For the average person who has occasional bouts of insomnia, making certain lifestyle changes may help the most, including avoiding big meals, alcohol, smoking, and exercising late at night, and working or watching TV in bed.
If these actions don’t help, you could consider, with your doctor’s input, trying an inexpensive over-the-counter drug containing an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy, Nytol, Sominex, and generic) or doxylamine (Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid and generic) for just a few nights.
But it’s important to know that though those drugs are FDA-approved to treat insomnia, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) doesn’t recommend them. In addition, drugs such as diphenhydramine can cause dependence when taken for longer than directed (usually two weeks), and they have other risks, such as constipation, confusion, dizziness, and next-day drowsiness.
If your insomnia lasts longer than a few nights, see your doctor to determine whether other factors, such as pain, heartburn, hot flashes, and drug side effects, could be disturbing your sleep. If these are ruled out—or if your insomnia persists despite treatment of the underlying problems—you can try nondrug sleep treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which appear to yield better and more lasting results than any sleep medications. The AASM recommends CBT before resorting to medication.
If your doctor recommends sleeping pills for more than a temporary bout of insomnia without mentioning nondrug therapy, ask about these options yourself. For more on such treatment, see our latest tips on how to treat insomnia.