How to Improve Sleep, Based on The Science

May 14, 2023 By Eric Olson
How to Improve Sleep, Based on The Science

Enhancing Sleep Quality: The Role of Supplements and Their Mechanisms of Action

This post was written with Consensus AI Academic Search Engine. A good night’s sleep is vital for overall health, and many individuals turn to dietary and herbal supplements to improve sleep quality. This article delves into the effectiveness of various supplements and their mechanisms of action in enhancing sleep, supported by recent scientific studies.

Overview of Supplements for Sleep

Dietary supplements are widely used to combat insomnia and improve sleep quality. Common supplements include melatonin, magnesium, and herbal remedies such as valerian root, chamomile, and lavender. These supplements act through different mechanisms to facilitate the onset of sleep and improve its quality.


Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland, playing a critical role in regulating sleep-wake cycles. Its production increases with evening darkness, promoting healthy sleep patterns. Supplementation can be particularly effective for those who have delayed sleep phase syndrome or who are exposed to blue light before bedtime. Studies have shown that melatonin supplementation can significantly improve sleep quality by reducing sleep onset latency and increasing total sleep duration, especially in individuals with sleep disturbances due to external factors like shift work or jet lag (Scheer et al., 2012).

Herbal Supplements

Valerian root is another widely used herbal supplement. It works by increasing the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps regulate nerve cells and calms anxiety. Clinical trials suggest that valerian root may help improve sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and enhancing deep sleep stages. Chamomile, known for its mild sedative effects, is beneficial in managing mild to moderate insomnia. It is believed to work by modulating benzodiazepine receptors in the brain (Kiefer, 2021).

Amino Acids and Minerals

Amino acids like tryptophan and minerals such as magnesium also play crucial roles in sleep regulation. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin. Magnesium, on the other hand, seems to help decrease cortisol levels, which can interfere with melatonin production, thus promoting relaxation and sleep (Chan & Lo, 2021).

Mechanisms of Action

The mechanisms by which supplements influence sleep involve various biochemical pathways:

  • Melatonin supplements directly replace the hormone that is essential for sleep-wake regulation.
  • Herbal supplements such as valerian root increase GABA activity, which reduces neuronal excitability and induces relaxation.
  • Magnesium affects the central nervous system and can bind to GABA receptors, promoting a calming effect.
  • Amino acids influence serotonin and melatonin synthesis, essential for mood regulation and sleep onset.

Safety and Efficacy

While many supplements are safe for general use, their efficacy can vary widely among individuals, and some may interact with medications or have side effects. Therefore, it’s recommended to consult healthcare providers before starting any new supplement regimen, especially for those with underlying health conditions or those taking other medications.


Dietary and herbal supplements can significantly improve sleep quality by acting through various mechanisms to enhance the natural sleep cycle. However, their effectiveness and safety should be assessed on an individual basis to ensure the best outcomes for health and well-being.



Sleep Interventions That Aren’t Bulls–t 

Interventions with “solid” evidence:
Sleep has no magic bullets – these interventions have modest effect sizes, but they help!

Interventions with “emerging” evidence:
Still early, some promising studies/outcomes...

Popular interventions that have “meh” evidence:

Interventions that definitely DON’T help:

Outside of eating, drinking and breathing, sleep is the single most important physiological process for our health. It quite literally impacts every single part of our well-being.

In the United States alone, up to 70 million people suffer from a sleep disorder, and millions more deal with periodic sleep issues.

Unfortunately, despite this, popular media continues to churn out click-bait-y content focused on interventions that lack any real evidence of efficacy.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the three top interventions that actually have been shown to help improve sleep outcomes.

Disclaimer: I am not a trained medical professional. I just read lots of studies for my job.

Melatonin study to care about #1: 2013 Meta-Analysis

TLDR; this meta-analysis looked across 19 controlled trials and found that melatonin improves multiple different sleep outcomes (latency, total sleep time, and overall quality) but the effect was relatively modest. 

Melatonin study to care about #2: 2014 Randomized Controlled Trial

TLDR; this RCT on patients with breast cancer found that melatonin improved subjective sleep quality (again moderate effects) without any adverse side effects

Melatonin takeaway:

Melatonin has the most evidence of any supplement for improving sleep. However, the effect sizes found in high-quality studies are mild. Melatonin is not a magic bullet, but given its lack of side effects and the evidence of some positive impact, melatonin is a relatively safe choice to help with sleep issues. 

Mindfulness-therapy study to care about #1: 2019 Meta-Analysis

TLDR; this massive meta-analysis of over 1,600 participants found ‘moderate strength’ of evidence for mindfulness meditation in improving sleep quality against non-specific controls – but found little effect compared to specific active controls.

Mindfulness-therapy study to care about #2: 2007 Systematic Review

TLDR; very similar to the above study, this study found some modest evidence across seven studies that mindfulness-based therapy can improve sleep by causing a reduction in ‘sleep-interfering cognitive processes’ like worry. 

Mindfulness-therapy takeaway

Mindfulness-based therapies like meditation are certainly not a cure-all and many controlled studies have found very modest effects. But, considering the lack of downside and the evidence of improvement in some aspects of the sleep process, mindfulness-based therapies are a worthwhile intervention to improve your sleep!

Exercise study to care about #1: 2018 Meta Analysis

TLDR; this meta-analysis of over 550 patients found that exercise improved sleep quality but found little impact on sleep efficiency (time in bed spent sleeping), with very minimal adverse effects. The effect size was low. 

Exercise study to care about #2: 2020 Systematic Review

TLDR; this systematic review looked across 14 studies (6 RCTs and 8 pre-post test) and found that 13 of the 14 studies showed at least one significant improvement in sleep outcomes from exercise. 

Exercise takeaway

If the effects of exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most effective supplement in the history of supplements across multiple outcomes. Sleep is yet another on the long list of outcomes that exercise can improve!

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