Sleep Aids for Insomnia

Sleep Aids for Insomnia

Prescription and OTC sleep medications that can help you get to sleep:

 Sleep aids are medications, herbs, and supplements that can help alleviate insomnia and improve your sleep. Medications may be over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription.

Getting good sleep is important. Bouts of insomnia can have a major impact on your health and quality of life.

This article looks at various sleep aids, helpful lifestyle changes, and how to talk to your healthcare provider about prescription sleep medications.

Over-The-Counter Sleep Aids:

OTC sleeping pills cause sleepiness as a side effect. They’re a common choice for people who have trouble falling asleep.
Many of these products claim to provide immediate results. However, few can deliver on their promises.


Diphenhydramine is the drug in Benadryl, which is an antihistamine. While it’s typically used to treat allergies, it can also cause sleepiness.
There’s little evidence that this drug can help you sleep, though. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine doesn’t recommend it as a treatment for insomnia


Melatonin supplements are generally synthetic or made from animal sources. They’re widely available in stores and online.
Melatonin doesn’t start working for several hours, so you don’t want to take it right before bedtime. You may need to experiment with the timing to figure out what works best for you.

Natural sleep aids:

Some natural sleep aids, in low doses, may be considered relatively safe for adults. These include:
  • Magnesium
  • Valerian
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • CBD (cannabidiol, derived from hemp)
  • Passionflower5
  • Tryptophan6
  • Ginkgo biloba7
  • Talk to your healthcare provider before trying a natural sleep aid. Always make sure to follow the instructions on the label. 

Alcohol and other drugs  Isn’t a Sleep Aid :

While alcohol can make it easier to get to sleep, it also disrupts healthy sleep later in the night as your blood-alcohol levels drop. Experts don’t recommend using alcohol as a sleep aid.

Prescription Sleep Aids :

If you routinely have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, talk to your healthcare provider about prescription sleep medications. Several classes of drugs are used for sleep.

Sedative-Hypnotic Side Effects:

Each sedative-hypnotic drug has its own list of side effects, but they also have many in common. Potential side effects include:
  • Sleepwalking, eating, driving, or other behaviors
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unsteady walking
  • Balance problems
  • Nausea
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Stomach pain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Tremor (uncontrollable shaking)
  • Pain, burning, or numbness in the limbs and extremities
  • Unusual dreams
  • Dry mouth or throat
  • Red eyes
  • Vision problems
  • Eye pain
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Distorted sense of smell
  • Muscle aches, cramps, or joint pain
  • Heavy or painful menstrual periods
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Breast enlargement in males

Be sure you’re familiar with the side effects specific to the medication you’re taking.

Antidepressants :

Antidepressants sometimes target brain chemicals in a way that slows the brain and helps with sleep.

Silenor (doxepin): May modestly improve sleep. Side effects are nausea and dizziness.

Trazodone: Reduces the average amount of time it takes to fall asleep by 10 minutes; reduces the average time spent awake in the night by eight minutes. Widely used in older people.

Trazodone is linked with numerous side effects, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Nervousness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nightmares
  • Muscle pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Rash
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Problems with erection, ejaculation, and orgasm
  • Tremor
  • Stuffy nose
  • Itchy, red, or tired eyes

Dangerous Combinations

Never combine two or more kinds of sleeping pills without medical supervision. Do not take sleeping pills with alcohol. Both of these increase the risk of overdose, breathing problems, and death.

Benzodiazepines for Sleep

Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety medications sometimes prescribed to treat insomnia. Like some sedative-hypnotics, they enhance the effects of GABA.
They used to be widely prescribed for insomnia, but they’ve somewhat fallen out of favor due to dangerous side effects including addiction, abuse, and overdose.
They may also cause:
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Problems with thinking and memory
  • Rebound insomnia
These drugs carry a risk of falls, delirium, and long-term memory problems.

Benzodiazepine Side Effects:

Side effects of benzodiazepines may include:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Aggression
  • Agitation or nervousness
  • Behavioral changes
  • Slow or uncoordinated movement
  • Stiff muscles
  • Leg pain
  • Tingling skin
Don’t abruptly stop taking benzodiazepines. It could cause seizures and other serious side effects. Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist about how to wean off of these drugs.

Foods as Sleep Aids:

Some people have luck with certain foods or beverages that may promote sleep. However, not all of them work. And, just as with medications, they can cause side effects.

Herbal Teas:

Herbal teas are a popular home remedy for insomnia. Some evidence suggests they can help you sleep.
Certain herbs like valerian and passionflower have been shown to improve sleep quality.20 This means they may help you sleep more deeply. They may not help you fall asleep faster, thoug. 
Be careful when choosing tea as a sleep remedy. Make sure they’re herbal teas, which don’t contain caffeine.

Foods to Help You Sleep:

You may have heard that a glass of warm milk or a turkey sandwich could help you sleep. These generally have very little scientific backing.
Some foods, like warm milk, can be comforting. They may put you in the right mindset for sleep. A few studies have shown that milk or a mixture of milk and honey can help you sleep.
Certain foods, like turkey, contain tryptophan. Your body converts tryptophan to a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Your brain uses serotonin to make melatonin, so increasing serotonin levels may promote sleep
Some evidence suggests tryptophan supplements can improve sleep.22 However, you probably don’t get enough tryptophan from food for it to have this effect. (Post-Thanksgiving dinner fatigue is more likely related to digesting a large meal.)
Some foods, including tart cherries, contain low doses of melatonin. Again, though, they probably don’t give you enough to have any measurable effect.

Things to Avoid

Treating insomnia isn’t always about what you take. It may help to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and eating or exercising just before bed. These things can all disrupt your sleep.

How to Avoid Sleeping Pills:

Sleeping pills aren’t right for everyone. They can interact with other drugs. If you’re pregnant, they may harm your unborn baby.
You may also be concerned about the potential for addiction. Or, you may dislike the side effects.
Fortunately, there are other ways to manage insomnia. You may find it helpful to simply change your sleep habits.
Start by keeping a regular bedtime and wake time. This will help reinforce your natural circadian rhythm.
Avoid naps during the day. They can reduce your body’s natural desire for sleep.
Reduce the time you spend awake in bed (called stimulus control). Use your bed only for sex and sleep. If you can’t sleep, get up until you feel sleepy.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by several things, including:

  • Stress
  • Depression, mental health problems, or emotional distress
  • Chronic pain or illness
  • Shift work
  • Long-distance travel
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Hormone fluctuations
  • Medication
  • Other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea.

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