Sleep loss can leave you desperate for a quick fix. If you’re tired of not getting the rest you need, it can be tempting to take a sleeping pill for insomnia. To pick the right one, consider your choices. You can either take a prescription sleep aid or a natural pill for insomnia.
You might not think that a natural insomnia pill works as well as one that is prescription strength, but newer research shows that some do. Plus, prescription drugs cause dependency and have been linked to scary side effects. Here’s why the best pill for insomnia is sourced from natural ingredients.
Sleep is easy to take for granted. We don’t realize that when we’re having a good day, it’s because we’ve had a good night sleep. But we sure feel it when we don’t sleep well. Sleep is one of many body clocks that must be working properly for us to function at our best. Side effects of sleep loss may include the following:
- You have an increased risk of developing a cold.
- Your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes goes up.
- You develop an increased risk of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer.
- Your memory and motor skills suffer.
- You become unable to make decisions or solve problems.
- You become disinterested in sex. Testosterone levels fall in men.
- You are more likely to gain weight.
- You become about as reliable as a drunk driver on the road.
- Your physical appearance becomes dull and less attractive than when you get enough rest.
Sleep loss worsens pre-existing health conditions and may cause new ones to develop. It causes people with chronic pain conditions to feel more pain. It makes you less likely to recover from an illness or from the common cold. It can increase your risk of mental health disorders. Research shows that up to 80 percent of people with a psychiatric disorder have chronic sleep problems compared to up to 18 percent of adults without one (1).
A sleep-deprived brain is not able to store memories properly, which makes you forgetful. During sleep, your brain cells shrink by about 60 percent so it can cleanse itself. Research shows that when you sleep, your brain flushes out toxins that may cause disease (2). One study found that the glymphatic system in your brain opens when you sleep, allowing a cleansing fluid to flow through the brain to clean things out. This fluid is less likely to move through your brain when you’re awake (2).
Your body also improves its physical health when you sleep. Research shows that your body repairs and heals your blood vessels and heart during sleep. It also helps balance your hormones, such as the ones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or tell you to eat (leptin). When you don’t sleep well, you’re more likely to have increased levels of leptin telling you to eat more than you should. But when you’re well rested, you have higher levels of ghrelin telling you that you’re full (3).
The human growth hormone (HGH) is released several times throughout the day, but your biggest dose occurs at night when you’re in a deep sleep. This is especially important for proper growth and development in teens and children. Deep sleep also affects your fertility and reproductive hormones (3). If you’re trying to conceive, you’ll need to get your rest. You’ll also want to rest if you’re fighting a cold as sleep triggers your immune system to create antibodies and other anti-inflammatory proteins to fight diseases.
Sleep keeps you on your toes. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived are less productive at school and work. They make more mistakes, have a slower reaction time, and take longer to finish projects than people who sleep well (3). Even missing one or two hours of sleep for a few nights in a row eventually causes you to function like you haven’t slept for days. You may experience microsleep, which occurs when your eyes are open, but your brain falls asleep for about 30 seconds at a time (3).
Microsleeps aren’t just dangerous when you drive. You can miss out on important work meetings or school lectures because your brain doesn’t receive information as well as it does when you’re well rested. Sleep loss also makes you more likely to overreact in situations you’d usually stay calm in. You become over emotional and more likely to have outbursts. Your skin loses its healthy shine due to decreased blood flow, and your physical appearance becomes less attractive, causing most sleep deprived people to become less satisfied with their looks. One study even found that sleep loss makes you less approachable (4).
Insomnia is usually either primary or secondary. Unlike secondary insomnia, primary insomnia is not a symptom of an underlying medical condition (5). Sleep experts say that if you have primary insomnia, you meet the following criteria (6):
- You have been unable to maintain restorative sleep for one month.
- Your inability to sleep causes daytime fatigue and significant impairment to your social, occupational, and personal areas of functioning.
- Your insomnia is not due to circadian rhythm sleep disorders, parasomnias, breathing-related sleep disorders, or narcolepsy.
Secondary insomnia is the most common. It affects approximately three-quarters of all people with insomnia (5). Secondary insomnia is generally considered to be a symptom of another disease. The following health conditions may cause secondary insomnia (5):
- Pulmonary heart disease
- Back problems
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Renal disease
- Other sleep disorders
Secondary insomnia can also be caused by the following medications (5):
- Anti-inflammatory steroids
- Antidepressants: Fluoxetine, Imipramine, Phenelzine, and Protriptyline
- Antiarrhythmic: Quinidine
- Antiepileptic: Phenytoin
- Antihypertensives: Clonidine, Methyldopa, Propranolol, and Triamterene
- Antiparkinson: Levodopa
- Bronchodilator: Theophylline
- Hormones: Synthroid
- Diuretic: Triamterene
Nicotine, alcohol and caffeine use may lead to insomnia. In many cases, a person’s sleep hygiene or their sleep behavior causes them to lose sleep. Individuals who stay awake late at night or are over stressed may throw off their internal sleep cycle by reducing their melatonin production.
Prescription sleep aids promise to treat your condition fast, but that’s not all they do. They also come with the following side effects (7):
- Changes in appetite
- Excessive drowsiness
- Bloating and intestinal gas
- Cognitive impairment
- Dry mouth and throat
- Problems with memory and attention
- Muscle aches or weakness
- Nightmares or unusual dreams
- Stomach pain
- A burning or numbness sensation in your hands, feet, arms, and legs
Prescription sleep aids such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates are highly addictive. They are also unsafe for long-term use. Some research even shows that taking a prescription sleep pill makes you more likely to die. One study found that people who regularly took a prescription sleep aid were five times more likely to die within two and a half years (7).
Even taking prescription pills for a short period is dangerous. Research shows that people who were prescribed fewer than 20 prescription insomnia pills each year still had an increased risk of dying while heavy users were more likely to develop cancer (9).
Further research shows that prescription sleep drugs don’t really work that well. Experts define insomnia as getting less than six and a half hours of sleep at night after spending more than 30 minutes trying to fall asleep. But even in studies of drugs that work better than placebos, people do not always fall asleep within 30 minutes. Rarely do they get more than six hours of sleep, according to Doctor Steven Woloshin, professor of medicine at the Dartmouth INstitute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice (10).
Taking a prescription sleep aid may potentially make you more tired. According to a review conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, subjects who took 10 milligrams of the sleep drug Sonata and subjects who received a placebo both slept for the same amount of time. It took people on the drug 36 minutes to fall asleep, which was only 14 minutes less than the control group (10). Results showed that one in 20 people who took the drug felt tired the next day. Some also reported having memory problems.
Doctor Nancy A Collop, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, was one of the investigators in a clinical trial of the popular prescription sleep aid Lunesta. She stated that when someone comes to her claiming they are on a sleeping pill, her first tactic is to get them off of it (10).
A study done on Lunesta showed that subjects who took the drug slept 37 minutes longer than the control group, but it took them the same amount of time to fall asleep. Even on the insomnia pill, they still only got 6 hours and 22 minutes of sleep at night (10).
Is sleeping for about a half hour more at night worth your health? All indications point to no. According to a 2007 study of around 15,000 people, men who took a sleep aid were 1.5 times more likely to die. Women were 1.7 times more likely to die if they used a sleep aid (11).
A similar study done in 2010 of 14,000 people found that people who took a prescription sleep aid were 1.36 times more likely to die (12). Finally, a 2009 study followed thousands of adults for over 20 years. Results found that the men who regularly used a prescription sleep drug were 4.5 times more likely to die while women were twice as likely (13).
Taking a natural sleep aid is of particular importance if you have secondary insomnia. Taking too many prescription pills can double up your symptoms and may even make it harder to sleep than if you weren’t taking an insomnia pill at all.
Natural insomnia pills can include herbs, vitamins, hormones, neurotransmitters and amino acids. Many of them work in the same way as prescription sleep aids do by binding to brain receptors and making you feel sleepy or relaxed.
Although it’s possible to get addicted to any supplement you take, you are less likely to become dependent on a natural sleep aid because they do not cause euphoria. In other words, natural sleep aids make you feel good by helping you sleep better, but they don’t make you feel so good that you feel the need to take them in excessive amounts. You’ll also experience fewer side effects.
Melatonin is a good place to start when looking for a natural insomnia pill. It is naturally produced in the pineal gland of the brain and released into the bloodstream when it gets dark at night. Melatonin helps you feel sleepy all night long. Studies show that melatonin is an effective supplement to take if you have insomnia (14). Melatonin also possesses strong antioxidant compounds that may reverse skin damage, protect against neurodegenerative diseases, and even prevent cancer (15). Prescription pills, on the other hand, may do the opposite.
Valerian root is another popular natural sleep aid with proven benefits. It has been shown to alleviate many insomnia symptoms, such as reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, minimise the amount of times you wake up during the night, and improve overall sleep length and duration (16). Valerian root also works as well as some prescriptions medications. Several studies have reported no side effects associated with taking it (16).
Studies on the effectiveness of l-tryptophan and sleep date back 20 years ago. L-tryptophan is an amino acid with calming and sedative properties that is still being used today by insomnias looking for a natural option. According to a 2009 study, l-tryptophan is an essential compound of the human diet. Specifically, it is the sole precursor of serotonin, which regulates your mood, sleep, behavior, and thought patterns (17). Because you can’t supplement with serotonin directly, taking l-tryptophan is the next best thing.
Prescription sleep drugs might be necessary in extreme cases, but they can be highly addictive and can cause more side effects than they are worth. They have been linked to cancer and an increased risk of death. If you’re considering taking a pill for insomnia, make sure it’s natural.