The 9 Best Sleep Aids for People with Insomnia, According to Experts

From noise-cancelling headphones to soothing teas, these all-natural remedies will help you get back to sleep without taking prescription medication.
By Jen McCaffery
August 18, 2020
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Turning in at night should be a relief after a busy day, but poor sleep is common.  “Sleep, as simple as it sounds, is probably one of the hardest things to get,” says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, MD, FAASM, assistant professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Approximately 1 in 4 Americans experience acute insomnia—a sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restorative sleep—according to research from the University of Pennsylvania. And sleep deprivation, whether it’s caused by insomnia or not, can affect your memory, cognition, and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Fortunately, about 75% recover before developing chronic insomnia. 

The foundational treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves stimulus control, such as only using your bed for sleeping, making sure your bedroom is dark, not eating right before you go to bed, and avoiding alcohol.  

“After that, in order to get good sleep, you need to complete the puzzle,” Dr. Dasgupta says. “The trick is finding out, when you have insomnia, what puzzle piece are you missing?”

For some people, it’s the amount of light that really affects them. For others, it may be the sound in the room or the temperature. Insomnia can also indicate other mental health conditions that make it harder for people to fall asleep.

“Some people [are] just hard-wired from birth with an increased level of anxiety and arousals, so learning to manage that underlying anxiety or mood disorder can really help people [with] managing their sleep quality,” says Dr. Camilo A. Ruiz, DO, medical director at Choice Physicians Sleep Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

While professionals say that what helps people get to sleep is highly individualized, there are some effective treatments you can try instead of medication. We spoke with sleep experts to find natural alternatives to prescription sleeping pills that can help you get a better night’s rest. 

From supplements to sound machines, here are the 9 best sleep aids for people with insomnia: 

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Supplements are not a bad choice if they’re used appropriately. Dr. Ruiz recommends taking melatonin, a sleep hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythms. “I tell people all they need is half a milligram to a milligram 3 hours before bedtime,” Dr. Ruiz says. “So if you’re going to bed at 10 p.m., take it at 7 p.m.” Because melatonin is a hormone, it takes some time for the medication to work, he notes. This capsule from Nature’s Bounty has 80% positive reviews and contains the Dr. Ruiz-recommended amount of just one milligram of melatonin.

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Drinking a glass of warm milk before bed can be an effective natural sleep aid. Milk contains L-Tryptophan, the amino acid that goes on to make melatonin. Try some almond milk, which also contains magnesium. “Magnesium will help out with sleep,” Dr. Dasgupta says. That said, taking super therapeutic doses in supplement form could be dangerous. “Like anything, you take too much of it and you could have some problems,” he adds. 

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People who are extremely sensitive to noise can wake up when the floor creaks. That’s where soothing background noise can help. “Then when you hear a noise, it’s not going to startle you as much as when you have a totally quiet room and hear a loud sound,” Dr. Dasgupta says. The Homedics White Noise Sound Machine lets you pick between 6 soothing sounds, from the soft patter of rainwater to the roar of crashing waves.

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This herbal supplement is a natural sedative that dates back to ancient times and comes in many different formulations, from supplements to teas. Though studies have shown mixed results about its effectiveness, valerian root can be an effective treatment for some because of how it interacts with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that encourages sleep in your brain, according to Dr. Dasgupta.

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Another option for people who are sensitive to noise are sound-canceling headphones, like this affordable pair from Maxrock. . Made out of soft silicone, these earbuds conform to your ears and are comfortable enough to sleep in. Already a favorite of almost 1,000 reviewers, they’re small enough to take on planes and even feature a built-in microphone.

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People with depression or anxiety who have trouble sleeping may find comfort in weighted blankets, and the Gravity Blanket is by far one of the most popular options, with more than 1,300 perfect reviews. Available in 3 sizes, it’s designed to be about 10% of your body weight and has a removable duvet that can be machine-washed. Better yet, it actually works; one reviewer said they “finally wake up well-rested” thanks to this soothing blanket.

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Another aspect of good sleep hygiene is keeping your room dark, according to Dr. W. Chris Winter, MD, the owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. Research has shown that as little as 5 lux of light—which is about the intensity of candlelight—can affect the quality of people’s sleep. So if you have a skylight that you can’t cover up or sun streams through your windows in the wee hours, a sleep mask is a low-tech way to regulate light. The Asutra Silk Eye Pillow not only blocks out light, but is filled with flaxseed and lavender, an herb that can also encourage sleep.

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“People will say they can’t sleep well, and then they’ll wear sunglasses on their way to work. If you wear sunglasses in the morning, you’re giving your body this signal that it’s nighttime and you should really be sleeping,” Dr. Ruiz says. But the opposite is true in the afternoon, when you want to avoid bright light to help your body wind down. These uni-sex sunglasses block out 100% of UV rays with a polarized lens to prevent glare. Plus, they’re way more affordable than other sunglasses with similar features. 

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“Sleep is a ritual, so you really have to put in an effort to maintain your bedroom routine,” Dr. Ruiz says. That could mean taking a warm shower or having tea in the evening to wind down. Chamomile has mild tranquilizing effects and contains an antioxidant called apigenin that can help reduce anxiety. Research has shown that post-partum women who drank chamomile tea before bed had better sleep quality than those who didn’t. This organic pick sourced from Egypt is the best-selling herbal tea on Amazon and comes with 100 tea bags in every pack.

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