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Every tea brand seems to be selling a sleep aid box these days… but do they really work? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi investigates.

Nighttime routines are meant to be relaxing, cosy and, well, soporific. They might include hot baths, long reading sessions (a noble if not unrealistic aim) or drops of high-grade CBD (think: £40+). But one self-care measure that is easily achievable is having a warm cup of something before turning in. That might be a sleepy tea – the kind you find in health food stores and often tastes like hot liquorice – or a moon milk, a powdered coconut milk-based drink that boasts stress-reducing ingredients such as ashwagandha and valerian.

They don’t tend to be hugely expensive, but as with so many wellness products, they do tend to cost more than your average tea bag or decaf scoop. But the real question here is: just how effective are these ‘sleepy’ drinks? 

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What ingredients tend to be in sleep teas and milks?

Whether it’s Pukka’s Night Time, Yogi Tea’s Bedtime, Aldi’s Diplomat Night Tea or Clipper’s Sleep Easy infusion, most teas boast similar ingredients. You’ll typically find lavender, valerian root and chamomile. You may also come across warming spices like cinnamon or stress-reducing herbs like lemon balm. Spend a bit more, and you’ll also find a lot of hemp CBD teas too, which claim to send you off to sleep in next to no time.

Then you’ve got your milks. Sleep Well Oat Drink contains valerian glycerite, while Horlicks’s Healthy Sleep is also packed with chamomile and valerian, as well as protein, B vitamins, calcium and zinc.

Let’s have a look at some of these ubiquitous ingredients in a bit more detail.

Valerian

This herb is known as ‘nature’s valium’, and it’s been used by people as a sleep aid and insomnia supplement since the Middle Ages. There’s plenty of evidence that it works, beyond the centuries of anecdotal proof. A small 2021 study found that people saw anxiety symptoms significantly reduced after taking 530mg of valerian root an hour before bedtime for a month. It also improved sleep quality and depression symptoms. 

A 2020 review of 60 studies concluded that the herb was a safe and effective sleep supplement that could improve sleep quality and quantity. And a 2017 study of 120 people living with disturbed sleep found that taking two tablets containing valerian 30 minutes before bed helped them to fall asleep faster, sleep longer and have fewer nighttime awakenings than the placebo group. While side effects are rare, it’s not advised that pregnant or breastfeeding women take it.

Chamomile

Chamomile flowers are meant to improve the quality of sleep thanks to apigenin, an antioxidant that binds sleep-promoting receptors in your brain. There are a few studies out there confirming its benefits, including one that found those who took a chamomile extract twice a day fell asleep 15 minutes faster than those who didn’t. 

The flower is also known to help with digestive health, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. If IBS or other digestive issues keep you awake at night, a cup of chamomile tea might be a good addition to your evening regime. 

Chamomile is proven to aid sleep and digestion.

Lemon balm

If stress keeps you awake at night, then looking out for lemon balm-infused drinks may well help. It’s a mint-like herb known to reduce anxiety, stress and insomnia symptoms.

CBD

It’s hard to move for CBD products these days, but not all are made equal. Dose and quality matter. To act as a sleep aid, one study recommends taking 160mg of CBD while another, looking into the use of CBD for anxiety and sleep issues in 103 adults, found that anxiety scores decreased in the first month and remained decreased for the duration of the study. Sleep scores, on the other hand, improved in the first month and then fluctuated over time, suggesting that perhaps it’s not a miracle sleep aid, even if it does help to reduce anxiety symptoms.  

Most teas and milks marketed for sleep contain active ingredients like valerian and chamomile.

How effective are sleepy teas and milks?

“For some people, a hot drink before bed is just what they need to help them to relax and unwind,” explains Rhiannon Lambert, registered nutritionist and host of the Food For Thought podcast. But she warns that the kinds of common ingredients usually found in sleepy drinks like chamomile and lavender teas “may not actually help with getting a better night’s sleep”.

The really important thing to check when buying a sleep-aid product is the caffeine content. Lambert explains: “Caffeine can really affect your quality of sleep as well as the hormones that promote sleep. It can stay for up to 12 hours in the body – meaning that you may still feel its effects several hours after consumption, which can negatively impact sleep quality.  

“Not many people realise, but caffeine can be found in many hot drinks other than coffee, including black and green teas – so when choosing a tea, try to opt for decaf varieties. It’s also important to remember our bodies may react in different ways to ingredients within the teas or milks.” 

Is it worth making sleep remedies at home?

Some of these teas and milks can be quite pricey. And that markup, Lambert claims, is because “they’re marketed specifically for sleep”.

For that reason, she recommends making drinks at home, being careful to use caffeine-free products. Not only might it prove to be more cost-effective, but that way, you’re also able to make them to your taste “without any added or unnecessary extras”. Think of the making process as part of your self-care regime: mixing, stirring, boiling – it’s all pretty relaxing.  

Are there better ways of calming down?

Perhaps the bigger question should be: are there more effective foods and habits that better promote good sleep? Unsurprisingly for a nutritionist, Lambert explains that there are lots of nutritional hacks we can employ for getting a better night’s sleep. The most important nutrient to keep in mind? Tryptophan.

“You can find tryptophan in small quantities in all protein foods, with some of the best sources being:

  • Eggs
  • Soybeans
  • Poultry
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Cheese 

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You can get more tryptophan into your diet by having a protein and carb-based snack in the evening. Think: chocolate soy milkshake, cheese and crackers, or a nut butter on rice cakes. Lambert stresses that it’s important to pair protein with carbohydrate as it’s only in that pairing that you get the sleep-promoting effect.

“Some other ways you might want to wind down before going to sleep involve limiting screen time from phones or the TV, perhaps doing some yoga or stretching, reading a book, or listening to some soothing music or an audiobook,” she suggests. 

Hear Rhiannon talking about the link between diet and sleep on her Food For Thought podcast. 

Images: Getty

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