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Popular sleep meds don't actually give you a better night's rest, expert warns


Sleeping bills on a bedside table at night

Commonly used sleep aids do not actually give you a better night’s slumber but instead just sedate (Image: Getty Images)

Commonly used sleep aids do not actually give you a better night’s slumber but instead just sedate you — which are “two different things”.

This is the warning of pharmacist Professor John Devlin of both Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Devlin’s research focuses on the interaction between sedating drugs and sleep quality in patients — as well as their relationship with delirium.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it is estimated that more than 50 million people in the United States live with a sleep disorder.

And more than 100 million Americans report not getting enough sleep each night.

A man lies in bed with insomnia

It is estimated that more than 50 million people in the United States live with a sleep disorder (Image: Getty Images)

According to Devlin, sleep can be evaluated in a number of different ways. The first, which is likely familiar, is to consider one’s own perception of the last night’s sleep.

Secondly, scientists can study physiology — how people move and breathe at night, as well as monitoring for the electrical signals associated with sleep in the brain.

And finally, they can monitor the “circadian rhythm” of chemicals released by the brain that helps the body stick to its daily schedule.

All three of these metrics are connected to whether or not we experience high-quality sleep after hitting the pillow each night.

However, most of America’s favorite remedies for insomnia actually have little influence on perception, physiology, or circadian rhythm.

A woman sleeps in a mask and with ear plugs

Ear plugs can help block out ambient noise at bedtime (Image: Getty Images)

Many drugs — including over-the-counter sleep aids, prescription insomnia medications, and alcoholic nightcaps — are just sedatives that relax, but prevent one from reaching high-quality sleep.

Devlin said: “The problem is this might make people sedated and make them think they are sleeping. But it’s actually leading to poor, frequently interrupted sleep.”

In fact, the expert warns, many of the over-the-counter drugs that people take for their insomnia — like Benadryl and NyQuil — are antihistamines that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as sleep aids.

Devlin added: “The bar for approval of prescription insomnia medications is how quickly and how many hours you’re sedated. Their effects on the quality of your sleep have been poorly evaluated.”

In addition, he cautioned, many medications can have a “hangover factor” — with the user feeling even more tired the next morning from a combination of the drugs’ lingering effects and having had eight hours of poor-quality sleep.

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Another popular insomnia “cure” is melatonin — a hormone that the brain uses to tell us when it’s night time amid our circadian rhythms.

Used appropriately, it can help to reduce the duration of jet lag after a long-haul flight.

According to Devlin, however, melatonin is not helpful against insomnia. He explains: “People take it all the time because it’s over the counter.

“But unless people have been traveling through multiple time zones or are switching from night shift to day work, they will have plenty of natural melatonin in their body when it gets dark and bedtime approaches.”

A man yawning on his commute to work

Some sleeping aids can have a ‘hangover factor’ the next morning (Image: Getty Images)

Instead of turning to medications, there are other ways to fight insomnia that can also lead to a better quality night’s sleep.

Devlin says: “If you’re lying in bed and 30–50 minutes have gone by, you should get up and do something.

“Read, listen to music, use meditation apps. But don’t look at your phone or at the TV.”

Ear plugs and white noise machines can also help to reduce environmental noise and other potentially distracting stimuli.

In addition, it can help to ensure that you eat your evening meal before 7pm in order to best regulate melatonin levels in the body and keep your circadian rhythm on track.

Finally, Devlin warned: “There’s a really psychological component to sleep as well. Undiagnosed anxiety will worsen insomnia.”

The pharmacist recommends that people who suffer from repeated bouts of insomnia get screened for anxiety.

Another condition that can impact sleep and is worth getting screened for, he adds, is sleep apnea — in which an upper airway obstruction causes breathing to start and stop.

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