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Considering Sleep Aids

When lifestyle changes aren’t enough to help you get the rest you need, weigh your other options wisely
Written by 
Cathy Garrard
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
November 11, 2014

If a good night’s sleep evades you, some simple changes—such as making your room cooler and drowning out distraction—can go a surprisingly long way in improving the quality of your rest. And since most of these solutions are free, easy-to-implement and side effect-free, they’re the best place to start if you’re desperate for Zzzzs. Sometimes, though, these and other measures simply are not enough. Sleep aids may be something you’d like to consider, particularly if your issues have persisted for some time.

“Sleep is your body’s time to repair and heal itself,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Disrupted or too-short slumber can have a dramatic impact on your overall health, sense of life balance and mental wellbeing. Sleep aids can help you nod off and stay asleep, so you can clock the quality, restorative rest you need. But, as with anything you take, it’s worth educating yourself on the options and discussing them with your doctor before trying any yourself (especially if you are already on medication, or are pregnant or breastfeeding). Your physician may also be able to identify the cause of your sleep issues, which may be best managed with something altogether different.


Over-the-Counter Remedies

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids can be very effective for the occasional night of tossing and turning. Most options contain antihistamines (just like allergy medications), which block your production of histamine—a chemical that stimulates your system. These are non-habit-forming drugs, but the sedative effects of antihistamines can wear off quickly if your body develops a tolerance to them. So, the longer you take these medicines, the less effective they will become. OTC sleep aids should only be taken for two or three nights at a time, and can leave some people feeling groggy or “hungover” the next day.

Herbs and Supplements

Melatonin is perhaps the most commonly used non-drug sleep aid. Supplements are actually the synthetic version of the same-name hormone your body naturally produces to induce that drowsy feeling that gets you ready for sleep. Studies show that taking a melatonin supplement prior to bedtime may help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer than they would without one. Herbal remedies have also been used for centuries for this purpose; though less conclusive research exists to confirm effectiveness, reported benefits are noteworthy. Valerian, chamomile and passionflower, for example, may have a calming effect that encourages sleep. Lavender aromatherapy oils may also help you relax so you can better drift off. Though these aren’t medications, they can have side effects and potential drug interactions, too—even if you’re just consuming them in tea form, as you can with valerian, for example.

Prescription Drugs

If you have tried other sleep solutions but continue to suffer from insomnia for longer than a month, prescription therapies may be right for you. Some of these drugs can help you with one issue or the other, though some can do both. If you and your doctor jointly decide that this route is worth exploring, she will likely prescribe a medication for a two- to four-week trial run. These drugs affect people differently, so you may need to—with your physician’s guidance—try several before finding the best fit. Though you’re less likely to become dependent on today’s prescription sleeping pills, compared to those of the past, the risk still exists. Remember, too, that these powerful drugs can have harmful interactions and cause other side effects such as headaches, sleepwalking, sexual performance issues and more. They should only be taken as directed and should never be stopped without a doctor’s guidance.

More: Create a Soothing Bedtime Routine

Reference(s) 
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health
National Sleep Foundation
University of Maryland Medical Center
About the author 
Cathy Garrard is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about health topics. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.