You've seen them at the supermarket—but do sleep-inducing teas really work?
But do these concoctions actually work, or are they mostly placebo? We had a couple of nutritionists peek at the most common ingredients to weigh in on their actual effects on tiredness and sleep.
Turns out, while the ingredients in bedtime teas vary, a few of the most common just might put you in the mood for sleep:
Chamomile. Some research has shown that consuming this flower may help you nod off. “It is a mild tranquilizer that’s been consumed for many years,” says nutritionist Abby Langer, R.D.
Lavender: In one study, smelling lavender helped women catch more REM sleep, while other research has shown it may help stabilize moods and have a sedative effect. “In Germany, lavender tea has been approved for insomnia,” says Langer. “When it’s inhaled it has sedative and relaxing effects. Although most of the research is in inhalation and not tea, I think it could be effective.”
Valerian root: This plant is a common ingredient in over-the-counter insomnia treatments. However, results are still inconclusive as to whether or not it can help with sleep quality. “The problem is, we’re not sure about the dosage. Also it can cause dizziness and stomach upset as side effects, so you have to be careful,” says Langer.
Spearmint/peppermint. Mint is great for digestion and curbing gas after a big meal, especially peppermint. “If you’re having stomach problems, it could lead to being able to sleep better,” says Jessica Levinson, R.D. Langer notes that animal studies have also shown peppermint may increase length of sleep. “But we’re not rats. It’s likely added mostly for flavor,” she says.
Fennel: This licorice-flavored veggie relaxes muscles, like the intestines and uterus, and it’s been shown to help with heartburn, gas, and cramps—which is why it might be added to tea, say Levinson and Langer.
Passion flower: It’s possible these flowers could help with sleep, but it’s far from sure. “While a few studies show it calms anxiety and insomnia, the results may be confounded by other herbs it’s often combined with,” Langer says.
Lemongrass. While a couple of animal studies have shown this mild-smelling herb may lead to longer snoozing, “They’re very weak. I wouldn’t take them as evidence,” Langer says.
Orange blossoms. While Langer says some shaky evidence suggests orange blossoms may help relieve anxiety, they’re most likely added for flavor.
As far as other ingredients (such as tilia/linden flowers, blackberry leaves, hawthorn, and rosebuds), none have been shown to help with sleep; the nutritionists agree they’re most likely included as flavoring.
So do bedtime teas really work? Unfortunately the answer isn’t clear-cut. “Most of the research is very weak or in animal studies. That’s normal for most herbal remedies,” says Langer.
That doesn’t mean a brew won’t work for you. “The ritual of having tea is part of what helps induce sleep and relaxation,” says Levinson.
Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Lab, agrees.
“The placebo effect is a remarkable thing: If you believe that a supplement is going to improve your sleep, you sometimes do see an improvement,” he says. So if your tea helps you fall asleep, drink it!
Just a couple of words of caution: As with any herbal remedy, if you’re taking any medications be sure to check with your doctor to be sure it’s safe.
“Even though it’s a plant, that doesn’t mean it can't be dangerous in high amounts or couldn’t interact with medications,” says Langer. Scullin adds that you should see a sleep specialist if you think you might have a sleep disorder. “The root problem is not fixed by a placebo, and placebo effects are not as strong and long-lasting as what we know to be truly effective interventions,” he says.
If you're not a fan of tea, some research has shown these options may also help you to nod off:
Tart cherry juice. As a good source of melatonin, a chemical produced by a gland in your brain that regulates sleep cycles, some research has shown that tart cherry juice is as effective for people with insomnia as Valerian root. “You can buy it as a supplement, but if you prefer cherry juice, a little bit before bed may help you sleep,” says Langer.
A warm glass of milk. There really might be something to the pre-bed ritual. Milk (along with pineapple, salmon, nuts and seeds, turkey, and chickpeas) contains the amino acid tryptophan, which increases serotonin levels—and that in turn can help with relaxation, explains Langer. But although some research has shown may help you to fall asleep, it’s not super convincing, says Levinson. Like tea, it may be the ritual that brings on the sandman.