“I pulled an all-nighter to finish this paper.” “We stayed out until 2 a.m. and I got up at 7 a.m. for work.” “I really only need five or six hours to function.” “I’ve read experts say it might actually be better for you to get less than six hours of sleep a night.” When I was a teenager and young adult, my peers and I bragged about how little sleep we were getting.
I first felt the thrill of the all-nighter as a high school senior working desperately to wrap up a big project for AP English. I didn’t realize then that most of my peers had probably done the same at least once during their years in school. So I was quite proud of myself. And I treated “thriving” on four to six hours of sleep like a badge of honor until I was well into my career.
Then somewhere down the line, I noticed that getting enough sleep had become the ideal for me. I'd say the change seemed to coincide with a little experience called motherhood. It was the combination of a demanding job and equally demanding children that flipped the switch for me. But I've noticed among my peers—the same people pulling all-nighters with me in college—that sleep has also become a luxury commodity. Snoozing for a seven to nine hour stretch—sans interruptions—became the gold standard. “I got a full nine hours,” is now the Tesla of sleep.
According to the Sum of All Human Knowledge that is Wikipedia, “the percentage of adults using a prescription sleep aid increases with age.” Wikipedia also notes that studies on insomnia have found that women are more likely to use prescription sleep aids than men. Over-the-counter sleeping pills didn’t become more readily available in the United States until around 2010. Before that, you could only access most sleep aids with a prescription—perhaps with good reason.
Melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles, is a supplement available over the counter in United States and Canada. But did you know melatonin is not formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any use? I was shocked when I learned this because I’ve taken melatonin for long stretches of time in the past. I assumed it was fine since you can easily buy it in the health supplement section at grocery stores. While I’m not suggesting melatonin is dangerous, we should perhaps exercise greater caution before assuming it’s a healthy choice. According the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (part of the NIH), "Melatonin appears to be safe when used short-term, but the lack of long-term studies means we don’t know if it’s safe for extended use." Additionally, recent studies are finding more side effects from both lab-created and naturally derived sleep aids. If you’re looking to get more and better Zzz’s, read on for a short list of facts experts want you to know before you decide to use them.
Always consult your doctor before taking a new medicine or supplement.
Dr. Michael J. Breus, a.k.a. the Sleep Doctor, has a list of what he believes to be the most effective natural sleep aids. But Breus also concedes that each one has its side effects and interactions with other medications. While it’s easy to pick a bottle of melatonin pills off the shelf, you should really consult your healthcare provider about whether using a sleep aid is an appropriate solution to your sleep problems.
Prescribed sleep aids may increase your risk for this difficult and deadly disease.
A couple weeks ago, Reader’s Digest published a list of sleep habits that raise one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. One of the items on the list was the use of Benzodiazepines as a sleep aid. According to the National Sleep Foundation, Benzodiazepines, also called “benzos,” cause sedation by enhancing “the action of GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows activity in the brain.” (Valium and Xanax are familiar examples of benzos.) But if you’re struggling to fall asleep or to stay asleep, benzodiazepines shouldn’t be your first line of defense. Dr. Yuko Hara, Ph.D., a director with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, says, “Long term use of benzodiazepines as sleeping aids may increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.” Benzos are prescription only, so if your doctor recommends it for treating sleeplessness, ask questions, and discuss other options first.
Watch out for these ingredients in over-the-counter sleep aids
A 2018 Harvard Women’s Health (HWH) article reports that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) officially discourages “common over-the-counter antihistamine and analgesic sleep aids as well as herbal and nutritional substances, such as valerian and melatonin, because there is not enough evidence that they are effective or safe.”
As HWH reports, most sleep aids are antihistamines, which are commonly used in allergy medications. "People taking sleep aids are essentially taking Benadryl [diphenhydramine]. They don't realize that's what most sleep aids are," said Dr. Suzanne Bertisch, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Bertisch warns that people don’t realize they’re buying antihistamines when browsing the drugstore aisle, even though sleep aid packaging and branding say different things. While this may not deter all customers from pursuing the sleepy side effects of antihistamines, it’s worth knowing what is in your supplement and its original intended purpose (lest you wake up wondering why your nasal passages are dried out).
According to the AASM, about 50 percent of adults report problems with insomnia. So there’s a decent chance you may consider a sleep aid as you get older. While sleeping aids are as easy to buy as candy, they deserve a lot more consideration than a last-minute trip to the corner store. In the meantime, doctors do recommend first treating sleep issues without the use of medications. If you want to wake up well-rested, start by reading our top tips to getting quality Zzz’s here.