What to know about sleep aids
Sleep acts as a reset for many systems of the body and is one of the most important aspects of overall health. Not sleeping enough may contribute to several long term health conditions.
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription sleep aids tend to use chemical compounds or drugs to help people get to sleep. Natural remedies may include herbs and natural compounds.
Sleep aids alone are not enough to achieve and maintain a healthy sleep cycle. Anyone using them should also seek out other methods of regulating their sleep schedule.
Over-the-counter sleep aids
OTC sleep aids are available without a prescription from many stores and supermarket pharmacies. They include the following:
Sleep aids can help a person improve the quality of their sleep.
Melatonin is an important hormone that the body creates naturally.
Melatonin signals to the brain and body that it is time for sleep. It also plays a role in a person's circadian cycle, which is the 24-hour sleep-and-wake cycle that helps humans respond to day and night.
Melatonin may also help people with sleep disorders fall asleep more easily. As the authors of a 2017 review note, evidence suggests that melatonin may be helpful for people who experience certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia and delayed sleep phase syndrome. It may also help blind people who have difficulty regulating their sleep cycle.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health note that melatonin may also help with other minor sleep issues, such as jet lag.
Melatonin appears to be safe for short term use in people with sleep issues, but there is not much research on its long term safety.
Glycine is a natural amino acid that helps regulate the central nervous system. It may also help control sleep and improve sleep quality.
Research has shown that taking glycine before bed improves both objective and subjective markers of sleep.
The researchers noted that glycine helps lower body temperature, which is one sign that it is time for the body to fall sleep. It also helps regulate circadian rhythm. However, scientists do not understand exactly how it has these effects, so future research is necessary to confirm glycine's effectiveness as a sleep aid.
Diphenhydramine is a key ingredient in many allergy medications, but it can also make a person feel groggy and promote sleep.
Due to this effect, it is a common ingredient in OTC products that manufacturers intend to help people sleep, such as nighttime cough syrups.
However, the compound can significantly reduce mental alertness, so it is important that a person only takes it when they are ready to sleep.
A person can quickly build up a tolerance to diphenhydramine, making it less effective over time.
Doxylamine is another antihistamine, and its effects are similar to those of diphenhydramine. It can cause drowsiness and promote sleep in some people, though its primary function is to treat the symptoms of an allergy or cold.
Prescription sleep aids
The following are some sleep aids that people may use with a prescription:
Benzodiazepines are primarily for anxiety disorders, but they may also promote sleep.
They are a type of sedative-hypnotic medication and are not suitable for long term use, as they can be habit forming or create dependence. They can also create resistance in the body quickly, meaning that they will become less effective over time.
These prescription drugs can be powerful, and they carry a risk of abuse or other side effects. Therefore, doctors only prescribe them in very specific circumstances, such as for people with chronic sleep issues.
- diazepam (Valium)
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
Sedative-hypnotic sleeping pills
Other sedative-hypnotic prescription drugs are also available. These include:
- zaleplon (Sonata)
- eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- zolpidem (Ambien)
These may be helpful for slightly longer term use of up to 6 months. However, they also carry a risk for dependence, and many people with insomnia find that their symptoms return once they stop taking the drugs.
Ramelteon (Rozerem) is a prescription melatonin receptor agonist.
It aims to mimic how the body's melatonin acts and may help people fall asleep or reset their sleep schedule.
Ramelteon can also cause side effects, but it has a lower risk of dependency than sedative drugs.
The following natural remedies may help aid sleep:
Valerian root is a strong-smelling root that many companies sell as a natural sedative.
There is little objective research to confirm that valerian root can help people with insomnia, but it may promote better sleep in some individuals.
As a 2017 review article notes, valerian appears to help improve subjective but not objective sleep quality. Although people taking valerian may report that they slept better, their brain waves during the night may not show the same results.
However, there appear to be no serious side effects from taking valerian root in the short term. If a person believes it to be beneficial, there is unlikely to be any harm in them using it for a limited period.
Using lavender essential oil can help a person feel relaxed, which may then promote sleep.
Lavender flowers give off a calming scent, and the essential oil of the flower is popular in aromatherapy.
Many people find that using lavender essential oil in a diffuser before they sleep helps lead to a calm, relaxed state that promotes sleep.
Some smaller studies have shown the potential benefits of lavender in regards to sleep, including:
- improving sleep quality
- improving signs of insomnia
- increasing the duration of sleep
- helping people who have temporarily or completely stopped taking sleeping medication get to sleep
However, these are generally small-scale studies, and more research is necessary to highlight the potential of lavender before making any broad claims.
Magnesium is an important mineral for the body, and it plays a role in many bodily functions. Magnesium may help relax the muscles and prepare the body for sleeping.
A study in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences looked at the effect of magnesium on measures of insomnia in older adults.
The researchers noted that participants who took magnesium reported better sleep quality compared with those in the placebo group. The magnesium also improved markers of insomnia, such as early waking, trouble falling asleep, and overall sleep time.
While the results are promising, this study only involved older adults, who may have had lower blood magnesium levels at the start. Magnesium may not have the same effect for everyone.
However, the short term use of magnesium supplements should not pose any health risks, and it may help some people get better sleep.
Alternative natural remedies for sleep
Other natural remedies may help promote sleep, although there is currently a lack of scientific evidence to support their use.
Some people may feel as though they fall asleep more easily or wake up feeling more refreshed after using:
- CBD oil
- tart cherries
Anyone considering using these foods and supplements as sleep aids should consult a doctor before doing so.
How to get better sleep
No matter which sleep aid a person chooses, its use should be temporary. These aids function as a way to help the body get back to its normal rhythms and regulate its sleep schedule.
As such, no sleep aid is the only answer to better sleep. Sleep aids are simply one possible component of a healthy sleep program.
Getting better sleep involves creating healthy sleep habits, which include:
- avoiding excess blue light before bed, such as the lights from a computer, phone, or television
- waking up at the same time each day if possible
- eating a varied, healthful diet
- avoiding habits that may affect sleep, such as drinking alcohol or caffeine at night
- exercising regularly
- achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
Additionally, anyone who is having trouble sleeping should work directly with a doctor to find a solution. The most effective treatment for sleep issues may depend on many factors, including a person's overall health.
Sleep aids can help some people find temporary relief from sleep issues, such as jet lag, insomnia, or poor sleep quality.
Some sleeping pills may cause dependency or tolerance, making it more difficult for a person to sleep without the drug. Certain sleep aids may also cause unwanted side effects.
No sleep aid is a replacement for the thorough diagnosis and treatment of sleep issues. Anyone considering using a sleep aid of any kind should do so under the guidance of a doctor.