Sleeping Aids More Harmful Than Helpful? Consumer Reports Weighs In

We resolve to start each New Year with good habits, and one of those resolutions may be improving your sleep. Results from a new Consumer Reports survey may persuade you not to use Over The Counter (OTC) nighttime sleeping aids to meet your sleeping goals.

Approximately 50 million Americans suffer from sleep problems, insomnia, or other “wakefulness disorders,” according to the Institute of Medicine, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on OTC sleeping medications. It’s estimated Americans will spend $711 Million on these non-prescription sleeping aids in 2017, with that amount climbing to $831 Million by 2021.

To evaluate this emerging market, Consumer Reports surveyed 4000 American adults about their sleeping habits and use of OTC sleeping medications to address sleeping problems. Surveyors focused questions on the use of “PM” drugs, the most commonly used nighttime sleeping aids including Tylenol PM and other “PM” drugs, as well as nighttime sleeping aids like ZzzQuil, Sominex, and Unisom. The active ingredient in all these medications is the anti-histamine drug Diphenhydramine, or Doxylamine, both in the class of drugs known as anticholinergic, which are known to make people drowsy.

The survey found the majority of people using OTC nighttime sleeping failed to take the medications as directed on the label and the use of these OTC sleeping aids might be more harmful than helpful. 18% of those surveyed took OTC sleeping aids daily, and 41% admitted taking them for a year or longer, despite recommended use no longer than 2 weeks at a time.

Although manufacturers’ can legally claim on package labeling that the medication is non-habit forming, their claim assumes people will take the medication as directed, which is often not the case. How do people respond when they continue taking the medication for longer than the 2-week time frame recommended, as the majority of people surveyed admitted? Survey participants’ behavior suggests OTC nighttime sleeping aids are addictive and habit-forming despite manufacturers’ claims to the contrary.

The survey also noted people might also suffer both short-term and long-term problems when using OTC nighttime sleeping aids. Short-term problems include confusion, dizziness, next-day drowsiness, and what’s commonly known as the “hangover” effect where one feels like they have a hangover after taking the sleep aid. These short-term problems create an increased risk of falls, especially for people age 65 and over, and an increased risk of car accidents because of the drowsiness effect. Data further suggests long-term side effects include an increased risk for severe memory problems.

To avoid the dangers associated with OTC nighttime sleeping aids use, Consumer Reports recommends being more mindful of how much and how long you are taking these medications, and to stop taking them and see your doctor if you continue suffering sleeping problems after the recommended 2 weeks of use. The key to avoiding harm is to use the medication as directed. Remember: just because a medication is over-the-counter, does not mean it is risk-free or can’t harm you.