Common Nonprescription Sleep Aids

Nonprescription Sleep Aids

Do They Have Potentially Dangerous Side Effects?

If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning you know how frustrating insomnia can be. After a night of poor sleep, you may be tempted to head to the drugstore or health food store and enlist the help of nonprescription sleep aids. After all, if it’s available over the counter it must be safe. Right?

Unfortunately, some of the most commonly used nonprescription sleep aids can have serious side effects ranging from daytime drowsiness to liver disease. If you plan on using nonprescription sleep aids here’s what you need to know about the side effects.

Nonprescription sleep aid: Melatonin

Melatonin has become a very popular sleep aid that’s been heavily promoted by the vitamin and supplement industry due to the fact that it’s natural and supposedly mimics the natural melatonin produced by the body. Unfortunately, several studies have shown that melatonin is no better than placebo at treating the symptoms of insomnia although anecdotally it does appear to have some benefit.

Although melatonin is thought to be safe for short term use, its long term safety has yet to be established. Potential side effects include daytime sedation, confusion, vivid dreams, headache, and nausea. Because of the lack of proven effectiveness and the lack of long term safety studies, it’s probably best to avoid long term use of melatonin as a sleep aid.

Nonprescription sleep aid: Antihistamines

Antihistamines, available at most drug stores, do appear to be effective at aiding sleep when used on an infrequent basis. Their effectiveness as long term sleep aids has yet to be established. The short term effectiveness of these drugs comes with potentially serious side effects including significant next day sedation, dry mouth, dizziness, disorientation, and the potential to interact with other medications.

Tolerance also appears to develop with repeated use of these medications meaning meaning they stop working after a period of time. If you have other medical conditions, particularly high blood pressure or heart disease, it’s best to avoid using this class of medications.

Nonprescription sleep aid: Valerian

Valerian is a flowering plant that’s used by herbalists to treat insomnia. It’s available at some health food stores as an extract or in the form of a tea. It’s effectiveness as a sleep aid has been inconclusive although some studies have shown significant benefits in terms of sleep quality. It’s sometimes used in combination with other herbal preparations such as lemon balm which may add to the sedative benefits. Side effects include daytime sedation, anxiety, dizziness, headache, and heart palpitations.

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Nonprescription sleep aid: Kava

This is another sleep supplement derived from the Piper methysticum plant. Although previous studies have shown this sleep aid can improve sleep quality in persons experiencing insomnia related to stress, more recent, better controlled studies have failed to show an overwhelming benefit. More disturbingly, Kava has been associated with liver damage, prompting the FDA to issue a warning to consumers about its potential side effects. This is one over the counter sleep aid best avoided.

Nonprescription sleep aid: Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted by the body into serotonin and melatonin which play important roles in inducing sleep. Tryptophan supplementation has been shown to be effective in low doses for improving the quality of sleep including hastening the onset of sleep, decreasing night time awakenings, as well as improving sleep quality. Side effects include the usual daytime drowsiness, headache, dry mouth, and nausea as well as a tendency to promote cataract formation if too much time is spent in the presence of ultraviolet light.

Because of the potential side effects of over the counter sleep medications, make your choices wisely with the help of your doctor. It’s best to test a new sleep aid on a weekend when you don’t have to drive to work the next day to be sure you don’t experience serious side effects.

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