How Sleep Aids Work

Sleep aids, also call hypnotics, can work in different ways. Some sleeping pills affect the areas of the brain that control alertness. Other sleep aids contain medication used to treat something other than insomnia but cause drowsiness as a side effect.

Over the counter sleep aids often contain diphenhydramine, which is used to treat allergy symptoms. One of the side effects of diphenhydramine is drowsiness, which is why it’s used in many popular sleep aids. Side effects of over the counter sleep aids containing diphenhydramine include dry mouth, constipation and nausea.

Prescription sleep aids may also be an option. There are different classifications of prescription sleep meds including benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are an older type of sleeping pill that targets various types of GABA receptors in the brain that promote sleep. But they should be used with caution since they can be addictive. Side effects including dizziness, muscle weakness and nausea are possible.

Selective gamma-aminobutyric acid medications are a newer classification of sleep aids. These drugs work by targeting specific GABA receptors in the brain that play a role in alertness or drowsiness. Since they only target specific receptors, they tend to result in fewer side effects than benzodiazepines and have a lower risk of becoming addictive. But mild side effects are still possible, such as memory problems and confusion.

Tips for Safe Use

If you decide to try sleep aids, it’s important to take certain precautions. Even over the counter sleep aids can lead to potential problems if not taken correctly. Consider the following:

Talk with your doctor. Before taking any medication for sleep, it’s best to talk with your doctor. Sleep aids can interact with other medications you may be taking and have adverse effects. Your doctor can help you determine what type of sleep aid may work best for your situation. Also, your doctor can determine the underlying cause of your insomnia.

Allow enough time for sleep. According to the Cleveland Clinic, if you’re using a sleep aid, it’s best to devote about eight hours to sleep. Not allowing enough time to sleep can leave you feeling groggy the next day.

Use a sleep aid for the first time when you don’t have anything critical the next day. For example, if you have a job interview first thing in the morning, trying a sleep aid the night before may not be your best bet. You never know how you’ll react to a sleep aid. It can leave you feeling excessively sleepy the next day.

Consider behavioral changes to treat insomnia. For long-term solutions to insomnia, consider alternatives to medications. Proper sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes that promote sleep can all be more helpful in the long run than medication.

Avoid long-term use. Most experts agree that sleep aids should not be used indefinitely. Sleeping pills are not meant to replace good sleep habits. Instead, they may be helpful to get past a bout of insomnia. Unless otherwise advised by your doctor, don’t rely on sleep aids for the long-term.

Only take as directed. Regardless of whether you’re taking prescription or over the counter sleep aids, only take as directed. Ignoring directions can lead to adverse effects and possibly dependency on the medication.

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