Over the Counter Sleeping Aids – Pros and Cons for InsomniacsOver the Counter Sleeping Aids – Pros and Cons for Insomniacs

In trying to deal with your insomnia, you may consider buying over the counter sleeping aids.  These are much more preferable to prescription sleeping pills such as the ‘Z’ drugs (Zolpidem, Zopiclone, Zaleplon and Eszopiclone aka Ambien, Imonvane, Sonata and Lunesta) and also Benzopdiazepines such as Diazepam and Alprazolam aka Valium and Xanax) because they are much less likely to cause severe side effects such as rebound insomnia and anxiety.

I have personally been addicted to both Z drugs and Benzodiazepines and I can tell you that coming off them is a horrific experience and it took a long time before I felt normal and could sleep more than a few hours a night, thanks to rebound insomnia.  If you do take them, please only take them occasionally!

While OTC sleep aids are wonderful for dealing with stress, travel and other disruptions, many sleep experts recommend that you do not use OTC sleeping aids for long term use, as they do have some side effects (which I will discuss) and also they can make you reliant on them to sleep, instead of curing your insomnia through lifestyle changes or other methods.

Over The Counter Sleeping Aids – What Are They?

Most OTCs are a type of antihistamine which has a side effect of making you sleepy.  Antihistamines are usually used for treatment of allergies, hay fever and when you have a cold.  Common antihistamines are Diphenhydramine (Brand names include Nytol, Sominex, Sleepinal, Compoz) and Doxylamine (Brand names include Unimson, Nighttime Sleep Aid).

Some sleep medications combine antihistamines with pain killing properties (such as Tylenol PM and Asprin-Free Anacin PM whilst others such as NyQuil combine alcohol and antihistamine.

Other sleeping aids from over the counter include Melatonin and 5-HTP.

Over the Counter Sleeping Aids – The Benefits

  1. A decent night’s sleep!
  2. Can help you get over sleeping pill addiction

As an insomniac I can definitely recommend using OTC aids if you have become addicted to sleeping pills, to help wean you off.  (Although be aware that if you have been using the ‘Z’ drugs or benzodiazepenes such as Valium (aka diazepam) for a long time every night, it will take a while before OTC sleeping aids really begin to help you).

Melatonin can also be a great help, check my article on this for more info.  Be aware that supplements containing 5-HTP are not great for those battling with sleeping pill addiction as they are addictive in the same way as sleeping pills, albeit not as strongly.

Over the counter sleeping aids containing antihistamines can give you the confidence to go to sleep without worrying, and they often keep you asleep for longer so if you suffer from waking in the night and can’t drop back off, or if you tend to wake up very early.  They are also ideal for traveling and other short disruptions to your everyday sleep pattern. However there are disadvantages with them so please do read on.

Over the Counter Sleeping Aids – The Disadvantages

  1. They don’t all work the same for everyone
  2. They can lose effectiveness over time
  3. Longer term use causes side effects
  4. You may feel very groggy the next day
  5. They can interefere with natural sleep rhythms
  6. You can become psychologically addicted

Firstly, you may find that not all OTC’s work for you and so you may need to try several ones before finding one you like.  I like to use Diphenhydramine as this works well for me, whereas Doxylamine has a reverse effect, actually keeping me awake, particularly if I’ve had any alcohol. (Note that most OTC’s recommend Not mixing them with alcohol).  I also like Chlorpheniramine as it is not as strong as Diphenhydramine and therefore tends not to make me feel groggy the next day.

Secondly if used for too long, most OTC’s begin to lose effectiveness, although this can usually be fixed by not taking it for a day or two (unlike sleeping pills which also lose effectiveness but can only be fixed in many cases by months of not using them).

Thirdly, if used for too long, many people including myself find that OTCs containing antihistamines begin to cause anxiety.  Other side effects I have experienced include having a dry mouth and headaches.  Again these can usually be fixed by stopping the medications for a day or two.

Fourthly some OTC’s can make you feel very groggy and drowsy the next day, particularly if you don’t give yourself long enough to sleep the effects off – not great for an important meeting or whatever.  This can sometimes be solved by taking a smaller dose of the OTC – but if you don’t take enough you may find you wake up to early – it’s about finding a balance

Fifth, over the counter sleep aids interfere with your natural sleep rhythms and so the quality of sleep that you get is not the same as natural sleep, meaning you may feel tired even if you have slept reasonably well.

Sixth, although not physically addictive they can be habit forming, leading you to think you can’t sleep without them

Over the Counter Sleeping Aids – Who shouldn’t take them

Important: Talk to your doctor before taking OTCs if you have any of these conditions:

  • Glaucoma
  • Parkinson’s Disease – if you are taking drugs for it
  • Asthma
  • Pregnant or breast feeding
  • Trouble urinating due to an enlarged prostate gland
  • Breathing problem such as Emphysema or chronic bronchitis
  • If you are taking (or have taken in the last two weeks) a monoamine exidase inhibitor such as an antidepressant
  • Any other drugs for depression

Sleeping Aids Over The Counter – The Conclusion

As you can see the disadvantages of taking OTCs are longer than the benefits, and the sleep experts are correct in advising caution, as they can be habit forming, and end up acting as a crutch.

However as someone who has suffered from insomnia, they can be a (short term!) blessing as long as you are aware of the risks and side effects, and particularly if you just want to use them for occasional nights of insomnia, when you are travelling or staying somewhere new, or are trying to quit taking sleeping pills, taking over the counter sleeping aids can be a great way to begin your path to an insomnia free, sleeping pill free lifestyle.


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