Sleep Disorders and Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids

Everyone has difficulty sleeping from time-to-time. Learn helpful considerations about common over-the-counter sleep aids.

Insomnia, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea are common sleep disorders that can be challenging to treat depending on the underlying reasons and your overall expectations regarding sleep quality.

Poor sleep can have multiple impacts on daily functioning and quality of life if left untreated and can put you at risk of additional mental health, cardiovascular, metabolic, and hormonal conditions.

During the initial stages of any sleep disorder, it is important to try and determine the underlying reasons for changes in your sleep patterns. You might experience sleep issues due to symptoms (heartburn, headaches) of another medical or mental health condition (anxiety), a medication-related side effect, stress, environmental (light, uncomfortable temperature), or behavioural reasons such as exercising before bedtime or drinking too much caffeine during the day.

If you are experiencing sleep issues, the best place to start is by making changes to your sleep hygiene—or healthy sleep and wind-down habits—and avoiding potential triggers when possible. Utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia has been proven to be very effective in certain situations and can help develop long-term skills to manage future recurrences.

If sleep disturbances continue despite initial behavioral modifications, you may choose to seek out Over the Counter (OTC) and natural products such as valerian root, or diphenhydramine-based preparations. Despite their widespread popularity, there is limited clinical evidence to support meaningful sleep quality improvements with ongoing use. If you choose to try this approach, you should always speak with your pharmacist or health care provider to ensure appropriate dosing and avoid any potential side effects or adverse reactions.

Another popular remedy is melatonin, which is often promoted as a natural remedy for insomnia. Melatonin is a hormone that our body normally produces to help regulate many functions including our sleep-wake cycle in response to darkness.

When selecting melatonin, it is important to choose from brands that have a Natural Product Number (NPN) to ensure quality requirements set by Health Canada. The normal dosing of melatonin should be in the 1-5mg daily range, and it should be taken approximately two hours before your normal bedtime. The best clinical evidence from multiple studies indicates that on average melatonin may improve sleep onset by 4-12 minutes and provided an additional 18 minutes of total sleep time.

Unfortunately, the evidence to support the effectiveness of OTCs preparations containing diphenhydramine (ex. Sleep-eze®, Nytol®, Benadryl® and others) is very limited and typically only recommended for short-term management of insomnia for less than two weeks.

The information provided in this article is for personal use, reference, and education only. ASEBP does not provide medical advice. Before starting any medication or product, you should always consult with your pharmacist, health care provider, or call Alberta Health Link at 811.

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How ASEBP Supports You

If you have ASEBP’s Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), you can register for Tranquility by Inkblot, a cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) program that teaches positive coping strategies and skills. This online program is available cost-free to all covered members and dependants with ASEBP’s EFAP.

If you have a Wellness Spending Account (WSA), you can also claim natural health products, supplements, and herbal supplements/minerals supplements with a Natural Product Number (NPN) printed on the label. Find more information about eligible WSA expenses or contact a benefit specialist.

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