We live in a time where self-help solutions are available for pretty much everything that ails us. Given the number of us who struggle with getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, it is no wonder so many are tempted to treat their sleep problems on their own. But looking for a remedy for symptoms of insomnia, whether it’s occasional or recurring, without a proper diagnosis can be dangerous. That insomnia could be a sign of something more serious, such as sleep apnea. Not to mention, several of those sleep aids could be causing more harm than good.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common coping mechanisms for sleeplessness.

Sleeping pills
Sleeping pills, whether over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription, are not a magic cure-all for insomnia, yet approximately 10 percent of Canadians use them to help get better sleep¹. Rarely do they provide significant improvement – sleep studies show they only help people fall asleep between 8 and 20 minutes faster, and only add about 35 minutes of sleep over the course of a night². And, depending on the type, sleeping pills could have serious side effects such as:
  • Dizziness or light-headedness, which may lead to falls
  • Headache
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and nausea
  • Prolonged drowsiness, more so with drugs that help you stay asleep
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Sleep-related behaviours, such as driving or eating when not fully awake
  • Daytime memory and performance problems

The long-term use of sleeping pills comes with an increased risk of more serious health issues, such as Alzheimer’s and even cancer³. Perhaps most importantly, extended use of sleeping pills is associated with a higher risk of death⁴.

Insomniacs will often look for off-label use of other medications when searching for help with sleep; antihistamines, cold remedies and even some antidepressants are common coping mechanisms. Regardless of how well the treatment works or doesn’t, dependence is always a very real concern when it comes to using any type of medication used long term to treat insomnia.

Alcohol
The effects of alcohol on sleep are well documented, even for non-alcoholics. Though consumption of alcohol may increase drowsiness and lead to faster sleep, the quality and duration of sleep is severely affected. Specifically, the REM, or restorative, phase is diminished⁵. Alcohol can also inhibit breathing, contributing to the incidence of sleep apnea. It’s not just true for heavy drinkers, as studies show even low consumption decreases the quality of sleep by nearly 10 percent⁶. In spite of this, about 5 percent of Canadians still reach for a night cap to help them deal with insomnia¹.

Melatonin
Use of “natural” remedies has been on the rise for some time, and Canadians have had access to melatonin specifically as an OTC sleep aid since 2005. Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone in many foods that is also produced as a dietary supplement. Studies show that it can provide some improvement in sleep onset and quality, but those improvements are modest and often less than sleeping pills⁷.

Taking melatonin at the wrong time can actually negatively impact a person’s sleep cycle⁸. And, there is also a lot of confusion around dosing. As with any type of treatment, it doesn’t come without risks, either. Side effects of melatonin use can include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness

It’s also important to note that there is the potential for more serious neurological risks , especially among children and adolescents. In Canada, melatonin has been approved for use in children aged 12 and over since 2011, but those risks, such as anxiety, panic reaction, visual hallucinations and seizures, are considered significant enough that they are being investigated further⁹.

Marijuana
Even before it became legal in Canada in 2018, marijuana has long been used as a sleep aid by many who suffer from insomnia. It is also believed to have potential benefit for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep apnea as well as REM sleep behaviour disorder¹⁰. Studies are still being done to evaluate its safety and efficacy, but early results have found that marijuana can, indeed, help you fall asleep faster. However, long-term use is just as likely to decrease overall sleep quality¹⁰.
Don’t mask your sleep troubles
Self-help solutions for insomnia may provide some temporary relief, but they aren’t suitable for long-term help. By not addressing the underlying sleep problem, they can make things even worse. The only way to find the right solution for your sleep is to first understand your sleep. Today, new testing options are available that are more convenient and comfortable than ever before, without sacrificing the quality or accuracy of the assessment.
Learn more about Cerebra sleep study – the only complete at-home sleep study that can help you on your way to a better night’s sleep.

References:
1. Morin, C. et al. (2011) Prevalence of insomnia and its treatment in Canada. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(9):540-548.
2. American Association of Sleep Medicine and Consumer Reports. (2015) Sleeping pills for insomnia. Consumer Reports Health, June 2015. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from http://aasm.org/resources/pdf/choosingwisely-sleepingpills-adults-insomnia.pdf.
3. Kripke, D. et al. (2012) Hypnotics’ association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study. BMJ Open, 2:e00850.
4. Kripke, D. (2013) Surprising view of insomnia and sleeping pills. Sleep, 36(8):1127-1128.
5. Mann, D. (2013, January 22) Alcohol and a good night’s sleep don’t mix. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20130118/alcohol-sleep#1
6. Pietilä, J. et al. (2018) Acute effect of alcohol intake on cardiovascular autonomic regulation during the first hours of sleep in a large real-world sample of Finnish employees: Observational study. JMIR Mental Health, 5(1):e23.
7. Ferracioli-Oda, E. (2013) Meta-analysis: Melatonin for the treatment of primary sleep disorders. PLoS ONE, 8(5): e63773
8. National Sleep Foundation. Melatonin and sleep. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/melatonin-and-sleep
9. Government of Canada. (2015) Summary safety review – Melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine) – Review of the safety of melatonin in children and adolescents. Retrieved from the Government of Canada website: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/medeffect-canada/safety-reviews/summary-safety-review-melatonin-acetyl-methoxytryptamine-review-safety-melatonin-children-adolescents.html
10. Babson, K. et al. (2017) Cannabis, cannabinoids, and sleep: A review of the literature. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19:23.