Many of us use over-the-counter sleep aids much longer than recommended

Providence Health Team

Many over-the-counter sleep aids are marketed as medications that will help you sleep better for brief stretches. In fact, regulators require that the packaging on such products advise you to see your doctor if you have insomnia for more than two weeks.

But many who use these medicines reported they use them daily – sometimes for more than a year at a time, according to Consumer Reports, the non-profit consumer research organization.

And overuse is a problem, Consumer Reports says.

Side effects of sleep aids

The popular sleep aids, such as Sominex, Tylenol PM, Nytol, Advil PM, ZzzQuil, Unisom Sleep-Minis and Simply Sleep, contain an antihistamine called diphenhydramine. And regular use, according to Consumer Reports, can have serious side effects. These include:

  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Next-day drowsiness
  • “Hangover effects” that can impair balance, coordination and driving performance the next day

Because of these effects and links to more serious health problems, Consumer Reports says, “in general, sleeping pills should be reserved for short-term insomnia—such as that caused by jet lag, anxiety after the death of a family member, or job loss.” The organization cited an expert at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Improving the way you sleep

Most people suffer occasional disruptions of their sleep patterns, and up to 10 percent of Americans have persistent insomnia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for getting better sleep:

  • Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  • Make sure the place you sleep is quiet, dark and relaxing.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and removed from such distractions as phones, tablets, televisions and earbuds.
  • Don’t eat large meals before bedtime.

Talk with your health care provider if you can’t get the sleep you need, or have irregular sleep patterns. You can find a Providence provider near you in our directory.

To learn more

We’ve written about some of the problems people have getting enough sleep:

You’ll sleep better if you don’t read that email »
Sleep switch may unlock new therapies for sleep disorders »
How much sleep should kids get? »
New guidelines call for cognitive therapy for insomnia »

Two Consumer Reports stories, “The Problem with Sleeping Pills” and “Can You Get Hooked on Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids?,” can be read at the organization’s website. Consumer Reports also wrote “How to Fall Asleep the Natural Way,” about improving your sleep patterns without relying on pills.

The CDC has a set of fact sheets and tips on its Sleep and Sleep Disorders page.

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