One of the most frequent questions we get at Shleep is: “What about sleep supplements — do they work? If so, which ones are the most effective?” Sleep supplements are indeed a very popular topic among those of us looking to improve our sleep.
While they can be very helpful in certain situations, they should generally only be used as a short-term aid - for example, during a stressful period when you have difficulty sleeping - as opposed to continuously and long-term.
This is because even all-natural supplements can create dependence if used continuously for a long period of time, as your body comes to rely on them instead of its own sleep processes. (Nevertheless, sleep supplements have a much lower risk of dependence compared to prescription sleep medications.) For long-term insomnia relief and sleep quality improvement, it is therefore preferable to focus on improving your sleep hygiene (we have lots of tips on this in the Shleep app and in our upcoming webinars!), and only rely on supplements when you need extra help.
Sleep medications work by inducing and maintaining sleep, while natural aids (sleep supplements) work by encouraging relaxation and reducing anxiety.
Most sleep medications have side effects, depending on the specific drug, the dosage, and how long the drug lasts in the body. Common side effects include prolonged drowsiness the next day, dizziness, unsteadiness, headaches, muscle pain, constipation, dry mouth, and trouble concentrating. Prescription sleep medications can also often cause dependence.
Natural sleep aids, however, tend to have no or minimal side effects, and are much less likely to cause dependence. Many natural sleep aids also have other benefits, such as pain relief.
While sleep supplements are very safe, it is important to keep the following principles in mind:
As a rule, aim to never use any sleep supplement for more than one month. The best way to use sleep supplements effectively is to only take them on nights when you know there is a high likelihood you will have trouble sleeping, such as the night before a big event, or during a stressful week. Another alternative, if you do need longer-term sleep supplement support, is to follow a 5-on, 2-off schedule, where you take the supplement five nights in a row, followed by two nights off.
The one exception to this rule is magnesium, which can be taken continuously over long periods of time. This is because magnesium is an essential mineral that the body needs daily, and its sleep benefits are secondary to its primary positive effects on health (more on magnesium in the accompanying Sleep Supplement Recommendations, which you can download below).
The other important thing to keep in mind is that effective sleep supplements can potentially mask more serious causes of sleep problems. For example, if someone has undiagnosed sleep apnea and uses supplements to sleep better, any improvement in sleep will only mask the underlying issue, thus delaying the correct treatment (in this case, using a CPAP machine at night). Given that sleep apnea is very common and can have much more serious effects on health besides unrestful sleep, it’s important to rule out any such potential medical causes of sleep problems with your physician before turning to sleep supplements.
Another consideration when choosing a sleep supplement is that your reaction to different sleep aids can be very different than someone else’s, so if a particular supplement doesn't work for you, it’s worth trying another.
Please note that you should always check with a healthcare professional before beginning any supplement regimen, especially if you are taking any prescription medications (which may interact with certain supplements).
As listed below, sleep supplements fall into four main categories:
To give you a better understanding of each category, how to use it effectively and some product recommendations, we have prepared a document that you can download here for free.
Combining public health and corporate finance expertise, Cristina leads client projects and is in charge of delivering Shleep's entire platform of sleep improvement solutions to clients. She holds a Master of Science in Nutritional Epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health, where her studies focused on the connection between nutrition and chronic disease prevention.
Cristina is particularly passionate about how we can use dietary supplements to optimize health and wellbeing. Over the last 15 years, she has continued to deepen her knowledge on supplements — ranging from the most effective ways to supplement specific vitamins and minerals that the usual diet tends to be deficient in, to using more specialized supplements to enhance specific aspects of health and wellbeing.
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