Let’s be real: We’re all just trying to sleep better…and even more so lately, given the stressful times we’re living in.
From cryotherapy and infrared saunas to sleep masks and adaptogens, there are so many different options treatments and products that promise to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and everything in between.
More recently, a slew of cognitive enhancers has entered the market, promising deeper, better sleep. Enter: nootropics.
What exactly are nootropics—and can they help you sleep better? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is a nootropic?
“Essentially, a nootropic is an ingredient that directly impacts the availability of neurotransmitters in the trillion synapses in your brain,” explains Dan Freed, founder and CEO of the nootropics company Thesis, which offers personalized nootropics for clients based on a quiz they take on the website.
As Freed explains, everything you think and feel is controlled by your levels of these neurotransmitters—your body’s chemical messengers, which carry messages from one nerve cell to another.
When you’re incredibly happy, for example, it’s because of the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, says Freed, while sleep is related to gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), another neurotransmitter.
“Just as you can use nootropics during the day to get your neurotransmitters to the optimal balance for energy, focus, and memory, you can use nootropics at night to achieve quality sleep,” says Freed.
Nootropics (also known as “smart drugs”) can help enhance cognitive function, allowing your brain to function better and release those neurotransmitters that will then lead to better memory, more focus, more relaxed sleep, and so forth.
These supplements all have different functions, so it’s important to look for the ones that target sleep issues in particular if that’s your concern. (Here’s what you need to know about OTC sleep aids.)
What is the connection between nootropics and sleep?
As we stated previously, certain nootropics can help enhance the neurotransmitters you need for good, quality sleep.
When you add these nootropics to your daily routine, the idea is that the correct neurotransmitters will be in balance, giving your body the signals it needs to regulate your sleep cycle.
The best nootropics for sleep
“There are several nootropics out there, and they all have different benefits,” says David Tomen, founder of comprehensive wellness website Nootropics Expert.
When it comes to sleep specifically, Tomen says you want to look for nootropics that will control and enhance your regular sleep cycle—also called circadian rhythm—so you know when to fall asleep at night and rise naturally.
You also want to use nootropics that will activate the neurotransmitters responsible for less stress and drowsiness, he says.
“Ideally, you’d also want to be able to take nootropics close to bedtime that suppress the neurotransmitters responsible for wakefulness and keeping us energized,” adds Tomen.
Below are the best nootropics to take for sleep, according to Freed and Tomen. (Learn about maca root and its sleep benefits.)
Yup, that tried-and-true supplement is a nootropic, says Tomen. “Studies have shown that melatonin has a key role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm, which means it helps your brain know when it’s time to go to sleep at night,” he explains. (Here’s how melatonin patches work.)
Magnesium has been known to reduce classic signs and symptoms of insomnia, such as trouble falling asleep and shorter sleep durations per night. Magnesium bisglycinate, which relaxes muscles, and magnesium threonate, which calms the nervous system, are two types of magnesium that can help aid in sleep.
“Our partner, Andrew Huberman, PhD, has conducted a lot of research on nootropics for sleep, and L-theanine was found to increase both sleep duration and latency,” says Freed. L-theanine can help reduce anxiety in order to prime your body for better sleep.
Another favorite of Freed, apigenin can also help reduce anxiety, allowing the body to relax into sleep. Apigenin is also found in chamomile.
“5-HTP is the precursor to serotonin, which boosts the good mood feeling in the body,” explains Tomen. “It’s used for sleep because, again, serotonin is the precursor to melatonin, and that regulates the sleep cycle.” One study found people who took 5-HTP went to sleep quicker and slept more deeply than those who took a placebo.
How to find quality nootropics
“The main issue with nootropics right now is that since they’re a supplement, they’re not regulated by the FDA,” notes Freed. “And this means that you can buy a lot of fake, cheap, poorly sourced options on the market, which may cause more harm than good—or they may no longer do what they’re required to do.”
There are two clear ways to differentiate between low- and high-quality nootropic products, says Freed.
The first is that the product was produced in a CGMP facility or one that follows the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. This means the manufacturer’s process and facilities follow regulations for proper design, monitoring, and control.
“The second is the gold standard for nootropics: third-party lab testing,” says Freed. “Most nootropic brands do not test their products at third-party labs, but the best nootropics companies will get an external lab to confirm that the ingredients in their products are pure and don’t include any biological contaminants or other harmful ingredients.”
You should ask a brand for its third-party lab certificate if it’s not listed on the site, suggests Freed.
Additionally, Tomen recommends you always check the nutrition labels of nootropics when you buy them: Just because a supplement advertises it contains a certain nootropic, that doesn’t mean it contains the correct amount of the ingredient.
“It isn’t that you should look for a certain number of milligrams, but since ingredients are always listed in the order of most prominent to least, the nootropic you’re looking for should be closer to the top of the list,” he says.
Below are some recommended brands and products that source their products carefully and can help with sleep.
Try: The Dream Light, formulated with reishi, melatonin, and L-tryptophan
Try: The Thesis Starter Kit, with specific blends for energy, creativity, calm, and focus
Try: The Dream Powder, formulated with melatonin, L-theanine, and magnesium
Try: The ZZZs supplement, formulated with 5-HTP, magnesium, and zinc
How to use nootropics properly
“Most nootropics will have instructions on the back, explaining how many to take and how often,” says Freed. “You can usually take them with or without food, but since each person is different, it will vary when it comes time to see results.”
Freed says some people notice results right away, while others may need a few days.
“There’s definitely some trial and error when it comes to the best option for you, so ideally, you should try a nootropic out for about two weeks before you decide whether you want to add it to your routine or not,” he says.
Are there any concerns when it comes to nootropics?
The biggest concern is the sourcing of ingredients, says Tomen. In general, though, nootropics are thought to be relatively safe.
Of course, it’s best to stick to the recommended dose and consult your doctor if you take certain prescription drugs since those can combine in ways that could have an adverse effect, says Tomen. For example, it could cause migraines or digestive issues or render the nootropic useless, he explains.
However, if you’re not taking any medications and stick to the recommended dose, you likely shouldn’t have any issues, says Tomen.
The bottom line on nootropics and sleep
Nootropics can help promote restful sleep and regulate your circadian rhythm—but you may need to test out different options to see which ones work best for you. Sourcing can also be a concern, so make sure to check the labels and consult with your doctor before trying.
Certain herbs can help you snooze too. Check out our roundup on the best herbs for sleep to find out which ones really work.