The need for sleep – and the frustration over not being able to get it – have been with us for a long time… probably back to caveman days. With hundreds of drugs and remedies available it is important to understand how each type works so that we can make an informed decision.
Over the Counter Sleeping Aids
Sleeping pills of all types are known as “hypnotics,” and some work better than others for different types of sleep problems. The drugs that are available without a prescription are known as over the counter, or OTC drugs. They are generally thought of as being safe, and that is why they can be easily purchased at your local drug store or supermarket. The most popular of these are antihistamines, though a couple of mild painkillers are also sometimes used.
Antihistamines are the most commonly purchased over the counter sleeping aids. Though many people associate antihistamines with cures for the common cold, allergies and even motion sickness, they are also the active ingredient in OTC sleep aids. This is because scientists have found that while antihistamines were managing the symptoms of these other conditions they were also making patients drowsy. The side effect was packaged into a cure, and that is how antihistamines have become so widely marketed for insomnia.
Most of these sleeping aids are made using diphenhydramine, though some contain dimenhydrinate, promethazine or meclizine. They all work similarly; they are absorbed into the blood stream rapidly and their sedative affect sets in shortly thereafter. In most people the drugs’ effects last several hours, though there can be a wide variation, particularly in those who are elderly or who suffer from conditions affecting the liver.
Though antihistamines are effective at making people fall asleep, they have several side effects that make people hesitate about taking them. Many people experience a groggy, dizzy feeling when they wake up after taking antihistamines. Sometimes rather than making people sleepy it makes them hyperactive and restless, and other people have reported suffering from nausea, constipation and other gastrointestinal upsets. Dry mouth and palpitations are also common. People who take antihistamines are urged not to combine them with other sedatives or alcohol, as they can have a depressant effect that can be dangerous.
Over the counter painkillers are also taken to help people sleep, though they are rarely marketed for this purpose. Both aspirin and acetaminophen have been found to have very mild sedative effects, and in most cases people who report that they have been helpful with insomnia have taken them for another reason, most frequently pain relief. Patients are cautioned against taking too much of either of these drugs as they can have serious side effects if taken regularly, including kidney damage and stomach irritation.
In addition to over the counter medications sold in pharmacies, many insomnia sufferers who do not have a prescription from their physician have turned to natural hypnotics – herbal mixtures that have been shown anecdotally to be helpful. Some of these plant-based medicines have come to us from indigenous cultures that have used them for years, and though there is charm in their story and an attraction to taking something that is natural and organic, it is also important to remember that in many cases these cures have not undergone rigorous scientific testing. It is also important to keep in mind that they are largely unregulated, so that there can be no certainty about dosages or quality control. There are four herbal remedies that are more popular than all the rest: they are chamomile, lemon balm, verbena and valerian.
Chamomile is generally offered in the form of a tea that is made from a chamomile plant that has been dried. Many people drink this tea before bed and report that it makes them relax and makes it easier for them to fall asleep. Though its impact is mild, it has become so popular that nearly every tea company and shop sells chamomile tea. It has a pleasant taste and no known side effects.
Lemon balm is another plant whose leaves are used to make tea. Lemon balm is in the mint family, and it has earned a reputation both as a sedative and as a pain reliever. Though it is most frequently used as tea, some people also use it to flavor foods such as soups. Generations of Spanish children have been raised on lemon balm tea to help them get to sleep, and its pleasant scent may be a part of its popularity.
Verbena has a much stronger flavor and scent than lemon balm does, but is used in much the same way. Its sedative effect is as mild as chamomile and lemon balm, and it has no known negative side effects.
Valerian is a root that is dried. It is a part of a flowering plant that many people have in their gardens, and sleeping aids made from this product are reported to be highly effective as a sedative. Valerian is a particularly popular insomnia cure in Europe, especially among the elderly population.
There are a number of other herbs that people use to help them fall asleep. These include rosemary, pennyroyal, marjoram and fennel. In Germany those who have a difficult time falling asleep mix a drink made of warm milk, honey and anise. In many of these cases the herbs that are being used have a soothing scent, and it may be that aspect of it that makes people relax in much the same way that the essential oils used in aromatherapy do.
Finally, many people take a supplement made of tryptophan, an amino acid that is found in many of our common foods. Dairy products, turkey and bananas all are high in tryptophan. In addition to using it to build protein, our bodies also respond to it as a sedative. Tryptophan has been found to decrease the time it takes to fall off to sleep and to minimize middle of the night awakenings. It has been found to be about 70 percent effective for those who have taken it, and it may also help with depression.