If sleep is so important, getting enough of it should be easy. But when your days are stressful and your nights are long, good-quality rest can be hard to find. That’s where adaptogens and nootropics can help. These natural and synthetic compounds help you calm down, deal with stress, and, most importantly, fall asleep and stay asleep.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are herbs and plants that help you manage stress. They protect your body from stress by actually decreasing your body’s sensitivity to stressors1. Stress can come from anywhere — like a looming deadline, chronic illness, or even social anxiety. Adaptogens work with your body’s stress response system to bring you back to normal.
The easiest way to understand how adaptogens work is to think of the thermostat in your home. When the temperature gets too high, the thermostat kicks in. Adaptogens work in much the same way. They affect your hormones, helping your body maintain homeostasis — the state in which your internal systems are balanced.
Not all plants are adaptogens. To be considered adaptogenic, a plant must meet the following criteria2:
- Helps the body resist stress
- Must maintain homeostasis
- Must be non-toxic
What Are Nootropics?
Nootropics are natural and synthetic chemicals that support cognition. You might have heard of Silicon Valley techies taking “smart drugs” to boost their focus and productivity — those drugs are nootropics.
“Nootropics” is a broad category, and different chemicals can have wildly different effects. Researchers define nootropics as drugs that enhance learning, improve brain function under intense conditions, and lack the same side effects as pharmaceutical neuropsychotropic drugs3.
Some adaptogens are nootropics, but not all nootropics are adaptogens. Coffee is considered a nootropic because it contains caffeine, a chemical that enhances cognitive performance, mood, and alertness4. However, because caffeine is a stimulant, coffee isn’t going to help your body bounce back from stress.
How Adaptogens and Nootropics Can Help You Sleep
If you want to sleep better, search for supplements that help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Adaptogens help regulate your stress hormone levels to keep your body balanced. If you’ve ever tried falling asleep when you’re feeling anxious, you already know that trying to doze off while you’re in fight-or-flight mode is a no-go.
Nootropics are brain boosters. Some nootropics are used for memory, learning, and concentration. But in terms of sleep, you want nootropics that promote relaxation and calm. These compounds can raise melatonin levels, which can impact how quickly you get to sleep. They also manage excitatory neurotransmitters. These handle everything from mood to muscle movement to how fast you fall asleep. They can also help balance cortisol, among other functions.
We’ll dig into specifics below, but it’s important to remember that everyone’s biology is a little different. Some adaptogens and nootropics might help you sleep. Others may not have much of an effect. Talk to your doctor before you add any supplements to your routine.
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6 Adaptogens for Sleep
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this medicinal mushroom is used for its sedative and calming effects5. In a rodent study, reishi increased sleeping time and reduced sleep latency — the amount of time it takes to fall asleep6.
How to use reishi for sleep: Reishi tastes bitter, so it’s best to take in pill or tincture form. Some teas and drink mixes are available that balance the flavor with other ingredients, like chocolate and ginger.
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Ashwagandha is a do-it-all adaptogenic herb that has been shown to have anti-stress, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties7. It decreases stress by lowering cortisol levels. It’s also one of the few adaptogens that’s backed up with double-blind, placebo-controlled human studies — aka the gold standard in scientific research. These studies found that ashwagandha reduced stress and improved quality of life measures8. 9.
How to use ashwagandha for sleep: “Ashwagandha” is a combination of the Sanskrit words for “horse” and “smell,” so it’s not the best-tasting plant10. Take this adaptogen in powder or pill form or try it in recipes that mask the flavor.
3. Sea Buckthorn Berry
Sea buckthorn berry is a superfood with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties11. It’s also one of the only known plant foods to provide all four omega fatty acids: omega-3, omega-6, omega-7, and omega-91213.
Research suggests that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids can support sleep quality and help you fall asleep more quickly1415.
How to use sea buckthorn berry for sleep: Look for sea buckthorn berry oil or capsules. You can also eat buckthorn berries, although they can be hard to find.
4. Licorice Root
Also known as sweet root, licorice root is one of the most widely prescribed herbs in Chinese medicine16. A 2011 study suggests it can help support your adrenals, the glands that produce and control your stress hormone cortisol17. In a 2012 study, glabrol — the active ingredient in licorice — was found to bind to GABA receptors in the brain. Which increased sleep duration and reduced the amount of time it took to fall asleep18.
How to use licorice root for sleep: Try it in tea, pills, and tinctures. Heads up: in large amounts and with long-term use, licorice can cause high blood pressure and low potassium levels19.
5. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola is an herb that has been shown to improve symptoms of stress, including fatigue and anxiety2021. This adaptogen has been shown to affect neurotransmitters related to mood and may reduce symptoms of depression: In one clinical trial, when Rhodiola was administered to people with depression, the Rhodiola group reported improvements in insomnia22. The placebo group did not.
How to take Rhodiola Rosea for sleep: Tea or pills. This plant has a sweet, slightly bitter taste, so it has better applications in your favorite drinks and recipes.
Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is an adaptogenic plant. It has been shown to help your body deal with stress by supporting your adrenals23. Research around eleuthero is still in its early days. Still, it’s considered safe to use — just make sure you’re buying eleuthero or Siberian ginseng, not a true ginseng, which is entirely different.
How to take eleuthero for sleep: Tea, pill, or tincture.
3 Nootropics for Sleep
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound found in the cannabis plant. It’s non-psychoactive, which means it doesn’t get you high. Instead, CBD helps you fall asleep by managing the various ailments that might keep you awake, like stress, pain, and anxiety2425.That translates to better-quality sleep.
How to take CBD for sleep: Tinctures, oils, vape concentrates, pills, and edibles. Look for CBD derived from the whole plant, as opposed to CBD isolates. Whole-plant CBD means it contains complementary compounds that make CBD work better via a process called the entourage effect.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. It eases stress and promotes relaxation, potentially by increasing GABA production — the neurotransmitter that supports a calm mind and body26. Paired with caffeine, L-theanine leads to feelings of alertness, which is why you might feel more focused after a cup of green tea. When you want to unwind, take L-theanine on its own (and skip the caffeine).
How to take L-theanine for sleep: Capsules.
Your body naturally converts the amino acid 5-HTP into serotonin, which boosts your mood and melatonin, which helps you sleep. Supplementing with 5-HTP can help you relax and reduce anxiety thanks to higher levels of serotonin, and melatonin helps maintain regular sleep cycles2728.
How to take 5-HTP for sleep: Capsules.
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