Do you sometimes find it hard to fall asleep? Just 35 per cent of adults get eight or more hours of sleep per night, often struggling to fall asleep due to insomnia and waking up several times during the night.
In order to treat these sleep-related issues, an increasing number of people have turned to sleep aids. These over-the-counter pills often promise great sleep with none of the side effects of more powerful prescription sleeping pills.
We took a look at the most popular sleep aids to see if they’re really as effective as they claim to be, and to see if natural alternatives and old remedies could offer the same positive effects.
Melatonin: a popular hormonal sleep supplement
A small gland deep in your brain known as the pineal gland produces melatonin – a powerful hormone used by your body to control your level of alertness or tiredness and determine your circadian rhythm.
Melatonin is produced naturally in your body when you feel tired, but a wide variety of melatonin-based supplements are available. Many of these claim to enhance your sleep quality and make it easier to fall asleep when you get into bed.
Most melatonin supplements only contain tiny doses of the hormone, typically in the range of three to five milligrams. This small dose is enough to have an effect on your level of tiredness and responsive to sleep, but not a very big one.
What’s worrying about some melatonin supplements is that they often contain other active ingredients. Since melatonin is regarded as a ‘supplement’ rather than a drug, a melatonin-based product can also include various other herbal substances.
While melatonin may have a slight positive effect on your sleep patterns, it’s better – not to mention healthier – to naturally increase your body’s melatonin production in the hours before bedtime.
Switch off lights late in the evening and turn off your computer at least 30 minutes in advance of your bedtime. This increases your body’s melatonin production and makes the need for supplements unnecessary.
Need a stronger effect? Take a warm bath, which artificially raises your body’s heat level and results in a stronger pre-sleep cooling effect, which further increases the amount of melatonin you produce naturally.
Valerian: a grassland plant that claims to treat insomnia
While melatonin is a real sleep hormone produced within the body available as a supplement, valerian root is an entirely herbal sleep aid. This grassland shrub has been marketed as a sleep aid for decades, but the science behind it is mixed.
Several scientific studies indicate that consuming valerian prior to bed reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, while others claim that it has little to no real effect on your tiredness or time spent awake in bed prior to sleep.
Despite being fairly safe, valerian does have some side effects: it’s been known to cause headaches and dizziness in some users, as well as gastrointestinal issues if consumed over an extended period.
Again, the results of this sleep aid are often better sought through natural, more practical means. Take a warm bath an hour prior to bed, read a chapters of a new book before you sleep, or 30 minutes of intense exercise during the daytime.
The dangers of using prescription sleep medication
Sometimes, treating insomnia through natural means doesn’t work. Switching off the lights or taking a warm bath can be an effective way to simplify your sleep, but severe cases of insomnia often need to be treated using pharmaceuticals.
Most of the drugs used to treat insomnia are called benzodiazepines. The most well-known benzodiazepine drug is diazepam, better known by its trade name Valium. A single 2.5mg Valium tablet is a common solution to pain or stress-related insomnia.
While these drugs undoubtedly treat insomnia, they can have serious side effects if used as long-term sleep aids, and are only recommended when prescribed by your doctor. Try natural cures before you use diazepam or other prescription drugs to treat insomnia.
Do you find it difficult to fall asleep?
Are you considering using melatonin, valerian or even a prescription medication like diazepam to make falling asleep easier? Before you use supplements or drugs for easier sleep, try changing your habits.
From caffeine addiction to inadequate daylight exposure, lifestyle factors can often be the root cause of your insomnia. Read our blog post on changing your lifestyle to enhance your sleep to learn more about what could be holding back your sleep.