To Take or Not to Take: Sleeping Pills

October 4, 2019

Whether you’re bogged down with jet lag, struggling with stress, or spending too much time on your phone in the evenings, there are many reasons we have troubles sleeping. In fact, Canadians are dead tired. 33% of us suffer from sleeplessness and 10% of us suffer from insomnia.

It’s no surprise then, that with so many of us having a tough time sleeping, that we resort to sleeping pills as a quick fix.

For sudden, unexpected, and temporary sleep problems, a visit to your local pharmacy for over-the-counter sleep aids or a trip to the doctor for a stronger prescription can seem like the only option. But, when your sleep troubles persist, relying on sleeping pills to get you to sleep every night just isn’t safe…


The idea that sleeping pills are harmless is alarmingly common – especially with over-the-counter sleeping pills. Just because you can buy it without a prescription, doesn’t mean it’s safer or has no side effects.

Over-the-counter sleeping pills like Nyquil ZZZ, Tylenol OM, Advil PM, Benadryl, and Unisom Sleep are antihistamines (allergy medications like diphenhydramine) that have a sedating effect – meaning they’re not actually designed for sleep. While these medications can help with short-term insomnia (less than two weeks), if you take them longer than two weeks, you can build up a tolerance to them, which can lead to dependence.

These sleep aids are all too often misused (taken too long, paired with alcohol or other sedatives, etc.). Plus, antihistamines cause severe drowsiness, dizziness, fatigue, and confusion in people over 65 – which can have a catastrophic impact – and some studies link diphenhydramine to an increased risk of dementia.


Our bodies make melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleepiness after the sun goes down. Taking melatonin is an effective treatment for resetting your circadian rhythm (think jet lag), but it must be taken in the right dose at the right time, and it’s not recommended for ongoing use.

Research shows that it works well for jet lag and shift work, but in most studies, it hasn’t shown any benefits. Keep in mind, too, that melatonin supplements aren’t approved by the FDA.


Just like over-the-counter sleeping pills, prescription sleep aids make you drowsy, which should help you fall asleep. Some are designed specifically for sleep, while others (like over-the-counter pills) have a sedating effect.

Prescription sleeping pills come in many types and brands and are classified as “sedative hypnotics” – they’re pretty powerful drugs. Most of these are household names (e.g. Ambien, Valium, Xanax, Lunesta, and Restoril). When you consider that half of people using sleeping pills are misusing them, that they’re highly addictive, that the benefits are limited, and that most people using them don’t really need them, the cons outweigh the pros. 


The bottom line is that sleeping pills are a band-aid, not a cure for sleep problems. For many people, the best option is making healthier lifestyle choices such as:

  • Eating healthy
  • Exercising regularly
  • Meditating
  • Limiting caffeine intake
  • Journaling before bed
  • Keeping technology out of the bedroom

If you’re sticking to all the sleep tips and still not sleeping well, you might have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea. By addressing the actual problem, you can skip the sleeping pills and find real relief.

Think you might have a sleep disorder? Take our quiz to learn more.

Feeling Sleepy? You may be at risk for sleep apnea. Take the quiz and find out.
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