Booze, caffeine, screens before bed – the list of things that interfere with a decent night's sleep seems to get longer every day. Then there's "spring forward," the perky slogan for the change to daylight saving time on March 11 that will rob us of another precious hour.
Sure, we could go to bed earlier to give our internal clocks a head start, or finally get serious about a sleep-hygiene routine. But when we're cranky and dog-tired, with a report to write the next day, we want quick fixes, no matter how spotty their track record may be. With that in mind, here are the pros, cons – and major red flags – that come with six DIY sleep aids you'll find online.
The theory: Resting under a blanket weighing at least 10 per cent of your body weight supposedly calms the central nervous system. Occupational therapists use them to soothe psychiatric patients, children with autism and adults with dementia. Manufacturers of weighted blankets – stuffed with plastic pellets or flaxseed – say the swaddling effect works for insomniacs, too.
The evidence: In a 2015 study of 31 Swedes, participants with insomnia had longer bouts of sleep when they used a chain-weighted blanket, according to research published in the open-access Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders. The study shows solid methodology and "impressive results," said Dr. Judith Davidson, a clinical psychologist at Queen's University and author of Sink into Sleep: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia. But she noted that the research was supported by a weighted-blanket manufacturer.
On the flip side, a 2014 Pediatrics study involving 67 kids with autism found no difference between weighted blankets and lighter but similarly textured "placebo" blankets. The weighted blankets did not help these children sleep longer, fall asleep faster or wake less often, the researchers said.
Caveats: For children, weighted blankets can cause serious injury or death. In 2009, a nine-year-old boy with autism died of suffocation after a teacher wrapped him head to toe in a weighted blanket to calm him. In 2014, a seven-month-old boy died of sudden infant death syndrome after a daycare worker placed a flaxseed-filled blanket over his lower body.
Takeaway: Heavy blankets are unsafe for children who cannot remove them on their own – and the jury is out on whether they improve sleep.
But if you're into the cocooning effect and don't mind the price tag of US$95 to US$229, then go for it.
SOUR CHERRY JUICE
The theory: Tart Montmorency cherries are a source of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's internal clock, therefore cherry juice doubles as a natural sleeping pill.
The evidence: Older adults who drank tart Montmorency cherry juice for two weeks showed sleep improvements in a 2017 study published in the American journal of Therapeutics. But the sample size was tiny – fewer than a dozen insomniacs – and they downed two eight-ounce glasses a day.
That's a lot of sour juice. Tart cherry "does contain a small amount of melatonin," said Dr. Heather Boon, dean of the faculty of pharmacy at the University of Toronto. But the amount of melatonin varies widely depending on the product. Since the body cannot distinguish between fruit-derived and synthetic melatonin, she recommends sticking with melatonin pills or capsules, because "then you know how much you're getting." Melatonin may be helpful for jet lag, she added, but "I don't recommend it for long-term use."
Caveats: Melatonin is a building block for other compounds in the body, and long-term effects of melatonin supplements are unknown.
Theoretically, they could interfere with the body's natural melatonin production and "could adversely affect puberty," Boon said.
Takeaway: Melatonin is likely safe as a stop-gap measure, but don't rely on this hormone to solve chronic sleep problems.
The theory: Supplements derived from the root of this flowering grassland plant – the most popular herbal sleep aid in the United States – are said to induce sleep and improve sleep quality.
The evidence: Studies of valerian for sleep show mixed results and flawed methodology, according to a 2006 review of 16 placebo-controlled trials involving a total of 1,093 patients, published in the American Journal of Medicine. While six studies reported benefit, the researchers found evidence of publication bias. Even in the most promising studies, "the positive effects are small," said Lynda Eccott, a senior instructor in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia who specializes in natural health products.
Caveats: The effective dose – assuming valerian is effective at all – is unknown. Valerian may cause headache, dizziness and stomach upset. And since this herb depresses the central nervous system, it may amplify the sedative effects of alcohol, benzodiazepines and narcotics.
Takeaway: In the risk-benefit analysis, you might be better off giving valerian a pass.
The theory: Teas and extracts from this purple flowering vine are marketed as sleep aids based on a small number of studies and anecdotal use by Indigenous peoples.
The evidence: In 2001, a study published in the journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics found that passionflower was as effective as benzodiazepines in reducing anxiety. But this and other studies of passionflower are either too small or too flawed to draw conclusions about its effectiveness or safety, according to both a 2007 Cochrane review and a 2013 review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Caveats: Passionflower tends to be "quite well tolerated," Eccott said. But since it has sedative effects, combining it with benzodiazepines or alcohol "would be a big mistake." The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns that taking passionflower during pregnancy may induce contractions.
Takeaway: Passionflower is generally safe, but there's no hard proof it will improve shut-eye.
The theory: Piggybacking on magnesium's reputation as a muscle relaxant, a range of pills, oils and powders promote this mineral as a form of natural "sleep support."
The evidence: Magnesium does relax muscles and can help relieve migraines, constipation and menstrual cramps, Eccott said. But naturopaths who recommend magnesium for sleep are jumping ahead of the clinical-trial data, she added: "There's just no evidence that it has been effective for sleep."
Caveats: Magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea in high doses, and may affect absorption of medications such as antibiotics because it binds with other compounds, Eccott pointed out.
Takeaway: While magnesium remains unproven as a sleep aid, it may be worth a try for the muscle-relaxing effects.
The theory: This over-the-counter drug contains diphenhydramine, an antihistamine with a sedative effect. Some people consider it a cheap alternative to sleeping pills.
The evidence: While diphenhydramine makes people drowsy, it shaves an average of just eight minutes off the time it takes to get to sleep, according to a 2017 review in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, and may affect sleep quality. Any extra minutes of shut-eye come at a heavy price: Side effects include dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation and urinary retention.
Caveats: Regular use of Benadryl to help you nod off could make the drug less effective for its main indication, Boon said. When you need it as an antihistamine, "it's not going to work as well."
Takeaway: The side effects of using Benadryl are not worth the meagre sleep gains.
"I really don't recommend it," Boon said. In general, people with sleep problems are better off talking to a health-care professional who can help pinpoint the underlying cause, she added, "rather than self-medicating for months at a time."