When Is it Time for a Sleep Aid?

Too many nights lying wide awake might make you wonder about medication. Here what you should know.

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Even after taking steps to improve the quality of your sleep—such as sticking with a regular bedtime, cutting back on caffeine, and exercising regularly—some people still struggle to get the amount of sleep they need. It’s a cycle that causes frustration as well as exhaustion. So now what?

If you are one of the millions of people who struggle to fall asleep every night, you may wonder if taking medication could help you sleep better or longer. It’s a natural question and it doesn’t have an easy answer, especially since there are many different kinds of sleep aids on the market, with different pros and cons.

Many people find that sleep aids can be helpful for occasional difficulties. Sleep aids are available by prescription or over-the-counter (OTC). There are generally two types of sleep aids: Those that help you fall asleep, and those that reduce the likelihood of waking once you have dozed off. (Some sleep aids offer a combination of the two.) Several prescription sleeping pills are approved for long-term use and produce the desired effect when used as prescribed. With these medications, you may experience some side effects, such as daytime grogginess and memory problems (with long-term use), so be sure to read the safety label and discuss with your doctor if you experience any negative effects.

OTC sleep aids are not intended for long-term use because many contain antihistamines, and people build up a tolerance to their sedating effects with regular use. Because certain OTC sleep aids can leave you feeling groggy and foggy-headed the next morning, it is wise to take one for the first time on a night when you can sleep in the following morning if necessary.

OTC and prescription sleep aids can have potentially dangerous interactions when mixed with other medications or alcohol. And due to possible health complications, antihistamine-containing sleep aids may not be recommended for people with chronic conditions, like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, or urinary retention problems. For all of these reasons and more, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about your sleep.

Other options include certain natural aids, such as melatonin supplements, that can be taken for a few weeks and may help people who have trouble falling and staying asleep to get better quality shut-eye. It’s a misconception that a higher dosage is better, though, and the long-term effects are not known. Talk with your primary care physician about the pros and cons of natural supplements, as well as the right way to take this sleep aid.

The bottom line is that if your sleep troubles are affecting your ability to function and feel well on a daily basis, it may be time for some kind of sleep-promoting help. Whether that means medication (either over the counter or prescription) or another intervention (such as a relaxation technique or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia) is best determined in consultation with your doctor.