Trying and failing to fall asleep can be a nightmare. As you lie there, becoming more and more anxious about not getting your eight hours, it can be very tempting to reach for a quick fix that will help you doze off in minutes. But at what cost? While you might fix the immediate problem, the long-term side effects of sleeping pills set you up for bigger problems in the future. So what are your options? Read on to learn about the best sleep aids for your long-term health, the difference between natural melatonin and pill form, the side-effects of common sleep aids, and more.
The Long-Term Side Effects of Sleeping Pills: Prescription and Over-the-Counter
According to 2020 data, 8.4% of Americans took sleep aids within 30 days of being surveyed, which comes out to almost 30 million people. And when you consider that many people who answered “no” probably also take sleeping pills from time to time (just not in the past 30 days), that number gets even higher. Many of these people probably think they’re doing something good for their health, since the importance of sleep has come to the forefront in recent years, but research shows that these sleeping pills are harming more than helping.
Incorrect use of sleep aids account for 42,000 ER visits a year, caused by people accidentally taking too much or combining their sleeping pills — both prescription and over-the-counter — with alcohol or other drugs. This is scary, of course, but what’s even scarier are the short- and long-term side effects of sleeping pills even when used correctly.
Here’s a rundown on the health risks and side effects associated with the most commonly used sleeping aids in the United States:
- Ambien. In the short-term, Ambien can cause all sorts of unpleasant symptoms, including headache, dizziness, feeling tired, and nasal irritation. It can also cause digestive problems like nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and upset stomach. In the long-term, the problems get even more serious: think memory lapses, nightmares, and serious mental and behavioral changes, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Even worse is the fact that Ambien has been shown to be addictive and habit-forming, making it difficult for users to break the cycle.
- Benadryl. You don’t need a prescription to get Benadryl, which makes it all the easier to misuse. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it’s associated with a long list of side effects in the short-term, including dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness, gut issues (like nausea, vomiting, and lack of appetite), headache, and muscle weakness, among others. In the long-term, Benadryl has been linked to an increased risk of dementia and impaired cognitive function.
- Tylenol PM. Tylenol PM is essentially Tylenol (which has an active ingredient of acetaminophen) with diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) added to it. This means you get all the side effects of Benadryl outlined above, plus some bonus side effects, so you really get a bang for your buck (we kid)! Acetaminophen can cause a number of concerning skin-related side effects, like itching, red or burning skin, or rash, as well as hoarseness, swelling, and difficulty breathing. In the long-term, acetaminophen can do major damage to your liver, and it’s even worse if you drink alcohol. There’s also been research linking acetaminophen to ADHD and cancer — so much so that California even proposed labeling it as a carcinogen!
- Advil PM. Another two-for-one! Advil PM also uses diphenhydramine to make you drowsy, but instead of acetaminophen, its other active ingredient is ibuprofen. Ibuprofen can do a real number on your gut health, with side effects including constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating in the short-term. And over time, studies have shown that it can actually cause bleeding in your intestine. Yes, bleeding in your intestine— now that’ll keep you up at night.
On top of all the short and long-term side effects of sleeping pills, they aren’t even giving you proper rest. They have a powerful sedative effect that helps you fall asleep, but it’s just that: sedation, not sleep (sedation works by slowing down your brain activity to induce sleep, and when you’re sedated your brain doesn’t progress through all the different stages of sleep that you experience when you sleep naturally. This matters because each stage has a different function in terms of your bodily and brain function). Plus, sleeping pills like these only treat the symptom, masking the root cause of your sleep problems.
What Are the Best Sleep Aids that Are Totally Natural?
Okay, we’ve established that the short- and long-term side effects of sleeping pills you get over-the-counter or from a prescription are no joke. So if these are off-limits, what are the best sleep aids for your health? The answer, as with many things in the wellness world, lies in turning to more natural approaches. But — as is also common in the wellness world — things aren’t black and white. Natural sleeping remedies are definitely the best sleep aids for your health as compared to man-made pills, but they don’t come without side effects of their own.
The two most common natural sleep aids are melatonin and valerian root. Magnesium and chamomile are also used to help promote sleep, though it’s not their only or primary use case. Here are the details on all four:
- Melatonin: This is a naturally-occurring hormone that helps the brain and body prepare for sleep. It’s usually taken in capsule form, and studies have shown that it is effective in promoting healthy sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, take between 1-3 mg around an hour before bed; if your problem is staying asleep, take it immediately before bed. But be forewarned: melatonin supplements have side effects, which we’ll get into below.
- Valerian root: This plant has mild sedative properties, and research has shown that it can improve sleep quality. While many people don’t experience side effects from valerian root, studies have shown that it can have a laxative effect and cause diarrhea, while others report mental fogginess and headaches. It can be taken either as a tea or in a capsule.
- Magnesium. This mineral plays an important role in keeping your body functioning, and it has also been shown to improve sleep quality. The potential side effects of magnesium are minimal, but it has been associated with digestive issues, especially when taken in large doses. You can take magnesium as a supplement in pill or powder form, or you can seek out magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
- Chamomile. Chamomile is an herb that you’re probably most used to seeing as a tea, and research has shown that it can help improve sleep quality. Unless you have an allergy to chamomile, there are generally no side effects.
While these natural choices are definitely the best sleep aids for your health, you should be wary of relying on any medication or supplement to fall asleep at night. Just like with OTC or prescription sleep aids, taking a natural sleep aid is just putting a Band-Aid on the problem rather than solving it. If your insomnia is chronic, it’s probably a good idea to talk with a functional or integrative doctor about it. You might have an underlying issue that’s keeping you up at night, such as heartburn, diabetes, kidney issues, breathing problems, or anxiety, among others.
For a WellBe-vetted list of natural sleeping remedies we endorse, check out our Non-Toxic Products Database.
Natural Melatonin vs. Melatonin Pills: Understanding the Difference
As we mentioned above, melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body. When things are working properly, your melatonin levels are low in the morning and then spike at night: this means you’re full of energy and alert when it’s time to take on the day, and sleepy when you want to go to bed. But unfortunately, many things can throw this natural rhythm out of whack, especially in today’s modern, device-filled world.
One of the primary things that messes with your body’s melatonin cycle are screens. Screens on most devices — like phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs — emit a blue light, which tells our body to stay alert, which in turn lowers our melatonin levels. That means that if you’re scrolling TikTok in bed to “relax” before nodding off, you’re actually setting yourself up for a night of tossing and turning. (What’s more, screen exposure and the subsequent drop in melatonin may be associated with a surge in early puberty among girls.)
Another potential reason for melatonin disruption? Our mostly indoor lifestyles. Sunlight plays a powerful role in telling our bodies whether to be alert or tired, and so when you don’t spend time outdoors, you’re robbing your body of those important signals. Today’s high-stress lifestyles can also throw off melatonin, as high cortisol (the stress hormone) can decrease melatonin levels.
Given all of the above, it makes sense that people would reach for a melatonin supplement to help increase their melatonin levels at night and get some shut-eye. This isn’t the worst move in the world, but it can have side effects — including headaches, drowsiness, and stomach problems — and, once again, it doesn’t address the root cause of your melatonin disruption.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reset the natural melatonin balance in your body. Perhaps most importantly, make sure you get sunlight first thing in the morning. Vitamin D is actually a hormone, just like melatonin, and the two hormones have an interesting relationship: not only do their levels work like a seesaw (when vitamin D is high melatonin is low, and vice versa), but vitamin D is also involved in the production of melatonin, so getting vitamin D in your morning preps your body to produce melatonin come evening.
Two other ways to restore your natural melatonin rhythms are by managing or decreasing your stress to reduce cortisol levels and avoiding screens before bedtime.
Other Natural Sleeping Remedies and Strategies to Try
Of course, the best sleep aids involve treating the underlying issues that are keeping you up at night, whether it’s anxiety, allergies, poor sleep hygiene, a suboptimal sleep environment, eating too late or drinking too much caffeine, or something else. Better yet, by reversing the underlying issues, you’ll improve not only your sleep but also your waking hours.
The strategies below come closer to addressing the root causes of poor sleep, and — bonus — are completely side effect-free. So instead of taking a capsule or drinking a tea, try changing mental or environmental things, like:
- Meditation. A regular meditation practice has been shown to be an effective insomnia treatment. Both the Calm and Headspace apps offer guided meditations specifically for sleep.
- Noise machines. If you have trouble falling asleep, white noise can be extremely helpful. It helps drown out ambient noise that might keep you awake, and studies have shown that sound machines help treat insomnia in coronary care patients.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT for insomnia has been found to be extremely effective when it comes to insomnia treatments and long-term improvement of sleep quality. Try the Sleepio app.
- Lavender essential oil. Using lavender oil for aromatherapy can have a calming effect and may improve sleep quality, with one study showing that smelling lavender increases slow-wave sleep, which is when your heart and other muscles relax and restore. You can spray lavender essential oil on your pillows, use it in a diffuser, or combine it with coconut oil in a bath.
All of the things above can be effective ways to sleep more soundly at night. But one of the primary ways to get better sleep is to practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene, basically, is the set of habits and practices that set you up to sleep well (or not well!) at night, and it can have a big impact. Here are the best practices for sleep hygiene:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Yes, even on weekends! Having a consistent schedule helps your body know when to turn off and wake up.
- Avoid screens before bed. As we mentioned, the blue light from screens has been shown to disrupt sleep. Try to avoid looking at your phone, computer, tablet, or TV in the hour or two before bedtime.
- Limit caffeine. Studies have shown that ingesting caffeine within 6 hours of going to bedtime can disrupt your sleep, so make sure you cut off the coffee by early afternoon — or even better, late morning!
- Keep the room cool. Maintaining a cooler temp in your room (ideally between 60 and 67 degrees) can improve sleep.
- Don’t eat close to bedtime. Eating right before bed can cause heartburn and disrupt your sleep. Try to finish your last meal or snack at least two hours before you turn in.
If you try all of the above and don’t see any improvement, it might be time to speak to a professional. We know, it can be tempting to just pop a pill and pass out, but the side effects of sleep aids are real. Sometimes the only effective insomnia treatment requires digging deeper than just searching for the best sleep aids.
The WellBe Takeaway on the Best Sleep Aids for Your Health
Sleep deprivation and insomnia are serious problems, but the short- and long-term side effects of sleeping pills can be even more serious and longer-lasting. Of course, trying to navigate the world of natural sleeping remedies and insomnia treatments can be confusing — especially if you’re exhausted! So here’s a quick recap of everything you need to remember about sleep aids:
- Both prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids are massively overused in our society, and very easy to misuse. But even when used correctly, they can have serious side effects.
- Ambien side effects include addiction and dependency, digestive problems, and mood or behavioral changes.
- Benadryl side effects include dry mouth, drowsiness, and an increased risk of dementia later in life.
- The active ingredients in Tylenol PM are diphenhydramine, which is in Benadryl, and acetaminophen, which can cause rashes, swelling, and difficulty breathing in the short-term and liver damage in the long-term.
- The active ingredients in Advil PM are diphenhydramine, which is in Benadryl, and ibuprofen, which can cause stomach issues like bloating, gas, and constipation in the short-term and intestinal bleeding in the long-term.
- Natural sleeping remedies that you can ingest include melatonin, valerian root, chamomile, and magnesium.
- These natural sleeping remedies have fewer side effects than prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids, but it’s still not great to rely on them.
- Melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy, is a hormone naturally produced by the body. Things like screens, stress, and not getting enough sunlight during the daytime can throw off melatonin levels. You can artificially boost your nighttime melatonin by taking a melatonin supplement before bed; but it can be more effective, sustainable, and good for your body to restore your natural melatonin levels by reducing stress, avoiding screens before bed, and getting vitamin D first thing in the morning.
- Other natural sleeping remedies include lavender essential oil, meditation, CBT, and white noise machines.
- Perhaps the most important thing you can do to sleep better is improve your sleep hygiene. This means doing things like avoiding blue light close to bed, keeping a consistent schedule, not eating or drinking too close to bedtime, limiting caffeine intake later in the day, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark.
- If your insomnia is chronic, there may be an underlying issue. Talk with a doctor and do your research before you pop a pill.
Have you used any of the natural sleeping remedies in this article? Which ones? Share your experience in the comments below!
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