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What to Take When You Can't Sleep

Treatments for Insomnia Include Pills, Behavioral Changes

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Updated May 26, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Trouble falling or staying asleep can be greatly distressing. When it occurs chronically, this is called insomnia. If you find yourself having trouble getting to sleep, you may be seeking solutions. What can you take when you can’t sleep? Are there treatment options available at home? When should you see a doctor? Learn about some of the treatments that might help you to finally get to sleep.

A Word on Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting nearly everyone at some point in their lives. It may be short-lived and related to an identifiable stressor, in which case it is referred to as acute insomnia. (Trouble sleeping the night before a big test is an example.) However, these difficulties might also become a chronic condition that can leave you greatly distressed. In either scenario, you may be interested in learning about ways to finally get to sleep.

Home Remedies to Help You Sleep

Many people with insomnia hope for a quick fix. It would be ideal if you could do something, or simply take something, to help you get to sleep. These desired options might range from sleeping pills you can take, foods you can eat, or beverages you can drink.

Both now and in the past, people have consumed a small amount of alcohol to aid sleep. These "nightcaps" (a reference to bygone headwear worn during sleep to minimize heat loss) are, for some people, a bedtime routine. However, we now understand that alcohol is not an effective sleep aid. Though as a depressant of the brain, it might make you feel sleepy, the sleep that results is fragmented and disrupted. It is ultimately not refreshing and may lead to symptoms of sleep deprivation. In addition, alcohol use may contribute to an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Therefore, the use of alcoholic beverages to help with sleep is not recommended.

You might raid the kitchen looking for other things to help you sleep. Perhaps a glass of warm milk? What about a turkey sandwich, laden with the sleep-promoting chemical called tryptophan? Even a glass of soothing tea may seem tempting.

You should be cautious if you choose to eat or drink something to help you sleep. Any products that contain the stimulant caffeine should, as a rule, be avoided. As such, abstain from coffee, tea, chocolate, and energy drinks. In addition, other selections may be undesirable. You may not want to eat a large meal, spicy food, or tomato products as you might provoke nighttime heartburn.

There are foods that can be comforting, and this may put you in a more favorable mindset to sleep. In general, a bedtime snack is unlikely to ease you into a sound night’s rest, however. There are some foods that may be more effective. Certain foods, such as turkey, contain trypotophan. When you eat it, your body converts it to a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Higher levels of serotonin within your brain may, in turn, make you feel sleepy. There are also foods that contain low doses of melatonin, a hormone that is important in the regulation of the timing of sleep called the circadian rhythm. However, the melatonin contained within food is so little that you would have to consume a large portion of the food to see any effect.

In summary, the sleep-promoting effects of food and beverages are modest and unlikely to significantly improve your ability to sleep. Moreover, the use of alcohol or caffeine will have a disruptive effect on your sleep. You might also set yourself up for nighttime heartburn if you eat the wrong food too close to bedtime. As a result, you may need to turn to other options.

Turning to Sleeping Pills

Many people turn to sleeping pills to aid in the transition to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you might start by raiding your medicine cabinet or by visiting your local pharmacy shelf. Many products seek to provide immediate relief of difficulty sleeping, but unfortunately few can deliver on their promises.

Over-the-counter sleeping pills typically induce sleepiness as a side effect. As an example, medications that contain a "PM" in the brand name often have diphenhydramine as an active ingredient. Diphenydramine, or Benadryl, is used to treat allergies and may cause sleepiness. These medications may be habit-forming, do not promote normal sleep, and are not recommended as treatments for insomnia.

Another over-the-counter choice is the naturally occurring hormone called melatonin. This may be helpful if your insomnia is due to a misalignment of your circadian rhythm. It is important to follow the instructions on how to use melatonin. It should not be taken right at bedtime, for instance, as the timing of its effect is delayed and it wouldn’t start working for several hours.

If your insomnia persists despite trying over-the-counter medications, you may even seek out prescription sleeping pills to take. There are two major classes of sleeping pills, those that are in the family of medicines called benzodiazepines and those that are not. The list of prescription pills includes:

As you can tell, there are a large variety of options. Each sleeping pill has slightly different side effects and it might be useful in different scenarios. In order to clarify what medication might be best for your situation, you should discuss these possibilities with your physician.

How to Avoid Sleeping Pills

For some people, using sleeping pills is not a favorable option. Some people take other medications that might interact with them. If you are pregnant, you would not want to take something that could potentially harm your baby. Others are concerned about the potential for addiction to or reliance upon sleeping pills. Moreover, some people don’t like the side effects of sleeping pills.

No matter the reason that you decide not to take a sleeping pill, you fortunately have other options to manage your insomnia. If you don’t want to take anything to help you sleep, you can work on changing your sleep habits. Guidelines to improve sleep hygiene might make it easier to sleep. As part of this, you should keep a regular bedtime and wake time to help reinforce your natural circadian rhythm. You should avoid naps during the day as these might diminish your body’s natural desire for sleep (called the sleep drive). It is also important to minimize the time you spend awake in bed, a technique called stimulus control.

Moreover, there are alternatives to treat insomnia such as relaxation, biofeedback, and aromatherapy. You might see a psychologist and learn ways to manage your stress and the negative feelings that can be associated with insomnia. You can transition to sleep easier with the use of guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and other treatments as part of cognitive-behavioral therapy. In addition, the use of familiar and comforting scents with aromatherapy might help you ease into sleep.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Though you might seek to take something immediately to help you sleep when you have insomnia, there may not be any immediate relief. If your insomnia persists, you may need further help. If you can identify what is causing your insomnia, and you anticipate that it will resolve, you may decide to endure it. As an example, if you are studying for a test and you have trouble sleeping, this is likely to improve once the test passes.

Sometimes the problem of insomnia becomes a persistent or recurrent one. If the difficulty falling or staying asleep becomes disruptive to your life, you may wish to do something about it. If you find yourself feeling depressed or even suicidal because of your insomnia, then it is imperative that you seek help. You may start by speaking with your primary care physician about your concerns. If more sophisticated help is needed, you may be referred to a sleep specialist.

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