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Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2024 | Last updated: April 2024

Getting a good night’s sleep helps the body reset and re-energize itself for the next day. Without enough good quality sleep, the mind and body may have problems functioning. That is why insomnia, or trouble falling and staying asleep, can be so troublesome. That is also why so many home remedies exist to help people sleep better.

Drinks to help with sleep

Warm milk is a classic remedy for sleepless nights. So is chamomile tea. Both are thought to contain chemicals that help the brain relax into sleep. Tart cherry juice supports melatonin production, which helps the body fall asleep.1,2

Exercise, meditation, breathing for sleep

Getting enough exercise each day can help you sleep better. Shoot for 20 to 30 minutes a day, a few hours before bedtime. Vigorous exercise close to bedtime can keep you up. But gentle stretches or an evening yoga routine can help your muscles and mind relax.2,3

Breathing exercises and meditation are other good options for helping your body process the stress that may keep you awake at night. In fact, one study found that mindfulness and meditation, practiced 20 minutes a day, reduced insomnia, fatigue, and depression after 6 weeks of practice.3

Herbs, supplements, and sleep

Several herbs and supplements have been shown to help people get better sleep, including melatonin, valerian root, chamomile, kava kava, hops, lemon balm, and lavender. Most herbs and supplements have not been widely studied and are not controlled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means quality and safety can vary widely and results in promoting sleep are mixed.1,4


Melatonin is a hormone the body releases in the brain in response to dim light. This is why using bright light before bed can keep you awake. The melatonin pills you buy in the store are created in a lab, but they still work to make you sleepy. Experts recommend that you consistently buy the same brand for the best results since ingredients can vary widely between brands.1

Melatonin is not meant to help with insomnia. It is intended to shift your circadian rhythm (internal clock). It can be helpful when trying to adjust to a new time zone during travel. Many people use it off-label for insomnia.1


Chamomile has been used for centuries to promote sleep. It is most often served as a tea but can be taken as a pill too. Scientific studies show mixed results on this herb’s effectiveness.4

Kava kava

Kava kava is another ancient plant remedy used for its sedative properties. Studies have found kava kava helps with anxiety, but its usefulness for sleep is mixed. Kava kava can cause liver problems in some people and is banned in some countries.4


L-tryptophan is an amino acid that has been used since the 1970s to help with sleep problems. It is found in eggs, cheese, chocolate, oats, fish, poultry, sesame, and sunflower seeds. It is also available as an over-the-counter (OTC) supplement. It is thought to increase serotonin and melatonin levels in the body, which helps with sleep. L-tryptophan is not safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. It may cause mild gastrointestinal side effects and may interact with certain antidepressants.4


Valerian is another plant that has been used since ancient times to help with sleep. It is available in pill form and may cause mild gastrointestinal side effects.4

Aromatherapy for sleep

A variety of smells are proven to relax the mind and body. In fact, a 2006 study from Korea found that the smell of lavender improved insomnia and depression in female nursing students.5

A 2017 study from Japan found that essential oils helped elderly nursing home patients go to sleep and stay asleep. Two to 5 drops of an essential oil were dropped onto a towel that was wrapped around the person’s pillow. The essential oils used contained some combination of:6

  • Lavender
  • Sweet orange
  • Cypress
  • Cedarwood
  • Pine

These essential oils contain piperonal, santalol, linalool, or cedrol, which are thought to encourage the body to release more serotonin and endorphins, brain chemicals that aid sleep.6

Another study from 2016 found that a group of college students slept better and had more daytime energy after breathing in a lavender scent before bedtime.7

Magnesium-rich foods for sleep

The mineral magnesium plays an important role in several body processes. It impacts metabolism, mood and stress regulation, heart and bone health, and sleep. Plus, insomnia and restless legs syndrome are often tied to magnesium deficiency. Magnesium promotes sleep by helping the neurotransmitter GABA (a brain chemical) work.

Many adults do not get enough magnesium in their diets, so eating more of certain foods may help with your sleep problems. Foods rich in this important mineral include:8

  • Dark, leafy greens (spinach, kale)
  • Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, almonds)
  • Squash, broccoli, and other vegetables
  • Beans and peas
  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Unprocessed whole grains
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee

Very large doses of magnesium can cause serious side effects. Also, it is not safe for people with kidney disease. Talk with your doctor about the right amount of magnesium for you.8

Music and better sleep

Listening to music is a popular way to relax and encourage sleep. One study found that half of 500 people with a sleep disorder said they used music as a sleep aid. Another study found that women who listened to 15 minutes of music 90 minutes before a nap slept better than women who did not. The music was composed specially to promote sleep and is called Drifting Into Delta.9

Before beginning treatment for insomnia, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.