Are You Using Sleep Aids Too Often?

Having trouble sleeping? Considering taking a sleep aid? Not so fast, says Bryan Coehrs, PharmD, RPh, ProMedica Pharmacy.

“Many people who suffer from insomnia often misuse over-the-counter sleep aids (among them Tylenol®PM, Unisom, Benadryl®, Sominex, Advil®PM, Sleepinal, NyQuil™, Motrin®),” Coehrs says. In fact, a recent Consumer Reports survey backs this up, finding that 18 percent of the 4,000 people surveyed said they’d taken such drugs in the past year on a daily basis while 41 percent said they’d taken them for a year or longer.

One of the problems says Coehrs, is that “while these medications are not addictive physically, people can develop a mental and/or emotional dependency on them.”

Why is this a problem? “Because these drugs are antihistamines, and though they help people sleep, they can also stay in the system longer than needed and can, therefore, cause drowsiness while people are driving or walking or babysitting, for example,” Coehrs says. “In short, they can be dangerous if used daily, especially for senior citizens who might incur dry mouth or habitual falling, among other problems.”

All these drugs contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine intended for short-term use, Coehrs points out. Some studies indicate that long-term or regular use of diphenhydramine can increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

So, what to do if you can’t sleep and want to take sleep aids? “I advise people to make the lifestyle changes they need to make to ensure good, restful sleep habits,” Coehrs says. “People should ask themselves if what they’re doing during the day might be what’s keeping them up at night. Are they drinking caffeinated drinks late in the afternoon or evening? Are they exercising too late? Are they eating too much sugar or food that causes inflammation? Sometimes all that’s required to get good, restful sleeps is to be consistent with good habits.”

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So, while short-term, occasional use of these medications is OK, be sure not to develop a mental or emotional dependency on them, Coehrs advises. Consulting a pharmacist and your primary care physician is a good idea, too, he says.

Worried about your sleep habits? Learn more about sleep conditions and take a sleep assessment on ProMedica’s website.