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What are the Different Types of Safe Sleep Aids?

By Kathy Heydasch
Updated May 17, 2024
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There is an abundance of sleep aids available over the counter or by prescription, and an equal amount of controversy surrounding their use for insomnia. Safe sleep aids are generally considered those that can be purchased without a prescription. Some argue, however, that moderate use of prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines can be just as effective and safe for short-term use.

Most over-the-counter safe sleep aids contain doxylamine succinate or diphenhydramine, the same active ingredient that is found in some anti-allergy medications. Diphenhydramine’s quality of inducing drowsiness has made it the most common safe sleep aid on the market. Dosage is usually 25 mg per child or adult, with safe limits being around 50 mg. The medication can cause an allergic reaction in some people, but that is generally considered a severe reaction. Most people experience no side effects with diphenhydramine, so it remains the most common of the safe sleep aids on the market.

For those looking for safe sleep aids that do not contain diphenhydramine or any added pain relievers, the options are limited. Of these, melatonin may be the most common and most available, although its effectiveness is highly controversial. Melatonin is produced by the body naturally as a hormone, and it is sold as a supplement in most drugstores. It is used mainly to correct abnormalities in the human body’s natural circadian rhythms over time, though some argue that it is effective in the short-term treatment of insomnia.

Another natural supplement is made from the root of a flowering plant called valerian. Valerian root is sold as a capsule and used to treat insomnia, anxiety, stress and intestinal cramps. These claims are highly controversial, even more so than melatonin, and some side effects reported include agitation and headaches.

In terms of prescription sleep aids, most fall into the categories of benzodiazepines, such as Valium, and nonbenzodiazepines, such as Ambien® and Lunesta®. These are popular due to their sleep-inducing properties, but side effects of these drugs can be severe. Side effects include dizziness and decreased motor coordination which can possibly carry into the morning hours of the next day. This increases the risk of falls and accidents.

All prescription sleep aids are recommended for short-term use only, as dependency is one of the major side effects. In addition, one’s tolerance to one of these drugs increases over time, requiring more and more of the drug to achieve the same desired effect. The use and promotion of these drugs as safe sleep aids is controversial.

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