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An Introduction to Sleep Aids

People often turn to sleep aids when they have trouble sleeping. While these can be a short term solution for insomnia or a work shift change, they are usually not recommended for long term use.

Woman In Pyjamas Taking Pill

The National Sleep Foundation recommends caution when taking over-the-counter medications for sleep. They have a limited effectiveness over long term use and people taking them often still feel the effects of the medication the next day, resulting in sleepiness.

The NSF categorizes sleep medications into categories:

  • Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, enhance the action of GABA, which is a neurotransmitter that slows brain activity.
  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, such as Ambien and Lunesta, affect only specific parts of the GABA receptor.
  • Antidepressants like Asendin alter brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine and have a strong sedative effect.
  • Diphenhydramine, like Benadryl, is the most common over-the-counter sleep aid. It is an antihistamine that also causes drowsiness.
  • Melatonin can also be purchased over-the-counter and alters the circadian clock to aid sleep.
  • Orexin receptor antagonists, currently only Belsomra, block the chemical orexin in the brain, which inhibits arousal, and is one of the newest sleep aids.


Using Sleep Aids Safely

It is important to consult with your doctor before prescribing over-the-counter sleep aids to yourself for long-term use. Short term use of sleep aids could be a good idea if your insomnia is short term and you know the cause, such as traveling across time zones, changes to your work schedule, or because of special short-term events that cause you anxiety.

Before turning to sleep aids, try behavioral changes first. Develop a nighttime routine to promote sleep. Engage in restful activities before bed and get enough exercise during the day. Wait to get into bed until you feel tired. Sleep aids are not replacements for healthy sleep habits, so it is important to develop proper sleep hygiene before turning to sleep aids to manage insomnia symptoms.


Long-term Insomnia

If your long term insomnia still persists despite behavioral changes, talk to your doctor to determine the cause and possibly get a prescription for sleep aids. Most doctors agree that sleep aids should not be used indefinitely. Remember to always follow the safety guidelines given by your doctor and the packaging on the prescription to maintain your personal health the best way you can.

You don’t have to accept insomnia as part of your life. It affects everything from work and productivity to social interactions and personal relationships. Get help when you need it, but use caution when turning to sleep aids that are not prescribed by your doctor.


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