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Sleep aidzzz: Pills not long-term answer to sleepless nights

Special to The Forum Two local sleep-medicine doctors agree that sleep-aid medications aren’t intended for long-term use.

FARGO - You’ve seen them on drugstore shelves: ZzzQuil, Unisom, Benadryl – over-the-counter sleep aids that promise to help you get a better night’s rest. More recently, natural remedies valerian and melatonin have gained in popularity.

But how safe and effective are they?

Well, for starters, two local sleep-medicine doctors agree none of them are suitable for long-term use, nor should they be combined with any other type of sedative, including anti-anxiety meds and alcohol.

That doesn’t stop millions of people from reaching for them every night. Dr. Samy Karaz, the medical director of Sanford’s Sleep Medicine Center in Fargo, says he’s heard friends, colleagues and patients talk about OTC sleep aids.

With our busy lifestyles, he says, “we need to get to sleep when we want to so we can get as much sleep as we can,” but when we lie down to do just that, our brains don’t always cooperate, often using the opportunity to stir up worry and anxiety.

Whitney Coler, a 27-year-old Fargo chemist, tried melatonin and 5-hydroxytryptophan to help quiet her overactive mind at night.

Unfortunately, although both helped her fall asleep, she’d wake up three to four hours later, wide awake.

“It would take me a while to fall back asleep, so when I finally did get up in the morning, I never really felt very rested. That was disappointing to me because I know many people who swear by melatonin,” she says.

In fact, even if it doesn’t wake you up at 3 a.m., Dr. Shaun Christenson, an Essentia neurologist who specializes in sleep and stroke, says any medication that’s supposed to assist with falling asleep or staying asleep tends to cause problems with sleepiness or drowsiness the next day.

“None of the typical sleep problems (falling asleep, waking up during sleep, and total sleep time) have been shown to be really improved by any over-the-counter supplement, whether it be valerian, melatonin, or these diphenhydramine-type medications (like Benadryl),” he says.

The active ingredient in most is diphenhydramine, an antihistamine used for things like allergies, motion sickness and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It can make restless legs syndrome worse.

Still, sleep aids are widely used, and some people swear by them.

“There are select people whom I believe benefit from them,” particularly those whose circadian rhythms are disrupted by a changing work schedule or jet lag, Christenson says.

Both Karaz and Christenson say habitual means of fostering sleep are more effective than drugs, especially since in many cases, difficulty sleeping is indicative of an underlying problem like depression, anxiety or another medical issue.

“In these cases, medicating the insomnia doesn’t take care of the problem, and it might actually allow it time to worsen,” Karaz says.

Instead, for long-term results, he recommends practices such as exercising, though not within a few hours of bedtime, limiting screen use and any “intense mental activity” before bed, meditating, sipping on a cup of non-caffeinated tea, or listening to white noise or an instrumental track.

Though Coler still occasionally uses melatonin to help her fall asleep, she’s had better luck with ideas like Karaz’s, particularly relaxation techniques.

“I use deep-breathing techniques and focus on relaxing the muscles in my body one area at a time. I usually don’t even get through all my main muscle groups before I fall asleep,” she says.

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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