While there are plenty of prescription sleep aids on the market, you may have toyed with the idea of taking an over-the-counter drug that you know makes you drowsy. For example, some people take antihistamines, like Benadryl or NyQuil, every single night even if they're not experiencing allergies, because they're easy to get and can knock people out fast. But is this a safe habit?
The short answer is: probably not. Antihistamines are not intended to treat sleep issues, and are really supposed to be used to relieve allergy symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic. The reason why they're so good at making you sleepy is because they block a neurotransmitter called "histamine," which helps your body stay awake. Now, some OTC sleep drugs (like Aleve PM or Unisom SleepTabs) do contain antihistamines, but they're not meant to be taken every single night, because there can be negative side effects.
According to Daniel Barone, MD, a neurologist at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine Center for Sleep Medicine, antihistamines are not great as a long-term solution for sleep troubles because people habituate to them quickly. That means that your body develops a tolerance to the drug, so you won't respond the same way to it over time and will essentially be back to square one with your sleep problems. So, taking antihistamines doesn't actually get at the underlying issue affecting your sleep.
Antihistamines can also have short-term side effects that aren't ideal, like dizziness and dry mouth, Dr. Barone says. And, ironically, you may feel exhausted the day after you take one, even if you went to sleep at a reasonable hour. "Despite giving you the sensation that the sleep was improved, [antihistamines] can lead to feeling hungover the next day," he says. They can also worsen certain conditions, like glaucoma or asthma, so you should really talk to your doctor if you're thinking of taking an antihistamine regularly, Dr. Barone says.
The good news? If you're having a hard time falling asleep and can't make it to the doctor quick enough, you do have some holistic options to turn to. "I am a big believer in mindfulness meditation and other relaxation techniques like massage therapy," Dr. Barone says. (Pro tip: There are lots of helpful meditation apps you can download that include recordings specifically for relaxing your body before sleep.) Dr. Barone also suggests taking 1-3mg of melatonin right around bedtime. If none of those tips help, you should consider seeing a sleep specialist who can suggest some other treatments or prescribe an appropriate sleep drug.
The bottom line is that if you're contemplating taking a medication for a reason other than its intended use, you have to consult your doctor. When it comes to medicine — even OTC medicine — there are so many potential side effects, and you just don't know what you don't know. Your friends may think Benadryl is the miracle cure for insomnia, but you deserve a safer, more effective answer to your sleep troubles.