Some sleep aids are available only with a doctor’s prescription, while others you can buy over the counter (OTC). However, many OTC products may contain chemicals that can harm you. You should always speak with your doctor about your sleep issues and use only the medications that are safe for you.
The most common OTC sleep supplements are herbal supplements and melatonin, which is a natural substance made by your body. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle and promotes deep sleep. It’s sold as a stand-alone supplement or in combination with other ingredients in over-the-counter sleep medications such as Ambien.
In a recent study, researchers found that younger and older adults were similar in their reported sleep disturbances and recourse to OTC products for sleep relief. But the researchers also found that older adults were more likely to take OTC products for a longer period of time than younger ones: 21% of people age 18-64, 37% of those aged 65-74 and 47% of those 85 or older reported using an OTC product 15 or more days in the previous month.
It is not clear whether the increased use of OTC sleep aids by older adults is related to a higher prevalence of insomnia, or if they are simply using OTC products to treat minor occasional sleep disturbance. Studies of the efficacy of OTC products for sleep onset or maintenance in people with insomnia have been mixed, but some studies suggest that diphenhydramine, doxylamine succinate and melatonin can be helpful for some people.
These medications can have serious side effects, including daytime sedation, impaired cognition and an increased risk of falls and car accidents. Some people also experience anticholinergic side effects, such as dry mouth, blurred vision and constipation. These effects are more common in older adults, and should be taken into account when deciding to use these drugs.
OTC products that are not sedatives or hypnotics are also available. These include antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, which is available as Benadryl, or doxylamine succinate, which is in Nyquil and ZzzQuil. Antihistamines can also cause drowsiness, but their effect is less potent than those of the sedative/hypnotic medications.
There are also a variety of herbal supplements that are promoted to help with sleep, including valerian root and passionflower. These herbs have been shown in small studies to promote sleep, but further research is needed. Some other herbal supplements, such as ginkgo biloba and L-theanine, are not backed by much research, so you should be cautious about trying them for sleep problems. Talk to your doctor before trying any new supplements. Also, be sure to let your doctor know if you’re pregnant or nursing; most supplements are not known to be safe during these life stages.