woman who cannot sleep with sleep supplements on a tabletop.

Do sleep supplements actually work?

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You’ve had nights that you just couldn’t get to sleep, no matter how hard you tried. Nearly all of us have.

Fifteen percent of people suffer from chronic insomnia, but many more of us have trouble sleeping.

As over-the-counter supplements claiming to improve sleep become more available, how do you know what will work for you?

Dr. Sarah Zallek, medical director for the sleep center at OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute, gives the rundown of how supplements can – and can’t – affect the quality of your sleep.

What are sleep supplements?

chemical formula for melatoninMany over-the-counter products such as pills and gummies claim to help adults and children sleep better. One of the most common sleep supplements is melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone. Your body naturally produces more of it in the evening based on your exposure to light, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm. When taken as a supplement, melatonin can help correct disruptions to this cycle.

“It’s a time-shifter, or a chrono-biologic,” Dr. Zallek said. “It’s been shown to be helpful for people who have circadian rhythm disorders, or people who have irregular sleep schedules for various reasons, such as being blind, jet lag or work that changes shifts frequently. But it’s not helpful for chronic insomnia, which is much more common.”

Melatonin isn’t a recommended treatment for insomnia by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, but it can help people who are transitioning to a new sleep schedule.

A second category of sleep supplements include antihistamines that have a sedating effect. This includes diphenhydramine, found in Benadryl and Aleve PM, and doxylamine succinate, found in Unisom SleepTabs.

Dr. Zallek said that while some anecdotal evidence suggests they help people feel better about their sleep, evidence of their efficacy is limited.

“Antihistamines help some people feel like they are getting better sleep, but they haven’t been shown to shorten the amount of time it takes to get to sleep or improve the quality of sleep overnight,” Dr. Zallek said.

You’re better off seeking a treatment that’s been proven effective by scientific research.

More effective treatments

Insomnia is best treated by good sleep habits. Do more of the things that promote sleep, and less of the things that disrupt it.

Insomnia or trouble sleeping are common issues that can have a variety of causes, Dr. Zallek said, including sadness, loss grief, illness, physical discomfort, medicines that keep you awake and environmental disturbances.

Adding a supplement or medication without addressing the underlying cause of sleep disturbance isn’t likely to improve sleep.

But many people have trouble sleeping because they have habits that are counterproductive to sleep.

Following good sleep hygiene habits, such as going to bed at the same time every night, limiting caffeine and avoiding naps, will help most people get the good, quality sleep they need.

For those whose sleep doesn’t improve after implementing good sleep habits, seeing a provider specializing in sleep medicine can help them find relief, whether with prescription medication or an alternative treatment.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Brain & Spine