Below, you'll find one author's personal, anecdotal experience and research. Before making any changes, please speak with a doctor or sleep specialist.
As a country, America has never been particularly stellar at sleeping. It's not exactly a difficult activity, so one would think it would be something we could excel at, yet for some reason, it appears the vast majority of us—this author included—either have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting good quality sleep. According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, adults aged 18 to 64 need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Unfortunately, data from the CDC shows over a third of Americans report not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.
If that wasn't bad enough, apparently the pandemic only exacerbated our sleep issues by creating a new disorder some sleep experts are dubbing COVID-somnia (hey, their cheesy name, not mine). In a recently released study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, over half of the participants polled reported an increase in sleep disturbances since the start of the pandemic. Issues ranged from having trouble falling asleep to not being able to stay asleep to having more disturbing dreams. And while at the outset of the pandemic—when things were at their scariest and none of us knew what was going on—an increase in disturbed sleep was to be expected, as things have begun to open back up those sleeping issues haven't gone away.
"We went through a phase of where we got into a 'new normal' where many people were working from home or schooling from home," says Dr. Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, MD, FAASM, the director of Sleep Medicine at Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, Florida and a neurologist on the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Board of Directors. "Now things are opening back up, but their schedules are not back to normal. In the past we had a set wake up time because we had to get ourselves ready to go. We had some kind of [a consistent] bedtime. That lack of routine is making havoc of our sleep cycles." To the point where Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg says she's actually seeing more cases of insomnia in her office than she did pre-pandemic.
The cruel irony of sleep is the more you worry about it, the less likely you are to actually be able to do it. As someone who has spent countless hours awake, staring at the ceiling with a mental countdown in my brain of how many hours of sleep I can still get as my alarm time creeps ever closer, that fact rings painfully true. "I always tell my patients that you can't force yourself to sleep—you have to allow yourself to sleep," says Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg. "The worst thing I see people do is try to make up for lost sleep. They think that if they go to bed early that they can fall asleep longer, but the reality is they are spending 12 hours in bed trying to sleep, which is actually awful for your sleep. The psychological expectations of sleep have continued the insomnia pandemic."
So, what can you actually do? Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg thinks many people got hooked on watching or reading the news before bedtime, something that is definitively not conducive for a good night's sleep. "This has always been an issue, but having a national emergency like the pandemic has really brought it to the forefront and it has not gone away," she says. "People have not gotten over this need to know and the last thing they are seeing before going to sleep are all these stories about bad things happening."
Another important factor in sleep health actually has to do with how you start your day. "What we do first thing in the morning actually sets the stage for how we are going to sleep the following night," says Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg, "so I tell my patients to get up and get outside in the sunshine."
There are a whole host of other problems that can impact your sleep, from your environment (the temperature of your bedroom, how dark it is, if your bed is comfortable) to your diet, but finding how those can be causing you specific sleep disturbances could require the help of a sleep expert. If your sleep problems are persistent enough that they are causing significant problems in your day-to-day life, Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg recommends seeing a sleep disorder specialist to help identify your specific issues and develop an appropriate course of treatment.
One sleep aid many people have reported successful are the use of sleep supplements. These alternatives to pharmaceuticals are said to offer a natural way to get a good night's rest, although Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg is quick to caution supplements are not regulated by the FDA so there are some safety concerns, and any claims about efficacy are anecdotal. Most sleep doctors don't recommend supplements because, as Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg points out, the majority of her patients have already tried them by the time they come to her for help.
That's not to say doctors are necessarily opposed to them, they just aren't a method that has been researched enough to be considered a tried-and-true treatment option in the sleep medicine community. The general, unofficial consensus is that as long as you are choosing a high-quality herbal supplement from a trusted brand who is transparent about their ingredient formulations and manufacturing, it doesn't necessarily hurt to try it, but there's no guarantee that it will actually do anything for your particular case. Kind of a "worth a shot" mentality.
My particular brand of poor sleep is an inability to fall asleep—it can sometimes take me hours to finally conk out—and, being someone who isn't too keen on popping pharmaceuticals every night, I've taken my fair share of sleep supplements over the years. That's not to say I'm out there buying herbal pills off of Amazon—because of that lack of FDA regulation, it's crucial that you do your homework on the ingredients you are taking and the brands that are creating them. How are they made, where are they coming from, who is developing them, what is actually in them are all vital questions to ask before you go ingesting anything. I have had some excellent results with a handful of trusted brands and a select group of ingredients that include melatonin, CBD, and magnesium. While these three ingredients don't necessarily have an overwhelming amount of (or, in some cases, really any) concrete evidence proving that they undoubtedly improve sleep quality, there are some anecdotal links between their ability to help you relax and better drift off into dreamland.
Below, I've gathered up a few of my tried and true picks that I have personally tested myself and seen definitive results. Again, these are not fully science-backed or technically doctor-recommended and they may not work for you, but as long as you check with your doctor first to make sure they are safe for your specific health profile, in my experience, they're a good alternative to prescription drugs.
Melatonin has actually had some significant research done around its efficacy, however the majority of those have been in relation to its impact on jet lag and shift workers. Melatonin is naturally produced by our brains—the levels increase as it gets dark as a way to tell our bodies that it's time to go to sleep. In the morning, as daylight increases, melatonin levels in our brains drop and tell us to wake up. So, by supplementing melatonin, the thought process is you can essentially tell your brain it's time to go to bed when you decide you want to sleep, time of day notwithstanding. Dosing for melatonin can vary, but generally I've found the most success with those that fall in the 0.5mg to 5mg range.
One of my go-tos comes from the geniuses at Hum Nutrition with their Beauty zzZz Sleep Supplement. With 3mg of melatonin and a $10 price tag, this little wonder is not only affordable, it works. The brand studied quite a bit of existing research when putting its formulation together, which is why you'll also find vitamin B6 and calcium in here. According to Hum's education specialist Gaby Vaca-Flores, "Research suggests vitamin B6 may play an active role in the biosynthesis and secretion of melatonin and low calcium intake has been correlated with sleep pattern disturbances in adults."
One word of caution: I have experienced the occasional kind of funky (not in a fun way) dreams when taking melatonin, so be aware there's a chance that you might be in for some weird nocturnal brain journeys if you go this route.
Due to the fact that cannabis is considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the government, hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD)—despite being non-intoxicating—is very heavily regulated and the studies that can be done on it are limited in scope. Meaning we don't have a lot of scientific evidence that it has applications in the sleep space. The few studies that have been done, however, have shown that CBD's calming effect on the central nervous system has the potential to benefit those with disordered sleep.
That said, of all of the ingredients in sleep supplements I have tried, I found the most success with those products featuring CBD. There are three that are specifically geared towards sleep that have given me what I can describe as probably the best sleep of my life. Prima's Sleep Tight Softgels not only help me fall asleep fast, but give me great quality sleep, meaning that the sleep that I get with them is deep and restorative. I wake up alert and before my alarm goes off, instead of groggy and throwing things at my phone as it blares in my ear.
Flora + Bast Deep Sleep Bioceutical Gummy is another favorite, thanks to the brand's progressive and advanced work in the CBD space. It's a home run of a sleep supplement that combines 20mg of CBD with 5mg of cannabinol (CBN) a "lesser cannabinoid" which is a natural sedative that's basically nature's Valium. One of these bad boys and I am out for the count the minute my head hits the pillow. Finally there's Gossamer's Dusk tincture, another CBD/CBN tag team that holds the distinction of being formulated with Dr. Alex Capano, the first and only person to hold a doctorate in comprehensive cannabinoid science. Simply squeeze a dropper full of Dusk sublingually under your tongue and hold there for 30-60 seconds (allowing the CBD, CBN, and terpenes to be quickly absorbed into your bloodstream, rather than having to make their way through your digestive tract), head to bed, and then the next thing you know it will be morning.
An essential mineral, your body needs magnesium for everything from maintaining normal muscle and nerve function to supporting a healthy immune system. It also, at the right doses, can act as a kind of muscle relaxant in some people, helping relieve aches and pains as it relaxes the body. Again, that's not evidence of directly impacting your sleep, but people who are kept awake at night by minor aches and pains (hi, nice to meet you) may find relief with this particular method, which could then potentially lead to better sleep.
One that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack for me in this category is from a tiny but mighty brand called Unmarked. Its Moonlight supplement has so many fantastic, natural sleep-inducing ingredients in a delicious gummy that I can't honestly give the magnesium all the credit. Although I do maintain it's definitely the heavy hitter of the bunch. The combination of melatonin, L-theanine, passionfruit and lemon balm extract all combine their powers, Voltron-style, to create one mega-powerful sleep aid that just might result in the best sleep of your life. My second fave magnesium pick, Natural Vitality's Calm Anti-Stress Gummies has some low-rent packaging, but don't let that stop you because these are legit. Note: The brand does have a melatonin sleep version, however I've found that the OG Calm is actually more effective thanks to its 165mg dose of magnesium.
Word of caution: It is possible to overdo it on magnesium and you will definitely know it as you'll experience some serious, as I'll politely put it, gastrointestinal distress the next day. So best to start with a low dose of 200mg and work your way up to the max 400mg, if you need to go that high.
And while supplements are a "worth a shot" option, if you are experiencing significant issues with your sleep, you should reach out to a sleep professional to get help. Not getting enough rest can lead to a host of serious health problems and at the end of the day (night), working with a licensed sleep doctor is the only medically approved way to get the scientifically proven help you need to get the sleep your body needs to stay healthy.
Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SM, et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. 2015;1(1):40-43.
Cdc newsroom. CDC.
Sleep-prioritization-survey-2021-covid-somnia. American Academy of Sleep Medicine – Association for Sleep Clinicians and Researchers.
Okamoto-Mizuno K, Mizuno K. Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. J Physiol Anthropol. 2012;31(1):14.
Herxheimer A, Petrie KJ. Melatonin for the prevention and treatment of jet lag. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(2):CD001520.
Djokic G, Vojvodić P, Korcok D, et al. The effects of magnesium – melatonin - vit b complex supplementation in treatment of insomnia. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2019;7(18):3101-3105.
Shannon S, Lewis N, Lee H, Hughes S. Cannabidiol in anxiety and sleep: a large case series. Perm J. 2019;23:18-041.
Office of dietary supplements - magnesium.
Rondón LJ, Privat AM, Daulhac L, et al. Magnesium attenuates chronic hypersensitivity and spinal cord NMDA receptor phosphorylation in a rat model of diabetic neuropathic pain. J Physiol. 2010;588(Pt 21):4205-4215.
Mori S, Tomita T, Fujimura K, et al. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial on the effect of magnesium oxide in patients with chronic constipation. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2019;25(4):563-575.