But prescription medications, prescribed in select cases and used for brief periods of time, can be useful.
Julianne Carroll, a 30-year-old Atlanta resident, has had trouble sleeping since her teen-age years, and finally found relief with prescription drugs. She remembers how unsettling a string of several sleepless nights can be. "It was horrible. I was useless. I was emotional. I was walking around waiting for somebody to set me off."
Carroll tried several over-the-counter treatments to help her fall asleep. "But the side effects of these drugs were hard to live with, too. "They would help me sleep, and then I would be hung over in the morning. I walked around in a haze."
Mahowald, too, questions the benefits of these over-the-counter sleep aids, many of which contain antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine or doxylamine. "They make people feel sleepy, but they have never been shown to be truly beneficial in quality and quantity of sleep," he says. They also have some annoying and potentially dangerous side effects, including hangover, drowsiness, dry mouth, and an increase in mucus secretion in the throat.
Some people swear by supplements of melatonin, a hormone naturally secreted by the body's pineal gland as darkness falls. But the supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and at least one sleep expert is skeptical. "Melatonin is very controversial," says Dainis Irbe, MD, a neurologist at Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta. "I use it very, very seldom in patients."
There also are several non-drug options that may aid sleep. Experts suggest:
- Using deep-muscle relaxation techniques or meditation.
- Exercising, but not within a few hours of bedtime.
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine near bedtime, as well as late-night eating.
- Using your bedroom only for sleeping and sex.
- Leaving your bedroom if you can't get to sleep in 20 minutes of trying, and performing some quiet activity, such as reading.
- Getting up at the same time each day.
Whatever method you choose, sufferers say it can be liberating to break the vicious cycle of sleeplessness. "Going to bed and fearing that you won't be able to sleep is a very stressful thing," Carroll says.