What you should know about common sleep aids and how to sleep better naturally

Do you have trouble sleeping? Have you ever taken sleeping pills or supplements? Ever wonder how safe they are? Well, I hope so! Awareness when it comes to whatever we are putting in our bodies is very important. I’ll admit, I used to take sleeping pills regularly until I did a little more research.

I have also tried natural supplements like melatonin, but truly when I stopped taking all pills and really looked to other things I could adjust in my lifestyle to help with my sleeping, that’s when things started to get better for me.  It is very common in today’s day and age for most people to just want that quick fix, something to mask the problem instead of taking the time to get to the root of it. I’m guilty! Trust me.

Below I break down some of some common sleep aids and then cover some other adjustments I have made to help me sleep better at night. I personally feel that it is so important to look at the underlying issues that may be disrupting your sleep and try to make adjustments to your lifestyle first before looking to medication.

Tylenol or Advil PM

Tylenol PM and other related nighttime pain relievers contain acetaminophen (pain reliever) as well as diphenhydramine (antihistamine). I’ll never forget when I was looking in my medicine cabinet one time and realized that my Benadryl allergy pills contained the same exact ingredient as my sleeping pills. I was so confused, but it does make sense when you think about it because Benadryl and related antihistamines typically make you drowsy. Ibuprofen also has potential side effects, so it’s best not to take it in a sleep aid unless you also need pain relief. Common side effects of ibuprofen especially with long term use include nausea,  gastrointestinal ulceration/bleeding, diarrhea, constipation, nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, rash, salt and fluid retention, and hypertension (high blood pressure). Continue reading for more on diphenhydramine.

Unisom or ZzzQuil

Unisom, ZzzQuil or the generic versions of these are similar to Tylenol or Advil PM, just without the pain reliever with the main ingredient being diphenhydramine. High doses of diphenhydramine have side effects including dry mouth, confusion, blurred vision, constipation, difficulty urinating and increased blood pressure. Antihistamines are also known to interfere with normal sleep structure and are mainly used to cause drowsiness and help you fall asleep rather than help with overall sleep quality. Tolerance to the antihistamine’s sedative effect can develop fairly quickly, so it’s recommended not to take it for more than three or four nights in a row.


Ambien also known as Zolpidem is a common medication used to treat sleep problems (insomnia) in adults. If you have trouble falling asleep, it helps you fall asleep faster, so you can get a better night’s rest. Zolpidem belongs to a class of drugs called sedative-hypnotics.

“Ambien works by activating the neurotransmitter GABA and binding it to the GABA receptors in the same location as the benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium. The extra GABA activity triggered by the drug inhibits the neuron activity that is associated with insomnia. In other words, it slows down the brain. Ambien is extremely effective at initiating sleep, usually working within 20 minutes. It does not, however, have an effect on sustaining sleep unless it is taken in the controlled release form.” – Huffington Post

This medication is usually limited to short treatment periods of 1 to 2 weeks or less. Side effects include dizziness, weakness, feeling “drugged”, nose and throat irritation, nausea, upset stomach and headaches. Ambien is also known to become habit forming in some individuals. This article by the Huffington Post on The Disturbing Side Effect of Ambien is very interesting and a bit scary if you want to read more on this drug.


Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body made by the pineal gland , a small gland in the brain. Melatonin helps control your sleep and wake cycles. Very small amounts of it are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. You can also buy it as a supplement. In most cases, melatonin supplements are safe in low doses for short-term and long-term use.

“The FDA doesn’t require supplements to include warnings of overdose risks on their labels, as is mandatory for drugs and hormones. Perhaps even riskier, the classification allows companies to sell melatonin in varying dosages. In 2001, researchers at MIT concluded that the correct dosage for melatonin falls between .3 and 1 mg. Yet, walk down the pharmacy aisle and you’ll see stacks of sleep aids packing as 10 times that amount. It’s easy to take too much, and most of melatonin’s side effects are the result of just that. While there’s no evidence that too much melatonin could be fatal, or even remotely life-threatening, exceeding the proper dosage can upset the body’s natural processes and rhythms.” -Huffington Post, The Dark Side of Melatonin

Side effects may include: sleepiness, lower body temperature, vivid dreams, morning grogginess and small changes in blood pressure. There are also studies that show that long-term users experience depression and increased irritability.

A potential side effect of all of these I have covered so far is the possibility to cause daytime sleepiness and headaches which can start to interfere with life more than the original sleeping problem. I experienced this with both Unisom and Melatonin. Drug therapy to manage insomnia for most individuals is meant for short term use, however many people create a habit merely from fear of what will happen when they stop taking them even if they aren’t helping much in the first place.


Magnesium is known for its ability to assist with sleep. One study found that it helps decrease cortisol, the “stress hormone” that can keep you awake at night. It also helps muscles relax, to give you that calm “sleepy” feeling and help you unwind after a long day. On top of helping you get a good night of sleep, it also shows potential as a therapy for depression and other mood disorders. This is the only supplement I currently use and stand behind to assist with sleeping, but I do not view it as an overall one and done quick fix and instead combine its use with my lifestyle adjustments below. I have been using Natural Calm Magnesium plus Calcium drink before bed if I begin to have sleepless nights or if I am feeling stressed or anxious.

Lifestyle Adjustments That May Help With Sleep

A lot of these helped me first hand so I can stand behind them. Definitely worth a try!

  1. Create a bedtime routine. Sounds juvenile yes, but your body will start to remember the “turn down service” and the mind will follow knowing that when you go through this routine it means you are shutting down for the day.
  2. Take a relaxing, warm bath before bed. Throw in some Epsom salt and that’s even better!
  3. Try to keep your bed for sleeping only… reading, watching TV and working on the computer should be done in a different area of the house.
  4. Don’t nap or drink coffee late in the afternoon. I love my coffee so if you are a coffee lover too, please don’t hate me for also saying that it may be worth a shot trying to eliminate coffee altogether for awhile to see if that helps. If you are a 2-3 cup drinker, cutting back to 1 cup a day is a good start.
  5. Give up drinking alcohol close to bedtime. A glass of wine with an early dinner may be okay, but alcohol definitely affects sleep patterns. It may cause sleepiness at first, but it will also cause restlessness and wake the body up later.
  6. Try a white noise machine that will drown out other noises.
  7. Sleep at a comfortable temperature. This is different for everyone so it may take some trial and error to discover a temperature as well as proper bedding that keeps you at an ideal state… not too hot, not too cold 😉
  8. Drink a cup of non-caffeinated chamomile or sleepy time tea before bed.
  9. Stop computer or phone use at least an hour before bed. The blue light is known to disrupt our natural ability to shut down our brain when we begin to feel tired. Your phone also might have a nighttime setting that isn’t so bright.
  10. Keep a nightlight in your bathroom so if you do wake up and have to go, you don’t have to turn on a bright light that will wake you up.
  11. Try yoga or meditation to quiet your mind if you find it racing. Journaling is great for this as well.
  12. Regular exercise is great for your sleep, but don’t do it too close to bedtime as it will also give you a burst of energy and endorphins shortly afterwards.

This post is to get you thinking and to launch your further research on the topic. There will always be conflicting studies and experts weighing in with different thoughts so read more and find out what works best for you. There is so much evidence, however, that shows how important getting good sleep is to our overall health and how a lack of it can cause havoc on our bodies. If you are or have experienced trouble with sleeping, I hope this post was informative, helpful and steers you in the direction of getting some more and better quality Zzz’s.

Lots of love and good health,

Tasha, The Non-Toxic Newbie



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