Did you know sleep is as important for good health as diet and exercise? Waking up from a great night of sleep helps you feel rested, alert, and ready to tackle the day. Sleep is about more than just allowing our bodies to rest. Your brain and body are very active during sleep, as our bodies use this time to repair themselves and recover from the stresses of the day. In fact, while you may assume that your brain takes a rest during sleep, it actually uses this time to remove toxins including proteins linked to Alzheimer's disease. Your body also works hard during sleep to repair itself, with everything from your blood vessels to your immune system working harder while you are asleep.
To truly understand how important it is to get adequate sleep, let's consider a few surprising statistics. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that adults should aim for about 7-9 hours of sleep per night, while teenagers and young adults may require even more – about 8-10 hours. Shockingly, according to the National Sleep Foundation, more than one-third of adults aren’t getting enough sleep and feel tired during the day at least half the week or more. Plus, about 40 million Americans experience insomnia every year.
Getting the right amount of sleep can help:
- Maintain critical body functions
- Restore energy
- Repair muscle tissue
- Allow the brain to process new information
- Keep us healthy and less prone to illness
On the flip side, not getting enough sleep can raise health risks, ranging from heart disease and stroke to obesity and dementia. People who do not get enough sleep often suffer from a weakened immune system, as well as an increased risk of health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, and stroke. Lack of sleep can also cause a range of mental and physical problems, including impairing your ability to:
- Think clearly
- Control emotions
Challenges in Getting Quality Sleep
Getting a good night's rest is not always as easy as closing our eyes and drifting off to sleep. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 50 to 70 million people in the U.S. have ongoing sleep disorders. Many factors can hinder our ability to sleep soundly. Modern lifestyle stressors, such as work demands, family responsibilities, and electronic device usage can interfere with our natural sleep patterns. Additionally, environmental factors like noise, light pollution, and uncomfortable sleep surfaces can disrupt our sleep.
What Causes Sleeplessness and Common Symptoms to Watch Out For
There are a variety of issues that can cause sleep disturbances. People who work numerous jobs or long hours may not have enough time to sleep. Shift workers who need to work through the night may often struggle to obtain the quantity of sleep they require. Other sleep disorders or medical issues might also contribute to poor sleep. Sleep apnea, a respiratory problem that can cause hundreds of nightly awakenings, for example, may impair both sleep length and quality. Other physical or mental health issues, such as pain or a general anxiety condition, might disrupt sleep quality and quantity.
According to the Sleep Foundation, the symptoms of sleeplessness can vary, but some common indicators to watch out for include:
- mood changes
- difficulty focusing and remembering
- a reduced sex drive
- difficulty paying attention
- difficulty making decisions
In addition to the short-term effects listed above, the long-term effects of sleep deprivation are much more dangerous.
Long-term effects of sleeplessness can include:
- diabetes or insulin resistance
- sleep apnea
- heart attack
Sleeplessness is linked to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Sufferers of chronic pain are most at risk due to the fact that they are already dealing with chronic pain. In addition to the pain they are experiencing, they often suffer from sleep deprivation, which causes even more symptoms.
What Can I Do If I am Having Trouble Sleeping?
Many people turn to sleep aids to fall asleep more quickly and get a good night’s rest. Some sleep aids require a doctor’s prescription; however, many people turn to products available over-the-counter (OTC) without a prescription and can be used to manage occasional sleep issues.
Sleep Aids/ Sleep Support
OTC medicines to treat sleep problems might be most useful for people with short-term problems, such as jet lag, stress, or occasional bouts of sleeplessness. These medicines are designed to help you fall asleep or stay asleep and are for people aged 12 and above.
Common OTC sleep aids help regulate your sleep-wake cycle with low doses of antihistamines, which can make you feel drowsy by working against a chemical produced by the central nervous system (histamine). These medications can help you fall asleep, but they should only be used in the short-term, typically no more than two weeks. Long-term use of sleep aids with antihistamines can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped.
These medicines include:
- Diphenhydramine - Many commonly used OTC sleep aids contain diphenhydramine, which is an antihistamine most frequently used to treat allergies. However, diphenhydramine is known to cause sleepiness, which is why some companies market it as a sleep aid. It is also available in combination with pain medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, providing a treatment option for people with sleep issues that may be related to pain.
Common Products Include: Advil® PM, Excedrin® PM, Tylenol® PM, Aleve® PM, Motrin® PM, Vicks® ZzzQuil™, Nytol®, and Sominex®
- Doxylamine - Doxylamine is also an antihistamine that works similarly to diphenhydramine. While used to treat allergies, it is also marketed as a sleep aid. For those who are having trouble sleeping due to being sick, doxylamine is also included in some combination cold and flu medications.
Common Products Include: Unisom SleepTabs, Medi-Sleep, Vicks® ZzzQuil™ ULTRA, and GoodSense® Sleep Aid
These ingredients may be in a combination product with several other ingredients to treat different symptoms (like cold or flu), so reading and following the medicine label is important to make sure you are taking it correctly and safely and not taking too much of one ingredient.
Can Dietary Supplements Help?
Melatonin is a common dietary supplement marketed to support healthy sleep, and it can be found in the supplement section of many stores. It is produced by the body naturally and helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles. Dietary supplements that contain melatonin can be helpful for people with jet lag or for those who suffer from occasional insomnia.
Valerian root is an herbal supplement that has been commonly used for its calming and mild sedative effect to help promote sleep. Emerging scientific evidence suggests that valerian may work with receptors in the brain to slow down the nervous system and make you drowsy, but more research is needed to confirm how it works.
Important Precautions When Taking OTC Sleep Aids
OTC sleep aids are generally regarded as safe and effective when taken according to the directions on the box. However, it is important that you take certain precautions before starting a new sleep aid in order to ensure your safety. Here are a few things that you should do when taking an OTC sleep aid for insomnia.
Before starting a sleep aid, make sure that you take the time to research the medication you are considering taking. Read and follow the Drug Facts Label or Supplement Facts Label carefully. It is also important that you read what ingredients are in an OTC sleep aid, as many products contain multiple ingredients, some of which you may not need (such as cough medicine). Make sure not to take multiple OTC sleep aids (unless directed by your doctor), as these products often contain similar ingredients that shouldn't be taken together. Consider talking to your doctor before starting OTC medications or dietary supplements to make sure that it is safe for you to do so, particularly if you take any prescription medications.
Look Out for Side Effects
While OTC sleep aids are usually associated with mild side effects such as headaches, dizziness, or nausea, everyone's body reacts differently to medications. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the side effects a medication can cause so that you can get prompt medical care if you notice signs of an allergy or another adverse reaction.
What Lifestyle Changes Can I Make to Improve Sleep?
By making a few, simple adjustments to your bedtime routine, you will start to see improvements in your overall sleep health.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine intake at night. These substances disrupt sleep and result in bathroom trips at night, which interferes with deep sleep.
- Reduce screen time right before bed. Blue light from phones and electronics hits your eyes at night and can block the signals to your brain to start making melatonin. This interferes with the natural sleep/wake cycle. Turn off gadgets at bedtime, dim their brightness, and stop using them 2-3 hours before bed. Don’t take your phone to bed with you!
- Create a sleep-friendly bedroom including a cool, dark, quiet room with a comfortable mattress to help you sleep well.
- Maintain a regular bedtime schedule and wake time to improve your sleep.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Getting a good night's sleep is essential to ensure your physical and mental health. Fortunately, when taken properly, OTC sleep aids, dietary supplements, and lifestyle changes can help you work towards achieving restful and rejuvenating sleep, leading to a happier, healthier, and more productive life.