Sleeping Pills: Little Helpers
August 2008
Prescription Drugs:
Pros & Cons

Benzodiazepines (Halcion, Restoril) are hypnotics that suppress the firing of neurons. "They’re essentially knock-out pills," says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D. "You pass out, but you never reach deep sleep." And they can be addictive if used long-term.

Nonbenzodiazepines (Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata) are fairly new drugs that target the same sites in the brain as benzos but don’t alter the sleep cycle. Plus, they aren’t physically addictive.

Herbal over-the-counter aids:
Pros & Cons

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that, when taken supplementally, fools your circadian clock into switching on the sleep cycle. It’s great for jet lag, but "it’s a no-no for girls under 18," Breus warns. Melatonin levels affect the onset of puberty.

Valerian plant root, now available in capsule form, was used to treat insomnia by the ancient Greeks. No one’s quite sure how it works, but it’s been shown to promote regular sleep. "We think it’s hitting the same sites as the benzos," says Breus.

Natural Remedies:
Pros & Cons

Exercise releases relaxing chemicals like endorphins that help you fall asleep faster. And the physical strain causes your brain to increase the amount of time you spend in deep sleep, when your body repairs itself.

Hot showers raise your core temperature, which imitates melatonin’s natural effects and makes you sleepy.
Warm milk (or any dairy product) contains tryptophan, an amino acid that the body processes into melatonin and serotonin—both sleep inducers. Oats and bananas are good tryp sources too.

Text by Daniel Grushkin