Do sleep supplements actually work? An expert explains what’s in them

Posted by for Wellbeing

The quest for a good night’s sleep has led this writer to try all sorts of remedies. As a last resort, she reached for a supplement she had no faith in as a last resort, she and was pleasantly surprised by its effectiveness.

Weighted blankets, lavender sprays, eye masks, meditation, camomile tea, a tech-free bedroom… when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, I’ve tried everything. Most others probably have too – the global sleep industry is worth £32 trillion as we all try anything we can to get some decent shut-eye. 

It’s no surprise that we’re willing to part with so much money to find a sleep solution given how much modern life has disrupted our natural cycles. For me, the ‘always on’ culture leaves my brain swirling with thoughts of work, friendship dilemmas, plans I need to attend to or make, and things I need to pay for – just as I get into bed. 

And let’s be honest, the pandemic has not helped with that. According to healthcare plan providers Simplyhealth, 38% have found it more difficult to sleep since lockdown, and the Stylist team have all noticed that even when they get a solid eight hours in bed, they often wake up still feeling groggy and tired

Luckily for me, I found my nighttime holy-grail before lockdown hit. I had been sent some supplements alongside an order of protein powder and with a very-low faith in supplements (honestly, you’re lucky to catch me taking a multi-vitamin in the depths of winter – I just forget, can’t be bothered, or feel like I’m paying for chalk) I popped them in my drawer and forgot they were there. 

It was around November last year that I hit a particularly awful period of bad sleep. So bad that it got to the point that I was barely able to get to sleep despite feeling constantly knackered. Whenever I was finally able to fall asleep, I would wake up multiple times a night, my brain overflowing with thoughts and worries. Every morning felt like I was walking through sludge; my body, eyes and brain tired.

Sleep supplements: do they really work?

Rifling through my drawer one day, I saw the supplements. The ingredients seemed legit and all-natural, including magnesium, 5HTP and a bundle of other amino acids and minerals that I had found were widely recommended throughout my many hours of sleep research. I figured my sleep couldn’t get much worse, so I tried them. 

I started taking one in the evening while I began my wind-down routine – make-up off, phone (mostly) down, SAD lamp on, reading commencing. I noticed a difference within days. First, I realised that I was easing off into sleep without an hours-long battle against my racing brain. Then I noticed that rather than springing awake in bed, feeling on edge and panicky in the night, I was able to sleep the whole night through. All of this culminated in feeling alert and lighter during the day. It was as though a groggy grey cloud had lifted from my head. 

These tablets are not prescribed sleeping medication, they are simply natural minerals and ingredients that support the body’s natural sleeping processes. I wanted to check if I was wasting money on them, so I asked Dr Karina Patel, director of the London Sleep Centre how these ingredients are actually helping me get to bed. 

“Magnesium is the big sleep mineral as it can activate something called your parasympathetic nervous system,” she says. “When you’re asleep you want to try and be as much in the parasympathetic nervous system zone as possible as this will help you stay calm and relaxed. Magnesium can also regulate certain neurotransmitters, which send signals to your brain to help you relax.”

As for 5HTP, a lesser-known amino acid, that helps to produce serotonin, says Dr Patel. “Serotonin is associated with things like anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders, which are all within one bubble of problems. So, by working on the serotonin levels, it benefits all of those things,” she says. This, she explains, is probably what was helping me manage my mid-night panicking.

Sleep Supplements: "I'd often spring awake in bed, feeling on edge and panicky in the night."

However, Dr Patel warns that anyone on medication, particularly mental health medications, should speak with a doctor before taking any sleep supporting supplements. 

When I noticed I was coming to the end of my supplements, I raced to my computer to find more. Noticing an offer on a different brand with similar ingredients, I thought I’d take the gamble and try something different. It was a mistake – they didn’t work nearly as well. “There are beneficial doses and things can work together in specific quantities,” Dr Patel explains. “If you’re going outside that, then things can contradict or interact with each other differently.” So while I had found a product that worked for me, other people may benefit from a different balance of minerals. Therefore, trial and error might be your best option.

According to the NHS, most people don’t need supplements. For that reason, it’s important to note that I don’t rely on supplements every night, but I find a round of supplements is really useful when I fall into a cycle of sleeping badly to help get me on track. “Sometimes we do recommend a short dose of supplementing just to get you in the habit of sleeping well, then we recommend you wean off of them so you can maintain the habit on your own,” Dr Patel says. 

“I do believe sleep is a lifestyle thing. Unfortunately, we’re always thinking at all hours of the day and working around the clock, which has a detrimental effect on our body’s capability to relax and actually get a restful night’s sleep. Counteracting that with changes to your lifestyle and sleep hygiene is my best piece of advice,” she continues. 

And I am working on it – my boundaries with work and my wind-down routine have become stricter, but I do find it beneficial to know that should bad sleep take hold for a while, I have something that can help soothe me.  

If you are worried about your sleeping habits, low mood or anxiety, speak to your GP. Find out more information on the NHS website or visit Mind, the mental health charity. 

Natural sleep supplements to try

  • Form Zzzz

    Form Zzzz supplements
  • Innermost Relax Capsules

    Innermost Relax capsules
  • Bulk Powders Complete Zen

    Bulk Complete Zen supplements
  • Dr Vegan Vegan Nights

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Images: Getty / Brand’s own

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