6 clinically proven natural remedies for better sleep

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published February 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

About 25% of US adults develop acute insomnia every year, according to researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. The good news is that 75% of those affected will overcome this problem without developing chronic insomnia or other persistent sleep issues.

“Whether caused by stress, illness, medications, or other factors, poor sleep is very common,” said Michael Perlis, PhD, director of the Penn Behavioral Sleep Medicine program, whose lab quantified these statistics.

Sleep problems can take multifarious forms, including difficulty falling asleep, loss of sleep overnight, mid-sleep awakening, trouble going back to sleep, failing to feel refreshed on waking, and loss of work time due to fatigue. But, most sleep disorders can be diagnosed and treated. While severe sleep problems may require surgical intervention or long-term prescription treatment, less severe sleep disorders may be resolved by natural therapeutics. 

Let’s take a look at six such “natural” plant-based sleep remedies. Although these soporifics have been used for eons as traditional medicines, support for their continued use is rooted in clinical and preclinical studies that have examined their molecular underpinnings and more.


Rosemary has been used as a folk remedy in some East and Southeast Asian countries. This plant is packed with various phytochemicals, such as rosmarinic acid, and other phenolic compounds that have been shown to exert various neurochemical effects that may help with sleep. 

Activation of GABAA receptors promotes sleep. Phenolic compounds—like those found in rosemary—affect GABAA-ergic systems, which augment pentobarbital-induced sleeping behaviors and inhibit GABA transaminase (an enzyme that breaks down GABA). 


As with rosmarinic acid, ginseng moderates GABAA-ergic transmission, thus yielding sedative properties. Korean red ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, may boost non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep levels by GABAA-ergic systems and prolong total sleep time. While in a state of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and reinforces the immune system.

Furthermore, some experts believe that Asian ginseng could maintain normal sleep and wakefulness cycles. Specifically, in mouse models, Asian ginseng altered electrical activity of the sleep-wake stage. 

Violet oil

Roses are red, violets are blue—and, apparently, violets can make you sleepy, too. 

In a three-arm, double-blind, randomized trial, Iranian researchers found that violet oil may be a safe, natural, herbal sleep remedy for insomnia. They randomized 75 patients with chronic insomnia to receive either a drop of violet oil, a drop of almond oil, or a drop of placebo intranasally into each nostril every night before bed for 30 days. 

Primary outcomes included results from the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) questionnaires, both before and after the study. The researchers found that all three interventions worked, but violet oil provided the greatest benefit—particularly with regard to sleep quality.  


Kava is a type of black pepper endemic to the Pacific islands. It is commonly sold as “kava kava” in the United States. Native Pacific Islanders have long used the roots of this plant in relaxation rituals, social gatherings, and folk medicine. The active ingredients in kava are kavalactones and kavapyrones, which have been shown to moderate GABA activities in animal models. Kavalactones are found in the roots and rhizomes of the plant; they are thought to act in a fashion akin to benzodiazepines and antidepressants.

In addition to a plethora of anecdotal accounts from Pacific Islanders, some researchers of randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that kava can help with sleep. However, a word of warning about kava: Processed kava found in the Western world may result in liver damage, for reasons still unclear. Consequently, the FDA has cautioned against the use of kava in those with liver damage or liver problems. 


The main active ingredients in lavender are linalyl acetate and linalool. Some experts believe that these compounds could be responsible for lavender’s purported languorous effects, and they’ve been shown to moderate the actions of GABA and glutamate in animal models.

According to one review article that examined the use of some plant-derived extracts as sleep aids, lavender—either in the form of tea or gel capsules—has proven helpful with various sleep parameters, including sleep time, sleep efficiency, and decreased mid-sleep awakening and duration. Users have also reported decreased fatigue and improved mood in the morning after taking lavender the night before.


When Peter Rabbit had a rough day in the garden, Mrs. Rabbit gave him a touch of chamomile to help him sleep at night. Although chamomile did the trick in this fictional animal model, the sleep-inducing effects of chamomile in humans are less clear. Nevertheless, some research in humans supports its somnolent effects.

In a low-power, quasi-experimental clinical study, researchers assessed the efficacy of chamomile extract on sleep quality in elderly people admitted to nursing homes in Iran. The study sample included 77 elderly and nursing-home patients, half of whom received 400-mg oral chamomile capsules twice daily for 4 weeks, and half of whom didn’t. Overall, oral administration of chamomile extract improved sleep quality in the experimental group.  

In another study involving 80 postnatal Taiwanese women with poor sleep quality, —consuming chamomile tea for 2 weeks, in conjunction with regular postpartum care, improved mood and sleep quality.

Please keep in mind that although barbiturates and benzodiazepines are commonly used to treat insomnia, they’re dangerous—even as stopgap measures. They can lead to dependence, habituation, and tolerance. On the other hand, some plant-based therapeutics, such as those mentioned above, may be efficacious while offering a more desirable safety profile.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter