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 side effects of sleep aids set you up for bigger problems in the future. But are there natural sleeping remedies or insomnia treatments without side effects? And if so, what’s the most effective natural sleep aid? Read on to learn these answers and more.
The Side Effects of Sleep Aids: Prescription and Over-the-Counter
According to a survey from the CDC, more than 9 million Americans use prescription sleep aids (and this survey was in 2013 — we’re guessing the number has risen significantly from there). What’s more, countless other people rely on over-the-counter sleep aids, like Tylenol PM or Benadryl. 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, prescription or otherwise, with alcohol or other drugs. This is scary, of course, but what’s even scarier are the long- and short-term side effects of sleep aids even when used correctly.
Here’s a rundown on the health risks and side effects of sleep aids most commonly used 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, leading to 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. So 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 is considering labeling it 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 — now that’ll keep you up at night.
On top of all the side effects of these sleep aids, 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. Plus, sleep aids only treat the symptom, masking the root cause of your sleep problems. By treating the underlying issue, whether it’s anxiety, poor sleep hygiene, a suboptimal sleep environment, eating too late or drinking too much caffeine, allergies, or something else, you’ll improve not only your sleep but also your waking hours.
What Is the Most Effective Natural Sleep Aid?
So we know that the side effects of sleep aids you get over-the-counter or from a prescription are no joke. But what about natural sleeping remedies? Do they have any side effects — and do they actually work? As with most things related to health, the answer isn’t black and white.
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 each:
- Melatonin: This is a hormone that helps the brain and body prepare for sleep, 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, it has its own potential side effects, including headaches, drowsiness, or stomach problems.
- 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.
(BTW — if you want recommendations for specific natural sleep aid brands and other health-boosting items to have in your home, check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists. You’ll find 1,200+ vetted and researched non-toxic products, from food to sleep to beauty to home and more.)
While all of the natural sleep remedies above are relatively to very safe to use, you should be wary of relying on any sleep aid to fall asleep at night. Just like with OTC or Rx sleep aids, taking a 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.
Other Natural Sleeping Remedies and Strategies to Try
Luckily, there are other natural sleeping remedies that don’t require ingesting anything at all, so they’re totally side effect-free, and come closer to addressing root causes. Instead of taking a capsule or drinking a tea, you can 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 strategies above can be effective in helping you sleep more soundly at night. But one of the primary things you can do to get better sleep, sidestepping any need for natural sleeping remedies, 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 on how well you sleep. 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. Blue light (the light that comes 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.
Good sleep hygiene is one of the most powerful things you can do to get better sleep. If you nail down the tips above, chances are you won’t be needing any natural sleeping remedies — and definitely not any prescription or OTC sleep aids!
But 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. Chronic sleeplessness is a serious problem with serious implications for your health, and you shouldn’t just accept it. Sometimes the only effective insomnia treatments require digging deeper than natural sleeping remedies.
Conclusion: What to Remember About Natural Sleeping Remedies
Sleep deprivation and insomnia are serious problems, but the side effects of sleep aids 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.
- 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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- Gray, S. L. et al. Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergic Medications and Incident Dementia. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar 1; 175(3): 401–407.
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- Michels SL et al. Over-the-counter ibuprofen and risk of gastrointestinal bleeding complications: a systematic literature review. Curr Med Res Opin. 2012 Jan;28(1):89-99.