6 Doctor-Recommended Sleep Aids
Try it: When you’re drowsy but slightly tense.
How to use it: Massage a dab of aromatherapeutic balm or oil into the back of your neck and shoulders (and inhale deeply) before you hit the sack. Certain fragrances, including lavender and lemon balm, promote snooze-inducing relaxation, says Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a sleep specialist at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in Tucson. (Try Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Night Health Bedtime Balm, which contains lavender; $65, amazon.com.)
Good to know: You don’t have to stick to traditional aromatherapeutic scents—any fragrance that makes you feel good can be calming, says Phyllis Zee, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University, in Chicago.
Try it: If you are getting a full night’s sleep but still feel tired in the a.m.
How to use it: Sip a brew made from the flowering plant an hour or so before bedtime. (Try the Republic of Tea Get Some Zzz’s; $10.50 for 36 bags, republicoftea.com.) Some studies have shown that valerian can help increase sleep quality (it’s packed with antioxidants, too). You may have to drink it for several nights in a row before it works, says Naiman.
Good to know: Valerian shouldn’t be taken for more than two weeks at a time, since prolonged use can lead to dependency. And it can interfere with some prescription medications, including cholesterol drugs, so check with your doctor before steeping.
Try it: When your head is racing with worries.
How to use it: Down a shot of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) right before bed. (Try Arizona P.M. Relax FastShot; $3, drinkarizona.com for stores.) “GABA, an amino acid found in your body, has been shown to quiet the mind when taken orally,” says Naiman.
Good to know: Certain foods, including brown rice, bananas, and mackerel, contain GABA. Consuming them during the day may help you sleep better at night.
Try it: If you don’t feel tired until way past bedtime.
How to use it: Take a three-milligram tablet 15 to 20 minutes before bed. (Try GNC Melatonin 3; $6 for 60 tablets, gnc.com.) Your brain makes this neurohormone naturally to “tell the body that it’s time for sleep,” says Naiman. “But many people have suppressed melatonin production because they’re overexposed to light in the evening.” Naiman has been using it nightly for 20 years.
Good to know: Consult with your doctor before taking melatonin. It is not recommended for pregnant women, women trying to conceive, children, and adolescent boys (it can affect testosterone levels in maturing males).
Over-the-Counter Sleeping Pill
Try it: When you’re going through a short period of sleeplessness, like during a stressful time at work.
How to use it: At bedtime, take two tablets that contain diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that makes you feel sleepy (research shows that an excess of histamine in the body may cause insomnia). “The less often you take these pills, the better,” says Lisa Shives, M.D., a sleep specialist in Evanston, Illinois. “You can build up a tolerance, and then they won’t work as well.” (Try Unisom SleepGels; $10 for 32 gel tabs, at drugstores.) Note: Never mix alcohol and sleeping pills.
Good to know: “The older you are, the slower you metabolize this type of drug,” says Shives. That means you may experience lingering sleepiness in the morning.
Try it: When insomnia becomes a chronic problem.
How to use it: Work with your doctor to figure out which medication is best for you. Shives’s favorite is Rozerem (rozerem.com). It acts on the melatonin receptors in the brain that help you fall and stay asleep (other aids act only as a sedative). Take a tablet about 30 minutes before bed.
Good to know: Finding the right medication may require trial and error: Some can make you more wired and awake. Side effects are common, says Shives, and range from the annoying (headaches, grogginess) to the serious, like unconscious nighttime binge eating and driving. Pregnant women may want to avoid these aids, even though they have not been proven to be dangerous.