Getting bad sleep sucks. It throws off the whole day. The only real cure for a bad night of sleep is a good night of sleep. Caffeine and drugs help mask some of the symptoms of bad sleep, but the underlying negative consequences remain (impaired concentration and problem solving, symptoms of depression, accelerated aging, weight gain, low libido, poor memory, and serious health problems like high blood pressure and stroke) .
What if there were an easy way to ensure a good night’s sleep–as easy as popping a pill–with no harmful long-term consequences? That sounds pretty great. Most people wake up to a few milligrams of caffeine, so why not wind down to a few milligrams of Ashwaganda, CBD, or Chamomile?
I was curious to know whether certain minerals, hormones, amino acids, or herbs might make a meaningful difference in my sleep. While there are hundreds of natural sleep aids on the market, nearly all of them are made with the same handful of ingredients.
We’re all unique snowflakes, so what works for some people may not work for others. I wanted to experiment with what would work for me personally.
I tried eight different natural sleep supplements (listed below), in addition to a placebo pill, and took each supplement between 7–17 times at exactly the same time before bed over the course of several months.
The experiment was “blinded” in that I did not know which supplement(s) I was taking on any given night, or whether I was taking a placebo pill(s). I created a spreadsheet that randomly assigned a different supplement mix each night of the week, and every Sunday my stoic wife Renee would check the spreadsheet and organize a Monday-Sunday pill box for me.
For additional context, I sleep on an Eight Sleep mattress and kept the temperature settings the same throughout the experiment. I measured sleep scores with an Oura ring. I also have Philips Hue lights that turn to orange-red around sunset, a white noise machine to keep out sounds from the street, blackout curtains to block out the 24/7 fluorescent white light from the church next door, an air purifier, and an air conditioner on nights it’s especially warm.
If, on any given night, there was an event that kept me up especially late or if I was traveling, I skipped the protocol.
I’m a big believer in aligning my environment with my biology. That’s why I remove blue light from my environment after the sun goes down, keep my sleeping environment cool with a slight breeze (ceiling fan on low), and shut out the sound of car alarms and sirens from the street below with a white noise machine. In other words, I try to make my sleeping environment similar to the environment in which our ancestors would have slept.
Although the majority of our great⁵⁰⁰ grandparents did not regularly take sleep aids, as far as I know, sometimes unnatural problems require unnatural solutions. No matter how much I might try to make my environment “natural,” orange lights are different than moonlight and fire, a mattress is different than the cool ground, a ceiling fan is different than an evening breeze, my white noise machine is different than the sounds of nature, and city air filtered through an air purifier is a far cry from the fresh air of the wilderness.
I expected Melatonin to have an obvious benefit, and for the other supplements to have marginal benefits, maybe with one or two surprise winners. I had my money on Magnesium and CBD. The results, however, really surprised me:
Magnesium and Melatonin, instead of being winners, had the same effect as the placebo. My median sleep score over the course of the entire experiment was 79, and on nights I took Magnesium or Melatonin before bed, my median sleep score was 78. My hunch is that my body already produced sufficient Melatonin and my diet already provided adequate Magnesium, making extra supplementation useless.
The biggest surprise in this experiment was that natural sleep aids didn’t make much of a difference at all.
Whether I took CBD, Glycine, L-Theanine, or a placebo pill, my median sleep score didn’t change by more than 3 points; there was less than a 4% difference between the most effective and least effective supplements (81 vs. 78). While I would be willing to invest in a nightly supplement that positively affects my sleep even a little bit, a 4% increase or decrease is probably more noise than signal.
If I were forced to take one supplement for sleep, it would probably be Valerian Root, which was tied with Glycine for the highest median sleep score (81), and also had the highest minimum sleep score (77).
I came into this experiment excited to find the silver bullet of sleep. I went as far as to set up a blinded experiment, with a placebo “control” and all, and I stuck to it over the course of several months. Turns out, sleep supplements don’t do much for me. There’s a certain comfort in that though. I no longer feel a sense of sleep supplement FOMO. Any benefit of sleep supplements, at least for me, is placebo effect.
I prefer the idea that I don’t need supplements and chemical aids to do basic human things like sleep, wake up, wind down, and socialize. I don’t like needing caffeine to get through the day. I don’t like feeling the need for alcohol in social situations (one of the reasons I stopped drinking). I like the idea of being able to rely on the intrinsic stuff, not the external caffeinated, intoxicating, or sleep-inducing elixirs. For example, I prefer to rely on my circadian rhythm to wake me up in the morning and put me to sleep at night, and therefore focus on entraining that circadian rhythm, and I prefer to rely on genuine enthusiasm and happiness instead of alcohol, and thus focus on building the internal machinery to feel comfortable and confident in a variety of settings.
For a lot of people, including myself at times, the day is just a series of external inputs. Wake up, feel tired, drink coffee to feel more awake, take a shower to wash off the fatigue, eat breakfast to ward off the hangries, work inside under unnatural lights, drink alcohol and watch TV at night to de-stress and wind down, then get a bad night of sleep and start the cycle over again.
Breaking the cycle of reliance on external inputs is a constant challenge, but it’s a challenge worth pursuing. While the Oura ring sleep score may not be the absolute best measure of sleep quality and my results may not be applicable to the general population, the results of my n=1 experiment allow me to give up the belief that there’s some external supplement out there that will help me win the game of sleep.
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