older woman with insomnia

Getting a good night’s sleep can be an ongoing challenge. As a result, people try every possible option they can. A recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports has found that a large number of people are taking an over-the-counter sleep aid. That includes the antihistamine diphenhydramine found in most PM pain relievers.

The Popularity of OTC Sleeping Pills:

Almost one person out of five in the survey said they had used such a product over the last year. Of those, over 40 percent relied on them regularly for more than a year. Although diphenhydramine and doxylamine, the antihistamines used in OTC sleeping pills, are not labeled as habit-forming, Consumer Reports found that some people develop psychological dependence.

Adverse Effects of an OTC Sleep Aid:

Side effects of diphenhydramine include next-day drowsiness, dizziness, confusion and constipation. Even people who don’t feel drowsy the next day may not be able to drive safely (Human Psychopharmacology, May, 2016).

Because diphenhydramine is an anticholinergic drug, there are concerns that regular use could affect cognitive function. People who take such medications regularly are risking brain atrophy and cognitive decline (JAMA Neurology, online April 18, 2016). This may be worse for people with dementia, but even for healthy older people, taking an OTC sleep aid on a regular basis is associated with cognitive impairment (American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Mar-Apr., 2003).

Consumer Reports, February, 2017

How Can You Get the Sleep You Need?

Consumer Reports strongly recommends using cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) as the first line of defense against sleeping problems. We agree that this is an excellent route. Finding a therapist skilled in guiding you in CBT-I can be a challenge. So it was good news to learn that a web-based intervention can be effective (JAMA Psychiatry, Jan., 2017).

Other approaches can help: keep a regular bedtime and develop a routine that allows you to unwind before retiring. A hot bath an hour before bedtime can help you drop off more quickly. Remove distractions, especially screens like computers, tablets and televisions, from the bedroom.

You can learn more about overcoming insomnia without relying on an OTC sleep aid from our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.

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  1. Sue

    I have been taking 12 mg a day of Cyproheptadine (Periactin) since April/16. This was to treat a blood disorder that causes extreme itching because of histamine release in body. I just recently found out that this anticholinergic medicine is extremely dangerous & especially for older people. According to some recent studies, Jama, AMA and other research shows that the cumulative effects of these anticholinergic meds is showing a high probability of Dementia and Alzheimers Disease whether the person has a proclivity to these disorders or not. The Periactin and other antihistimines are heavy sedating substances and may cause extreme tiredness and brain fog which I’ve had since I started on this and my doctor didn’t even warn me. Sometime it is not so obvious depending on the dose prescribed and other drugs, OC or prescription drugs such as antidepressants and other drugs you are taking. Remember, it’s the overall, cumulative effects which are over time and probably just in time for a doctor to say “I don’t know why you have Alzheimers Disease.” That’s whether he knows about this or not! Please do your research. It’s all there, online. And, don’t forget to talk to your doctor about this.

  2. Cindy M. Black
    Seattle, WA

    I’ve made this comment before, but it SO deserves repeating. Through much research online, I’ve found that these things definitely increase one’s sleep quality and duration: melatonin, tart cherry juice, 5-HTP and magnesium. I’m not trying to plug this, but Schiff makes an excellent sleep product called “Knock-out.” It has 3 mg of melatonin, and a few other ingredients like L-theanine, valerian and a bit of GABA. ANYWAY, if you take the tart cherry (~couple of Tbsp’s in some water/juice), the magnesium (250 mg), the 5-HTP (100 mg) and the Knockout (I pill) about an hour before bed, YOU WILL GET MASSIVE SLEEP. Works for me, and I had intractable insomnia for 50 years. SO GLAD to be rid of it!

    I’ve repeatedly read about the horrible damage caused by the OTC sleep aids with diphenhydramine (they all have it), Benadryl, etc. These drugs make you OLDER, FASTER — and that’s the last thing we want. Right?
    Cheers, and SURVIVABLE NEW YEAR! (That’s my new catchphrase)

  3. Mike

    I’ve been amazed at how much better I sleep since taking 2ozs of tart cherry juice every day. I started taking it to help relieve joint pain. It didn’t do much for the joint pain but it sure had a positive effect on my sleep.

  4. Joe
    Point Pleasant, NJ

    I have often heard mention that a hot bath is a strategy to help people sleep as was noted in the article, however I have been informed that raising body temperature actually interferes with sleep. This is one reason why exercise shortly before trying to go to sleep is contraindicated. I would think that this would also apply to a hot bath.

  5. Kathy

    What about taking melatonin on a regular basis?

  6. Franny

    My Dr. recommended Melatonin…I use the 5 mg quick dissolve 30 minutes before I want to sleep and it works for me.

  7. Gloria
    Federal Way, WA

    I started using a OTC sleep aid when I was working shift work, (late 80’s & 90’s). After I left that job, I thought it would be a few months & I would get back into a good sleep mode. I did not. I’m still struggling with insomnia, but with consistency & correct supplements (melatonin, 5http, various herbs), I’m better. But, I still cannot use any cold medicine that has diphenhydramine as it does the opposite of sleep, it keeps me awake.

  8. Chaz
    North Carolina

    The sub-head says: “Relying too heavily. . . .”

    Please define “too heavily” or do NOT use the phrase at all. That kind of imprecision just muddies an already very muddy problem . . . trouble getting to sleep or getting back to sleep!

  9. Brooke

    I used Benadryl for almost a yr with the blessing of my Dr. I quit because I felt it was drying out my eyes and making wearing my contacts uncomfortable. I would only take it now for an allergic reaction. I try to stay away from all known anticholinergics.

  10. Judy

    I took Benadryl every night for over a year in my sixties before I discovered it was the reason for my increasing brain fog and memory problems. I’ve recovered quite a lot in the five or so years since I stopped, but not completely, though that might be due to aging. I’ve taken it once or twice since then for severe allergic reactions without ill effects. It’s just amazing that there aren’t widespread warnings about this drug.

  11. Krystal
    Tacoma wa

    But will occasional use – once evey two weeks or so, hurt you? Is the effect irreversible or does one recover if drug is stopped?

    • Terry Graedon

      Occasional use is not thought to be harmful. And in most cases, we think, even someone who has noticed cognitive difficulties after taking such a pill for years will do better after stopping the drug. (Not much data here, though)

  12. Krystal
    Tacoma wa

    But will occasional use, once every two weeks or so, hurt you? Are the effects irreversible, and does one recover if drug is stopped?

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