The Truth About Popular Sleep Supplements, From Magnesium to Melatonin

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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It’s midnight, you’ve been in bed for what feels like an eternity, and Mr. Sandman is ghosting you. Again. But before you reach for a sleep aid, know this: Experts say there’s no single magic pill or potion that’s routinely effective when it comes to getting good rest—and that you’re better off teaching your body to fall asleep on its own. (Even though, as you probably know firsthand, that can be really hard.)

In the short term, a sleep aid—whether it’s melatonin, magnesium, weed, or something else—might help you pass out, but consistently using that kind of shortcut can be quite bad for the quality of your sleep (and, sometimes, for other aspects of your health, too). “When you’re using something to get to sleep, you are often creating an association with that thing, whether it’s a substance, or even a certain action or behavior,” Joshua Tal, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City who specializes in sleep, tells SELF. Basically, you’re making it even harder to fall asleep without whatever it is you’re leaning on to doze off. Fun!

From there, as Jeremy A. Weingarten, MD, director of the Center for Sleep Disorders at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF: Tolerance can also become a part of that equation. “Over time, the sleep aid may be less effective, so you take higher doses, which may result in side effects,” he says. Cool—so now you’re not sleeping well, feeling increasingly dependent on whatever you’re using, and you have additional problems to deal with if the “aid” causes other reactions in your body.

What’s a tired person to even do? For starters: Don’t over-rely on quick fixes that will only make your sleep situation more complicated. Here’s the deal with common sleep aids—and why, a lot of the time, they’re sneakily bullshit.

The substances: alcohol and cannabis

Sipping a glass of wine or popping an edible might seem like an easy road to dreamland…until you take a second look at how they actually affect your sleep. We’re sorry to report that, while each thing can help you drift off quickly, they ultimately just tire you out even more.

Alcohol

Booze is deceptive when it comes to your precious slumber. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, meaning, sure, it can make you tired, but even if you’re drinking in moderation, it will screw with your ability to actually rest. “Alcohol causes significantly increased sleep disruption throughout the night,” says Dr. Weingarten. “You’ll have poorer sleep quality with multiple awakenings—whether you are aware of them or not—resulting in a bad night’s sleep.”

This happens partly because sleep happens in distinct cycles. Booze wreaks havoc on two of them, in particular, which messes with the rest of them overall. For starters, drinking throws off slow-wave sleep, also known as deep sleep, which is vital for restoring your body’s functions and helping you wake up feeling refreshed. Alcohol also decreases the rate of REM sleep, which is best known for its association with vivid dreaming and helping us process our feelings, and is additionally believed to support memory function. All told, a nightcap is only going to make you feel worse in the morning (and all the more so if you’re also dehydrated and dealing with a gruesome hangover).

Cannabis

A quarter of Americans use the world’s chillest flower to drift off, according to a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). As plenty of us know, weed can be great for feeling less keyed-up, but that’s not the same as real rest. “While some people use cannabis for relaxation, its impact on sleep is complex,” Kannan Ramar, MD, a pulmonary/critical care/sleep medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic and former president of the AASM, tells SELF. The part that gets you high, tetrahydrocannabinol (a.k.a. THC) is the culprit behind its not-great effects on snoozing. “THC may reduce REM sleep,” says Dr. Ramar—and research reflects that, too.

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