’re not getting the most out of the time you’re asleep.

To get a better understanding of how natural sleep aids work, first, I’ll give you a quick run-down of the several stages of sleep and how your body is affected by each.

Although the first stages of sleep are non-REM (rapid eye movement), they’re still critical for getting sound sleep throughout the night. Some stages focus on helping you feel rested while others help you learn information and even form memories.

Note: Stages 1-4 are called non-REM sleep, so they’re denoted as “N.”

N1: Light Sleep

Duration: 5 to 10 minutes
During this stage of your sleep cycle, you’ll drift in and out of awakeness or “half-awake”. If you have slight muscle contractions or the sensation of falling as you begin to drift off, you’re in the N1 phase.

Your muscle activity slows in this important stage of sleep too.

It’s very easy to be woken up if you’re in the light sleep stage. So many natural sleep remedies focus on relaxing you just enough to allow you to pass into the next stages. I’ll discuss some of these options further into the article.

N2: Deeper Sleep

Duration: 5 to 15 minutes

In this stage, your body begins preparing for deep sleep. Your eyes are closed, and you’re less affected by surrounding elements, which makes you less likely to be woken up. But stage 2 poses the most difficulty for those with sleeping disorders such as insomnia.

You probably won’t be aware, but your body will be making the following changes to gear up towards much-needed REM sleep….

  • Drop in Body Temperature
  • Slowed Heart Rate
  • Eye Movement Stops
  • Brain Waves Become Slower
  • Muscle Relaxation

Surprisingly, you’ll spend more time in repeated stage 2 sleep cycles than any other stage.

N3 and N4: Deepest Sleep

During stages 3 and 4, you’ll get a lasting, deep, restorative sleep. Your muscles fully relax, your breathing slows, and your blood pressure drops.

These are also the stages where tissue growth and repair happens.

When you’re in stages 3 or 4 of your sleep cycle, it can be difficult to wake you up. In fact, people who sleepwalk often do so in stages 3 and 4.

You’re in a deep sleep that restores energy levels so you can feel rested and prepared for the day ahead.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement): Dreaming, Active Sleep

Aptly named, REM sleep is the rapid side to side movement of your eyes behind closed eyelids.

REM sleep typically occurs about 90-minutes after you fall asleep. Although a whopping 75% of sleep is non-REM, both your body and mind benefit greatly from REM sleep. I know, it’s hard to believe that only a quarter of your sleep is REM, yet, it’s so important.

See, REM sleep can counteract forgetfulness and promote healthy memory function. This is also the stage where dreaming occurs. While your body is fully relaxed, your brain is completely active.

As your body cycles through the stages of sleep, you should be energized in the morning. If you’re waking up groggy or not refreshed, you’re likely not getting enough good REM sleep.


6 Natural Sleep Aids

Conventional sleep aids can be expensive. What’s more, they can have some harmful side effects –– both short- and long-term –– too! Although you may get to sleep a little faster, you’ll probably wake up feeling groggy the next day. Your concentration, memory, and daily performance can all be affected as well.

Using traditional sleep aids long-term can leave you feeling dependent. You may find yourself increasing the dosages just to get the same results you got a week or two ago.

So, let’s explore some natural alternatives.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are a great natural sleep aid for those that have difficulty getting to sleep initially. And they’ve been studied as a safe alternative to pharmaceutical interventions for people with mild to moderate sleep disturbances.

While any aromatherapy can get you in the right mood for sleep, some are scientifically supported to reduce stress, increase relaxation, and even increase the percentage of deep sleep you get.

One of the most studied and popular of them all is lavender. According to a study published in The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research, lavender acts as a mild sedative in both men and women when it’s used in aromatherapy.

Lavender was found to increase deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) in both men and women. Participants also reported ‘higher vigor’ in the mornings after lavender exposure, which is linked to restorative slow-wave sleep. In terms of the sleep stages discussed above, lavender increased stage 2 (light) sleep and decreased REM sleep, including the amount of time to reach wakefulness after first falling asleep in women, with opposite effects in men.

So lavender may serve as a mild sedative and has practical applications for promoting sleep in men and women.

Additional studies on lavender have shown it’s also effective as:

  • A sleep aid in hospitalized patients. Lavender has been shown to be effective in improving sleep in hospitalized patients, where sleep deprivation is common. A lack of sleep can also have serious effects on recovery from illness. A study published in the American Journal of Critical Care showed that lavender aromatherapy was an effective way to improve sleep in an immediate care unit, which included reports of significantly lower blood pressure in patients.
  • An effective way to improve sleep quality in college students. Lavender inhalation patches (worn on the chest at night) have been shown to improve sleep quality for students with self-reported sleep issues in one randomized control trial.
  • An aromatherapy used for relaxation, depression, and anxiety disorders related to stress. One study published in Nursing in Critical Care saw reduced levels of anxiety and increased quality of sleep in patients with coronary artery disease. Concluding that lavender as an aromatherapy may be a non-invasive, inexpensive, and easily applied nursing intervention for appropriate cardiac patients.

While lavender may be one of the most studied, it isn’t the only essential oil with science-backed sleep and health benefits.

Frankincense and bergamot have also been used as an effective essential oil for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. One study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice in 2016 used aroma sticks as a natural remedy in cancer patients. Patients with cancer can experience stress and anxiety, which often interferes with sleep.

To combat this, researchers gave out 65 aroma sticks (personal inhalers) over a 13-week period to cancer patients at a cancer center in the UK. Two blends were chosen by patients: bergamot and sandalwood; and frankincense, mandarin, and lavender. Results showed that 64% of patients reported an improvement on at least one point on a Likert scale (rating scale used in survey research) measuring their sleep quality. Plus, of the 94% of the patients who used their aroma stick, 92% said they would continue to do so.

If you’re looking for something to help you relax before bedtime, you might want to give vetiver oil a go. Vetiver oil, when used as aromatherapy, has been shown to alter the rate in which neurons are fired in your brain, causing a calm, relaxing feeling.

Other essential oils worth trying for a good night’s sleep include:

  • Ylang ylang
  • Roman Chamomile
  • Blue Chamomile
  • Marjoram

Whether you choose to diffuse your essential oil or use it topically, you’ll benefit from the relaxation associated with them and potentially lead to a long, restful sleep.

In fact, quite a few members of the AlgaeCal team own diffusers and use them regularly. The top essential oil picks from our team are; lavender, patchouli, neroli, and ylang-ylang.

Do you love diffusing essential oils in your home? Tell us your favorite scents by commenting below.

Real Food

Believe it or not, there are many foods you can eat to promote a night of healthy, sound sleep.

One study on the effects of the consumption of certain foods and restorative sleep for elite athletes has promising things to say. Consuming carbs and even tart cherry juice helps promote a deep, restorative sleep when eaten immediately before sleep.

In fact, this isn’t the first time cherry juice has been praised for its benefits on sleep- especially for older adults.

Research published in the Journal of Medicinal Food conducted a randomized, double-blind, crossover design study where each participant received both the treatment and the placebo for two weeks, with a two week’ washout period’ in between. Fifteen individuals, categorized as otherwise healthy apart from chronic insomnia, with an average age of 71 years old participated. During each two-week period, the participants were instructed to drink two 8-ounce servings of the assigned beverage (either the tart cherry juice or the placebo)—one in the morning and one at night before bed.

Sleep continuity was used (sleep onset, total sleep time, efficiency, and wake after sleep onset) as an assessment, which was recorded daily using a sleep diary. The results showed, “tart cherry juice was associated with significant pre to post-treatment improvements on all sleep variables.” That means tart cherry juice may provide a natural sleep remedy in older adults with insomnia.

Tryptophan is another great example. Tryptophan is an amino acid that increases your level of sleepiness AND decreases sleep latency (the amount of time it takes to get to sleep). See, your body uses tryptophan to make niacin– a B vitamin. And niacin is crucial for the formation of serotonin– a brain chemical that helps create a feeling of well-being and relaxation… In other words, the perfect state for sleeping!

Numerous tests have been done on the effects tryptophan has on mild to moderate insomnia with astonishing results.

Over the past 20 years – 40 controlled studies have been done describing the effect of tryptophan on sleep. The evidence indicates 1 g or more of tryptophan can increase sleepiness and decrease the time it takes for you to get to sleep (sleep latency). Best results have been found in those with mild insomnia or normal subjects that report a longer than average time getting to sleep.

Here are a few foods loaded with tryptophan:

Foods High in Tryptophan

Food (Typical serving size) Amount of Tryptophan per 100g
Seeds and nuts (particularly pumpkin and squash seeds) 576 mg (for pumpkin and squash seeds)
Cheese (the amount of tryptophan varies depending on the type of cheese) 551 mg (for mozzarella cheese)
Grass-fed beef and lamb 415 mg
Pasture-raised chicken and turkey 404 mg
Wild-caught fish (particularly salmon and tuna) 335 mg (for wild-caught salmon and tuna)
100% whole grain oats 335 mg

Of course, you can easily purchase melatonin or L-tryptophan supplements over-the-counter to combat insomnia and other sleeping disorders, but why not try the whole-food approach first? You can just as easily incorporate them into your diet for a more natural sleep aid that works just as well.

Warm Milk and Honey

Did your Mom ever give you a hot mug of milk and honey when you were younger? Mine sure did…

And it turns out this magic combo is more than a soothing childhood favorite. It could help you sleep better too! As we discussed above, your body needs tryptophan to form sleep-inducing serotonin (via the B vitamin niacin.) Now, milk contains a small amount of tryptophan. And get this; honey helps transmit tryptophan to your brain quicker!

See, after you consume carbohydrates– like honey in this case – your insulin levels increase. When this happens, your cells absorb amino acids that would usually compete with tryptophan for the same transportation structures around your body. Tryptophan itself isn’t absorbed because it binds to the protein albumin, which effectively gives tryptophan an all-access card to cross your blood-brain barrier with far less competition!

And when tryptophan makes it across the blood-brain barrier, it can affect your brain’s neurotransmitter levels and your sleep! Now, as I mentioned above, milk only contains a small amount of tryptophan. So warm milk and honey isn’t guaranteed to be effective for everyone in this scientific sense. But it can help you drift off in a different way…

A glass of warm milk could trick your mind into sleeping! Well, not quite “trick,” but it could have a psychological effect. See, a glass of warm milk can remind you of your childhood, your home, or your parents. And that warm, fuzzy feeling you get inside? It’s a sense of relaxation that can help you doze off.

For those of you who are lactose intolerant or just don’t drink milk, the good news is that the power-combo of carbs and tryptophan could work in other combinations too. In fact, the possibilities are nearly endless! The important thing to remember is to pair a high-tryptophan source (refer to the table above for a refresher) with a carbohydrate.

AlgaeCal Bedtime Combo Favorites


Eggs on whole-grain toast
The Source of Tryptophan: Eggs
The Carbohydrate: Whole grain bread
Additional Information: Whole grain bread is a complex carbohydrate, which means your body will take longer to break it down. So eat this power combo a few hours before bedtime!


Pumpkin seeds and blueberries topped with yogurt
The Source of Tryptophan: Pumpkin seeds
The Carbohydrate: Blueberries
Additional Information: You can swap pumpkin seeds for pretty much any nut or seed you’d prefer– lots of them are great sources of tryptophan. The same goes for the fruit too! Fruits contain fructose, which converts to energy quickly so that you can eat this treat right before bedtime.


Cheese and crackers
The Source of Tryptophan: Cheese
The Carbohydrate: Crackers
Additional Information: You may have heard that eating cheese before bedtime can give you nightmares. But there’s no scientific research to support this myth! Interestingly though, a study by the British Cheese Board found the type of cheese you eat can influence the type of (good) dreams you have. If you want to dream about your favorite celebrities, cheddar is the cheese for you, apparently…

Please note: Simple carbohydrates like refined grains, processed sweet goods like cakes, and fruits can help your body transport tryptophan to your brain more effectively, but I don’t suggest them as a long-term option. If you can, try to stick to complex carbohydrates like whole grains, lentils, and oats. They’ll still help to deliver tryptophan to your brain more effectively and are a healthier option.

Create The Ultimate Sleep Environment

It sounds simple, but the environment you sleep in can have a big impact on how easily you nod off, and stay in the land of nod!

Even when your eyes are closed, your senses can still pick up on and react to things around you. And if your senses are continually on high alert, you can bet your bottom dollar you won’t be getting a full night’s sleep! Here are a few things you might want to consider to create your own ultimate sleep environment:

Lights Out!
Remember right back at the start of this post when I mentioned the popular sleep-aid drug melatonin? Well, your body produces melatonin naturally (it’s actually produced from serotonin which we covered earlier.) Now, melatonin helps to regulate natural sleep and wake cycles, but there’s a catch…

…Your body will only secrete melatonin if it’s dark! It’s not called “the hormone of darkness” for nothing! That means any light sources in your bedroom will prevent melatonin from doing its sleep-related jobs.

So turn off the lights and draw the curtains before you turn in for the night. Remove anything that emits an electronic glow from your room too. Laptops, cell phones, and even digital clocks can give melatonin an excuse to take the night off.

The Goldilocks Temperature
As I mentioned earlier, your body temperature drops when you enter the stage of deeper sleep. To accelerate the process and give your body a helping hand to drift off, try adjusting the temperature in your bedroom.

According to “The National Sleep Foundation,” the ideal temperature for sleep is anywhere between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s about 15.5 to 19.5 Celsius.) Not too hot, not too cold.

If you have a thermostat, it’s easy to adjust your temperature to the sweet spot. But if you don’t have a device to regulate the temperature in your room exactly, a little too cool is preferable to a little too warm. So try sleeping with the window open a touch.

Dark Room, White Noise
Most people prefer absolute quiet at night. But for others, the silence is deafening. That’s why white noise in the background can be an effective sleep aid.

White noise is a low-key, constant source of sound that can help prevent your mind from swimming with the thoughts and worries of the day. Plus, white noise can help mask disturbing noises in your surrounding area. Like a door being slammed, for example.

Natural, ambient sounds like waterfalls, or the wind blowing through trees tend to work best. I personally love the sound of rain. That’s why I listen to “Rainy Mood” when I’m struggling to get to sleep. It’s a free app that plays the sounds of rainstorms on a loop, and it definitely helps me!

You can check out “Rainy Mood” here.

Calcium

Did you know the level of REM sleep you get is affected by your calcium intake? Well, it turns out there’s a direct link between calcium and how your sleep cycle is regulated.

I’ve already mentioned the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, but get this; Your brain uses calcium to convert the amino acid tryptophan into melatonin.

People with low-calcium levels often wake up several hours after falling asleep and can have difficulty getting back to sleep. If your body doesn’t have the chance to make it to full REM sleep, you’re not going to be fully recharged in the morning.

Calcium supplements can be a great natural sleep aid for those who have trouble sleeping due to a calcium deficiency.

Magnesium

A high magnesium diet can stop frequent night awakenings by providing you with a deeper sleep throughout the night. In fact, insomnia is one of the biggest complaints of magnesium-deficient patients.

One double-blind placebo-controlled trial shows the benefits of magnesium supplementation on mild to moderate insomnia, especially in older folk. The trial found 500 mg of magnesium a day for eight weeks had the following effects compared to a placebo:

  • Improved Sleep Efficiency
  • Longer Sleep Time
  • Better Sleep Onset Latency
  • Easier Early Morning Awakening

Better yet, magnesium plays a role in the transport and distribution of calcium across cell membranes. Remember, calcium plays a role in your sleep regulation. I’d say that’s some pretty good marks for magnesium as a natural sleep remedy.

Now, some people like to apply magnesium oil spray or creams on their skin before bedtime to gain the sleep-aid benefits. Some people I’ve spoken to love this method and claim it helps them sleep soundly. But others have told me that topical magnesium products cause nasty skin rashes and outbreaks– just a word of warning.

Plus, there’s still no concrete scientific research to confirm applying magnesium on your skin works. Several low-quality, small sample size studies have shown some encouraging benefits of topical magnesium. But there’s no research to show topical application is as effective as oral supplementation.

And as for oral magnesium supplementation, you’ll see the most effective results when you take magnesium and calcium together. (Remember, both minerals are natural sleep aids, and magnesium plays a role in the transport and distribution of calcium in your body). In fact, many people who take our bone-building AlgaeCal Plus supplement report much better sleep as an added bonus! You can see what our users are saying below:

↓ Swipe image down to see more
I sleep great now. It must be the magnesium

See, AlgaeCal Plus provides a 2:1 calcium to magnesium ratio in a simple, daily dose. The same ratio can be naturally found in your body so you know it’s not only effective but safe too! Say hello to a great night’s sleep and healthy bones.

The Importance of Sleep For Your Bones

Anyone who has trouble sleeping knows the effect it can have on your health and well-being. Your head aches. Your back hurts. But, did you know inadequate sleep can have adverse effects on your mental health and bones too?

It’s true! Studies estimate that 65-90% of adults with major depression experience some form of sleep disorder.

And as for a lack of sleep’s effect on your bones? Well, in some animal studies, a lack of sleep has been found to stop bone formation, produce abnormal bone marrow, and even cause cell damage. Although these studies were done on animals, it’s sparked interest in whether sleep-deficiency has an effect on poor bone repair in humans.

Another study concluded that sleep duration played a factor in the BMD (bone mineral density) in Chinese women, making osteoporosis a major concern. While more studies need to be done, longer sleep duration for middle-aged and elderly women along with natural bone-supporting supplements could be beneficial.

In one Norwegian study, insomniacs showed a whopping 52% increased risk for osteoporosis. That’s a scary notion for people with sleep disorders!

And lastly, a 2016 study researched the impact of sleep on osteoporosis. One thousand and thirty-two participants aged 25 to 85 took part. The bone stiffness index (SI), a marker of osteoporosis, was measured in each participant using ultrasound systems. And their sleep habits, including the time they went to bed, the time they spent in bed, and the quality of their sleep were assessed using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI).

The results? Sleep disturbances were significantly associated with SI in each component of PSQI. In other words, poor sleep and sleep habits have a negative impact on bone health!

Natural sleep aids have never looked so good…

morning time background, alarm clock near the bed at home

Takeaways For a Restful Slumber

There are numerous natural sleep aids that can help you get a better night’s sleep, so you can wake up feeling refreshed and energized.

Choosing natural solutions like the ones above can also be great for your overall well-being. They can support your bone health, boost your mood, and contribute to a more restful sleep.

Have a natural sleep aid tip we missed? Or, perhaps a product you can’t live without? Feel free to share your story with our community!

Author: Monica Straith, BS

Monica is the PR and Outreach Manager and Fitness Lead at AlgaeCal. She’s an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Specialist, and has a B.S. and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she played varsity soccer for four years. Monica pulls from her experience in athletics and health to contribute to AlgaeCal and has also been featured on myfitnesspal blog, Prevention, and Huffington Post.

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