We are so lucky. For so many of our minor daily aches, pains and little health concerns there are effective medicines available. Headache? There are (multiple) easy-to-use and generally safe pills for that. Overdid it on that run and your joints are sore? There’s a pill for that, too. Bee sting (and you’re thankfully not allergic)? Reach for an over-the-counter antihistamine. Occasional heartburn? You know what to do…
So, naturally, we’d love to tackle our sleep concerns just as easily. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you suffer from chronic insomnia (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both that lasts for four weeks or more), popping a pill is likely not your best solution, and can even have some serious drawbacks.
In this blog, we’re covering the most important things you need to know about over-the-counter sleep treatments, prescription sleeping pills, and a non-pharmacological sleep therapy with lasting results.
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
Most of the sleep aids you can buy without a prescription (over-the-counter) at your local pharmacy are antihistamines. Yes, that’s the same type of medicine you might use if you have hay fever or poison ivy. These medications are known to be sedating, which is why the can help you feel sleepy, but there’s no proof, that they help with insomnia and they can cause inconvenient or downright dangerous drowsiness (even the day after you take them). Other possible side effects of these types of over-the-counter sleep aids include dry mouth, constipation, and nausea.
If you choose to try an over-the-counter sleep aid, experts say you shouldn’t use it for more than two to four weeks. Also, be sure to discuss your sleep problems and your over-the-counter medicating with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. You can make this conversation more productive and efficient, by using the Circady app for just one week to track your sleep and other related data. The report you’ll get after that one week will provide your healthcare provider with useful information to help accurately analyze your sleep patterns for diagnosis and treatment.
Another type of sleep-related, over-the-counter product is the hormone melatonin. Melatonin naturally occurs in your brain and helps tell your body when it’s time to wind down for sleep. Typically, your brain starts to release melatonin into your blood stream in the evening, helping you to feel drowsy and making sleep seem like welcome idea.
Today, it’s also common to see bottles of supplemental melatonin on pharmacy and supermarket shelves. Such additional melatonin can be useful if you’re experiencing jet lag, work non-traditional (or night) hours, or otherwise experience sleep difficulties due to an unusual schedule. Don’t, however, expect dramatic results. In a study published in the journal Work, melatonin helped people to fall asleep just 7 minutes faster. Similarly, a meta-analysis of melatonin use in older adults found that it helped study participants to fall asleep 6 minutes faster and to sleep 18 minutes longer.
Be aware also of potential side effects and how much melatonin is in each dose. Many products on the market contain much more melatonin than your body would ever naturally produce. A 1 to 3 mg dose, for instance, can increase your melatonin levels by 20 times.
Potential melatonin side-effects, according to the Mayo Clinic, include headache, dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness. Other, less common side effects can be short-term feelings of depression, mild tremor, mild anxiety, abdominal cramps, irritability, reduced alertness, confusion or disorientation, and abnormally low blood pressure.
Melatonin can also interact with other medications. This means that if you take other medicines, you should talk to your doctor about whether melatonin is a safe choice for you, or not.
Prescription Sleeping Pills
So, if the stuff that you can grab off the shelf at your local store won’t dramatically improve your sleep, what about “sleeping pills” from your doctor?
Experts sometimes recommend prescription sleep medication for short-term use (one week to a “few” weeks) when external, temporary factors such as illness, stress, travel, or a big life change are causing you to have disrupted, poor-quality sleep. In these cases, your doctor may prescribe a sleep medication to help you to get some rest while you heal, while your schedule gets back on track, while you adapt to new circumstances, or while you tackle whatever is stressing you out.
Whether you use a sleep medication for a few days or a few weeks, always follow your doctor’s instructions carefully and be aware that grogginess can be a side effect and sometimes people can become “dependent” on prescription sleep aids. Certainly, your prescribing doctor would likely bring these things up, but if he or she does not, consider asking about them.
How well do prescription sleep meds work? According to Consumer Reports, they may be able to help you gain 8 to 20 minutes of sleep per night. The jury is still out, however, as to whether users feel better or more alert the next day.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-i)
Looking for a reliable, non-pharmacological insomnia treatment instead? Unlike the “quick fix” approach of taking medication, CBT-i combats insomnia by helping patients get to the root of their issue and learn how to control anti-sleep thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Tactics include restricting daytime sleep, controlling stimuli, productive thinking strategies, ensuring healthy sleep habits, maintaining sleep “hygiene,” and more.
CBT-i is recommended by sleep experts as first line treatment for insomnia with or without co-existing medical conditions (like depression, anxiety, and PTSD). The American College of Physicians reports that CBT-i is safer than medications for insomnia and the American Psychological Association says CBT-i works better than medications. CBT-i also has no side effects and won’t cause dependency. Indeed, Consumer Reports calls cognitive behavioral therapy the “best buy” for insomnia and reports that even a single session can help (with four or more sessions being ideal.) Benefits can last for years, adds the AARP.
Visit Circady.com and get on the mailing list for more information about CBT-i that will utilize video chat along with an app and mobile, wearable, and home-sensor technologies for interactive, expert, customized sleep care wherever you are – without a pill or side effects.
As always, thanks for reading and we hope you have a peaceful night.