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Sleep Aid Buying Guide

Sleep Aid Buying Guide: Main Image

Characterized by difficulty falling asleep, waking up often, and poor-quality sleep, insomnia can take a toll on health and leave a person exhausted and cranky. If you have trouble sleeping, an occasional over-the-counter sleep aid may help you get the sleep you need. This buying guide will help you find a sleep aid to fit your health goals, lifestyle, and budget. Keep the following additional points in mind as you choose a product:

  • Everyone has a sleepless night here or there, but if persistent insomnia is new for you, talk to your doctor. It may signal a more serious health problem.
  • When selecting a product, consider medications you use and health conditions you have. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if unsure about whether any particular sleep aid is safe for you.
  • If you have a history of mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, do not use sleep aids without first discussing it with your doctor. Some of these products may intensify mental health issues and many can interfere with medications used to manage mental health issues.
  • Use sleep aids carefully, follow all package directions, and always compare ingredients to avoid accidentally taking two medications together that contain the same active ingredients.
  • Do not use sleep aids and alcohol together. Alcohol increases the sedative effects of over-the-counter sleep medications; combining the two can lead to dizziness or fainting.
  • Over-the-counter medications work best when taken occasionally. When taken long-term, these medications can lose their effectiveness and also cause some dependency.
  • Over-the-Counter Medications

    What they are: There are two over-the-counter medications approved for use as sleep aids to manage occasional insomnia:

    • Diphenhydramine. The active ingredient in the antihistamine Benadryl, this medication also is found in brand name sleep aids such as Tylenol PM and Sominex, as well as numerous generic sleep aids.
    • Doxylamine. The active ingredient in Unisom, doxylamine also is found in generic sleep aids.

    Why to buy: Diphenhydramine and doxylamine effectively induce drowsiness and lead to uninterrupted sleep for many people. These products come in many forms, including soft gels, tablets, caplets, and chewables. Soft gels and chewables are faster acting than tablets.

    Things to consider: You should not take diphenhydramine or doxylamine if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, or if you have glaucoma, heart problems, enlarged prostate, or ulcers. Additionally, do not take doxylamine if you have or have had asthma or bronchitis. Some people feel groggy the next day after taking these medications. For very few people, especially children, diphenhydramine and doxylamine may cause agitation and alertness, which will not help insomnia!

  • Herbs, Dietary Supplements, & Other Natural Sleep Aids

    What they are: Natural sleep aids include dietary supplements, herbs, and other non-medication substances. Common natural sleep aids include:

    • Melatonin. A hormone naturally produced by the body to induce sleep, which can be taken as a dietary supplement as well
    • Valerian, chamomile, lemon balm, and passionflower. Herbs believed to have sleep-inducing and relaxation properties
    • Kava kava. An herb with relaxation properties, which is no longer recommended by many health care providers due to potential problems with liver toxicity
    • Theanine. A substance found in green tea that can promote relaxation and sleep.
    • Magnesium. A mineral that the body uses to relax muscles
    • Lavender. An aromatherapy herb (smelled, not taken orally) that may promote relaxation and restfulness
    • Hops. A plant best known as a flavoring component for beer, which can be used as a dietary supplement to manage insomnia
    • L-tryptophan. An amino acid (a building block for protein) that may improve sleep for some people

    Why to buy: Some of these herbs and dietary supplements have research to support that they may be helpful for managing insomnia, including melatonin, valerian, chamomile, passionflower, theanine, magnesium, hops, and L-tryptophan. They may be less likely to cause next-day grogginess than over-the-counter sleep medications.

    Things to consider: Natural does not always mean safe. All dietary supplements and herbs should be carefully reviewed with your healthcare provider or pharmacist. If you are managing a health condition, this will help to ensure a supplement is safe to combine with medications you are using. Use plant- and herb-based natural sleep aids with caution if you have hay fever or seasonal allergies; some of these products may cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. Natural sleep aids may not be safe for people with a history of mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. If in doubt, talk to your doctor first. Magnesium can have laxative effects, so start with a low dose to assess your tolerance to this mineral.

  • Stop-Snoring Products

    What they are: Stop-snoring products are designed to decrease bothersome snoring, either through physically opening breathing passageways, or by changing how the muscles in the mouth and throat are contracting or relaxing. Mouthpieces and nasal clips and strips are used to open breathing passages. Homeopathic, herbal, and other natural substances are taken orally or sprayed into the throat to ease snoring.

    Why to buy: Some people find stop-snoring products to be helpful. They are relatively inexpensive and the products designed to physically open breathing passages are safe for nearly everyone.

    Things to consider: Snoring can signal a serious health condition, such as sleep apnea. If you’ve developed snoring recently, if your snoring is severe, or if you are groggy most of the time during the day, talk to your doctor before you try to self-treat snoring.


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