The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional organization dedicated to the assurance of quality care for patients with sleep disorders, has issued a position statement on treating insomnia with over-the-counter sleep aids and/or herbal supplements.
Insomnia is a common sleep complaint that affects about 30 percent of adults in the U.S. It occurs when a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, wakes up too early, or feels unrefreshed after sleeping. It causes a variety of daytime problems, including fatigue, moodiness, and anxiety about sleep.
The primary forms of treatment for insomnia are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prescription medications. Research shows that both of these treatment options can improve the quality and quantity of sleep for people with insomnia.
Many other medications are sold in stores and online for the treatment of insomnia. They can be purchased without a prescription from a doctor. These nonprescription medications are regulated by the FDA as “over-the-counter” (OTC) drugs. FDA-approved OTC sleep aids contain a form of antihistamine as the active ingredient. “Histamine” is a chemical messenger in your brain that promotes wakefulness. Antihistamines typically produce drowsiness by suppressing the activity of histamine.
The FDA permits the sale of OTC sleep aids that contain one of these three types of antihistamine:
• diphenhydramine hydrochloride
• diphenhydramine citrate
• doxylamine succinate
Some OTC sleep aids contain both an antihistamine and a pain reliever.
Studies show that the use of OTC sleep aids is common. In one population survey of 2,181 adults, more than 10 percent of adults said that they used an OTC sleep aid in the past year. Another survey of 3,447 adults found that 21.4 percent of people with daytime problems resulting from insomnia take an OTC medication to help them sleep.
Areas of Concern
More research is needed to determine whether OTC medications produce measurable improvements in sleep. Studies thus far have had small sample sizes and have focused on subjective reports rather than objective measures. Self-reports from patients have shown that OTC medications have helped them fall asleep. The risk involved with long-term use of these products, however, has not been studied.
The antihistamines used in OTC sleep aids can produce side effects such as the following:
• Daytime sleepiness
• Reduced alertness
Daytime drowsiness can be severe in some people who use antihistamines, even when the medication is taken the prior day or night. Some side effects may be stronger in older people. A tolerance to the drug can develop in as little time as three to four days.
Sufficient evidence does not exist to support over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids as an effective treatment for insomnia. OTC sleep aids that contain antihistamine may provide modest, short-term benefits for adults with mild cases of insomnia. It is important to be aware, however, that the use of antihistamines may produce a variety of side effects.
Important Information Regarding OTC Sleep Aids
1. OTC sleep aids that contain antihistamine are approved by the FDA only for “occasional sleeplessness” by people who have trouble “falling asleep.” These products are not intended to be used for more than a few nights or for severe cases of insomnia.
2. The information accompanying an OTC sleep aid should be read carefully.
3. OTC sleep aids are designed only for bedtime use.
4. OTC sleep aids should be taken only as directed by a physician or according to the instructions that come with the medication.
5. OTC sleep aids are not intended for use by children under the age of 12.
6. OTC sleep aids should not be taken with alcohol or with a sleeping pill, sedative, tranquilizer, or another antihistamine.
7. Pregnant or nursing women and individuals with breathing problems or glaucoma should consult their doctor before taking an OTC sleep aid.
8. Individuals should consult their doctor if they have either an ongoing problem with insomnia or another sleep problem that affects their daytime activities.
AASM Position Statement:
Treating Insomnia with Herbal Supplements
Many herbal supplements are marketed as products that promote and improve sleep. A scientific survey of 2,590 adults shows that three percent of herbal supplement consumers use the products as a sleep aid. The sale of herbal supplements in stores and online is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Manufacturers of herbal supplements are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products and the accuracy of the information that appears both on the product label and in promotional materials. In contrast to drug products, however, herbal supplements may be marketed and sold without prior approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA regulations do forbid advertising that promotes an herbal supplement “as a treatment, prevention or cure for a specific disease or condition” such as insomnia.
Areas of Concern
There is limited scientific evidence to show that herbal supplements are effective sleep aids. Anecdotal reports indicate that some herbal supplements may provide temporary aid to help individuals relax at bedtime.
Evidence does show that the use of herbal supplements may have dangerous side effects. For example, in 2002 the FDA issued a consumer advisory that herbal supplements containing kava may be associated with severe liver damage.
The use of herbal supplements together with prescription medications also involves the risk of an adverse drug interaction. For example, in 2000 the FDA issued a public health advisory after a study showed a significant drug interaction between St. John’s wort and certain prescription drugs. The FDA estimates that it receives reports of less than one percent of the severe, negative health reactions that occur with the use of dietary supplements.
FDA regulations require that a complete list of ingredients and the net contents of the product appear on dietary supplement labels. The FDA does not routinely analyze the content of herbal supplements, however, and independent analysis shows that the actual content of herbal supplements may differ significantly from what is listed on the product label. For example, one study found that most ginseng products contain less than half the amount of ginseng that is listed on the label. In addition, the quantity of a supplement’s ingredients may vary by manufacturer.
The Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising for dietary supplements and in the past decade has filed more than 100 actions to challenge “allegedly false or unsubstantiated efficacy or safety claims for dietary supplements.” In recent testimony before a Congressional Committee, an FTC spokesperson warned, “Although many supplements offer the potential for real health benefits to consumers, unproven products and inaccurate information can pose a threat to the health and well-being of consumers and cause economic injury.” The FTC has been particularly concerned about the marketing of dietary supplements for use in children.
There is only limited scientific evidence to show that herbal supplements are effective sleep aids. Because these products may be marketed and sold without FDA approval and may involve dangerous side effects or adverse drug interactions, they should be taken only if approved by a physician.
Important Information Regarding Herbal Supplements
1. Herbal supplements should not be taken for the purpose of treating insomnia or any other sleep problem unless approved by a physician.
2. The use of herbal supplements presents a risk of dangerous side effects and adverse drug interactions.
3. Herbal supplements should not be used for any purpose by children under 12 years of age.
4. Pregnant or nursing women and individuals taking a medication should obtain approval from their doctor before using an herbal supplement.
5. Those who believe they may have suffered a harmful effect or illness from taking a dietary supplement should first consult their doctor and then report the problem to the FDA online at https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/medwatch/medwatch-online.htm, by phone at 1-800-FDA-1088 or by fax at 1-800-FDA-0178.
6. It is prudent to seek help from a board-certified sleep specialist for a severe or ongoing sleep problem.