When determining if you should take over-the-counter sleep aids or see your provider, we first need to address the questions “What is bad sleep and are you experiencing bad sleep?”
Bad sleep may mean you have trouble falling asleep and maintaining sleep. This is the most common reason for taking over-the-counter or prescribed sleep aids.
Bad sleep may also mean you experience restless sleep. You wake up after a couple hours of sleep and start thinking about work or life and are then unable to fall back to sleep. People experiencing this type of bad sleep also commonly use over-the-counter or prescribed sleep aids.
Another type of bad sleep is waking up unrested in the morning without realizing you had restless or wakeful sleep. This is usually caused by some form of obstructive sleep apnea.
Will sleep aids help you achieve good sleep?
The answer to this question is dependent on which of the three types of bad sleep you are experiencing.
Providers report three million people each year are treated for insomnia or trouble initiating and maintaining sleep. Work travel to different time zones, adjusting to a later work shift or life stress may be the root cause of your sleep trouble. While over-the-counter and prescribed sleep aids can help you get sleep through these times, the root cause is being left unaddressed.
Sleep aids can help you adjust to a different schedule for a short period of time, but your body needs a regular schedule with healthy, unaided sleep to properly rest. A sleep aid may be required to help you achieve sleep through your period of travel or adjusting to a new work schedule, but if your life situation changes and you stop traveling, change shifts again, or become used to your new work shift, you may no longer need to continue using the sleep aid.
Stress can be masked with the use of a sleep aid so it is important to speak with a health professional to address your stress directly. Over time, some people find that over-the-counter sleep aids lose their effectiveness as a tolerance is established. Once they become ineffective, people typically meet with their primary care provider for a prescribed medication.
The most important question to answer is what is actually causing your bad sleep. Addressing the root of the problem is the best way to determine what will work for your individual needs. The most effective way to determine the root cause for your sleep problem is to have a conversation with your primary care provider.
What should you discuss with your primary care provider?
When you meet with your provider, you will be asked if you snore. This question is to determine if you have obstructive sleep apnea. If you don’t snore, the next step will be to find out if you have trouble initiating sleep. If this is the case, you may receive training on how to sleep. For example, don’t lay in bed too long if you aren’t sleeping. Get up and move around. Don’t use anything that emits blue light for at least 30 minutes prior to when you plan to sleep (i.e., don’t watch television, use your computer, phone or tablet). Sometimes, a patient may be sent to see a sleep psychologist to work through trouble with initiating sleep.
What if you snore?
If you snore, the next step is to undergo a sleep study to rule out obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep aids can make this condition worse or prolong the breathing pauses you experience while you sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed if you wake up five or more times an hour to breathe after pauses in breathing during sleep. Many people experience much higher interruption numbers, up to 20 or more times and hour, without realizing they have woken in the night.
Following a sleep study, you will likely be prescribed a CPAP, oral appliance or surgical procedure to control your obstruction.
Treating bad sleep on your own vs. with your primary care provider
You may be able to treat bad sleep on your own with over-the-counter sleep aids or changes to your sleep habits. If you continue to have difficulty, it may be time to speak with your primary care provider to address underlying issues at the root of the problem.