The dos and don'ts of sleep aids

By Haley Hernandez - Health Reporter

HOUSTON - A lot of sleep medicines promise they're not addictive. However, Dr. Reeba Mathew, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth, said everything that can be used as a sleep aid can be habit-forming.

So, here's what she said you need to know before ever trying a sleep aid, no matter if it's prescribed or over-the-counter.

ANTIHISTAMINES CAN COME WITH MAJOR RISKS

Mathew said patients suffering from sleeplessness are often desperate to medicate themselves with cold meds or antihistamines to get a good rest, and she dislikes that over-the-counter products (like Unisom) exist because she said people are using these without a doctor's guidance and putting themselves at risk for major complications. She said these are especially risky for the elderly, pregnant and liver patients.

“There are a whole lot of other disorders, including sleep disorders, that will need to be ruled out before we resort to medication,” Mathew warned.

TRY THIS INSTEAD

She prefers to help patients learn and practice good sleep hygiene instead. That includes:

Stop smoking
No alcohol before bed
Don't look at your phone for 2 hours before bed
Take a hot shower
Set the room to a cool temperature

PRESCRIPTION SLEEP MEDICATIONS SHOULD ONLY BE USED WHEN…

Even though Mathew doesn't like medications, she said 20% of her patients are taking prescriptions to help them rest. She explained that only when patients have failed every other sleep therapy, pills can be a temporary reboot.

“The goal is to try to get them off safely, if possible, and have them not be on a dependency mode with these medications,” she said.

THESE ARE THE POTENTIAL SIDE EFFECTS

Mathew warned prescription sleep medications should not be used forever and can all come with major side effects, like:

Excessive sleepiness during the day
Drug interactions
Liver damage
Habit forming
Respiratory depression (which can suppress breathing in sleep apnea patients)

IS MELATONIN SAFE?

Melatonin, Mathew said, is not FDA-approved for sleep. It is considered safe to try for sleep, but it is not meant to be taken regularly since your body can become dependent on the supplement and quit making it naturally.

It is not recommended the elderly use melatonin because of the risk of falls and excessive sleepiness.

Mathew said you can try to start with a low dose but make sure you tell your doctor what you're doing.

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