Source: Best Health magazine, October 2015
When Canadians can’t get to sleep, some of us turn to sleep aids. According to a 2011 study, 10 percent use prescription sleep medications, nine percent try natural products and almost six percent use over-the-counter (OTC) products. Here’s what’s available
Doctors usually prescribe hypnotics or low-dose antidepressants to help people sleep. ‘I don’t like prescribing pills,’ says Dr. Meir Kryger, a Canadian physician and professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, ‘but there are times when people have to sleep and you need to give them something to tide them over until things settle down.’ For chronic insomnia, he says medication isn’t the answer. ‘Sleeping pills don’t solve the insomnia problem,’ he says. ‘It’s like using Aspirin for a fever: It gets rid of the symptoms but doesn’t get rid of the cause.’
Products like Gravol and Benadryl (found at the drugstore) contain antihistamines ‘ a side effect of which makes you sleepy. ‘If you’re having a stretch of insomnia and you have a big presentation coming up at work, you can use one of these as a rescue to get to sleep, although it’s not recommended,’ says Dr. Helen Driver, a somnologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Like prescription sleeping pills, they’re a short-term solution: ‘You develop a tolerance to them, so they become less effective,’ she says. Antihistamines can make you groggy the next day or cause dry mouth, and there are other associated safety concerns. Don’t take them with alcohol or other antihistamines.
Available over-the-counter, the hormone melatonin helps regulate the sleep/wake cycle. According to Dr. Driver, it’s best to use melatonin when you’re jet-lagged or doing shift work, but some professionals recommend using it regularly for better sleep.
Valerian root, the most studied of herbal sleep remedies, is a flowering plant that may help reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. However, not all studies have found it to be effective. And people with cardiac arrhythmias need to be careful, says Dr. Driver.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is effective for resolving sleep problems, says Dr. Norah Vincent, a psychologist and professor of clinical health psychology at the University of Manitoba. It focuses on changing behaviours, such as not spending a lot of time in bed when you’re awake, and helps people identify what they might be saying to themselves to magnify the consequences of insomnia. For example, a person might say ‘If I don’t sleep tonight, then tomorrow is a writeoff’ or ‘If I don’t sleep well, I’ll cancel my appointments tomorrow.’ ‘That tends to maintain the sleep problem by making insomnia terribly important over time,’ says Dr. Vincent. Talk to your doctor for more information about CBT.