Better Sleep Means Better Wellness — So Are Sleep Aids Actually Good for You?
According to the CDC, 70 million people across the United States suffer from chronic sleeping problems. If you’ve ever lain awake in bed — your mind reflecting on everything from current work projects to that time you dropped your lunch in front of the whole cafeteria in fourth grade — this statistic probably comes as no surprise.
Read next: What You Need to Know About the Gut Health-Sleep Connection
Ideally, adults should be getting at least seven hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is an essential time for the body to rest and regenerate, contributing to improved heart health, hormone balance, digestion, immune system performance, and mental health. Research suggests that sleep also plays a vital role in our ability to focus and retain information — another “I could have told you that” moment for anyone who has sat bleary-eyed through an early morning meeting.
While the occasional restless night won’t derail your pursuit of overall wellness, it doesn’t take long to feel the trickle-down effects of poor sleep when tossing and turning becomes a regularity.
A little help, please?
Even if you’ve never used NyQuil or you’re not quite sure what melatonin is, you’re likely aware that sleep aids exist and many options are available over-the-counter. These supplements can be a valuable resource during occasional bouts of troublesome sleep — such as during or after travel, or when you’re in the midst of a particularly stressful situation — but it’s not exactly ideal to rely on assistance for sleep.
Whether all-natural or medicinal, nearly all OTC sleep aids are positioned as non-habit-forming. In other words, you can’t get physically addicted to something like ZzzQuil or Unisom. But if you regularly have trouble sleeping and you find a sleep aid that works for you, there may be a temptation to simply keep taking it to ensure restful slumber every night.
According to medical professionals, occasional use of sleep aids is fine — up to a point.
“‘Occasional’ must be carefully defined,” says Abhinav Singh, MD, MPH, FAASM, D.ABIM-SM, a medical review expert at SleepFoundation.org and medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center. “If you have trouble sleeping more than three times a week for more than three months without sleep aids, it’s time to bring up the issue with your healthcare provider.”
The concern with medicinal sleep aids is that they contain, well, medicine. And unless you’re treating other symptoms, you may experience side effects that aren’t quite what you’re after when you just want a good night’s sleep.
“Several sleep aids contain antihistamines that make us drowsy and have a sedative effect,” explains Funke Afolabi-Brown, MD, a certified sleep medicine physician and founder of Restful Sleep MD. “Common side effects are residual sleepiness, a feeling of grogginess, a hangover effect, and dry mouth. Antihistamine-containing medicines can also result in constipation and urinary retention. When taken at higher doses, some of these medications can cause more serious conditions, like seizures.”
Doctors agree that even OTC sleep aids are best used under the guidance of a physician — particularly if you take prescription medications — but doctors are human too, and they understand that not everyone is going to make an appointment to discuss sleep health when a quick trip to the drugstore is likely to yield a satisfactory solution.
Better sleep, naturally
Since our bodies naturally produce melatonin — a hormone generated in response to darkness — using melatonin as a sleep aid is often viewed as a favorable alternative to antihistamine-based medicines. But there is evidence that taking melatonin too often can disrupt hormone balance and throw off our sleep cycle even further.
That said, melatonin is considered generally safe for moderate use. It’s also a well-known remedy for jet lag, so there’s no need to throw out the melatonin you may have stashed in your medicine cabinet. Just avoid popping a tablet on a nightly basis.
And there are truly all-natural sleep aids, such as NB Pure’s Power Down. With no antihistamines or melatonin, Power Down contains ingredients like ashwagandha (an herb traditional to Indian Ayurvedic practices), chamomile, and rhodiola to gently encourage sleep without groggy side effects.
Though a natural supplement may be preferable to medicinal options, targeting the root cause of your sleeplessness should be the priority — not just finding your “perfect” sleep aid. Remember, occasional use is fine, but if you’re reaching for capsules every evening, it may be time to take a closer look at your broader lifestyle.
“The question of ‘When does sleep aid use become too much?’ could be answered by seeing how distressing or disruptive it is to stop using them,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD of Street Smart Nutrition. “For some folks, they may have little to no issues returning to a sleep aid-less slumber. For others, stopping use significantly impacts their day-to-day or increases anxiety and stress.”
Improved sleep through improved habits
Whether the thought of giving up your preferred sleep aid feels like no big deal or an “absolutely not” scenario, there are a few strategies you can deploy to help improve your sleep organically.
“Adjust the timing of your workouts,” suggests Harbstreet. “There’s likely a sweet spot between working out too early (and feeling extra-fatigued before bedtime), and too late (when body temperature and heart rate might be too high for easy sleeping).”
Everyone’s schedule is different, but if you have trouble sleeping and evening workouts are your best option, consider swapping high-intensity exercise for a low-impact activity such as a long walk or a gentle yoga session.
What to eat (and drink)
A mug of chamomile or peppermint tea can be a soothing pre-bedtime sip, but for something more mouth-puckering, try a glass of tart cherry juice, which is believed to support better sleep.
The Sleep Foundation recommends consumption of kiwi, almonds, rice, walnuts, and other nuts for better sleep. Harbstreet suggests incorporating fish that is rich in omega-3 and vitamin D into your diet, such as salmon, mackerel, or tuna.
What not to eat (or drink)
“Gastric irritants, like very acidic foods or spicy foods, can contribute to acid reflux (heartburn) when you move into a sleep position,” cautions Harbstreet, who suggests eating earlier in the day to allow for more thorough digestion before heading to bed.
And while you probably already know that caffeine can disrupt sleep, there’s evidence that alcohol — though it may initially help us to doze off — disturbs our sleeping patterns, too.
Maintain a space for sleep
This one may sound obvious, but beds and bedrooms these days are often used for far more than just sleep. Especially throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have had little choice but to allow their bedrooms to become a multi-use space. No longer just a place for relaxing, bedrooms have turned into lounges, offices, playrooms — perhaps all of the above. If at all possible, try to limit bedroom use (or at the very least, your bed) to bedroom activities.
Moreover, Harbstreet and Afolabi-Brown both encourage establishing a bedtime routine to help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. Being able to enter a dark, cool, quiet space that is free from distractions can help immensely in promoting good sleep hygiene. (Bonus points if you can avoid scrolling through your phone for at least 30 minutes prior to going to bed!)
Do what you can — it’s rough out there
At the end of the day, sleep does have a major impact on our overall well-being; but if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen. So, do what you can to achieve restful sleep as often as possible — even if that means reaching for the occasional supplement. But don’t overlook the important roles that diet, exercise, and environment play in our sleep health, too.
“Sleep aids are like training wheels while trying to ride a bike,” says Singh. “They help, but they don’t ride the bike for you.”
Summer Rylander is a freelance food and travel writer based in Germany. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Read next: The Easy, Anti-Stress Activity That’s Actually Super Fun
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.