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Sleep supplements aren't a cure for bad sleep habits, sleep doctor says

Popping a pill to sleep better is only a quick fix.

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We all want to sleep well, but are sleep aids really worth it?

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There's no doubt about it -- sleep is important. It's necessary for children, students, workers -- but high-quality rest is especially crucial for anyone interested in athletic endeavors. When you're stuck in a rut of unrestful nights, you may be tempted to turn to an over-the-counter sleep aid as a first defense. But does taking a sleep aid actually work? Are there any side effects, and should we be careful about what ingredients are in them?

To find out, I chatted with Brandon McDaniel, the head strength and conditioning coach of the LA Dodgers, and Paige Nielsen, an American soccer player who plays for Washington Spirit -- both ambassadors for a performance nutrition company called Momentous that makes sleep aids -- to learn more about their experience with sleep aids and athletic recovery. Both McDaniel and Nielsen expressed that maximizing sleep quality is crucial to getting maximum athletic performance.

For a purely unbiased look at what sleep supplements actually do, I also spoke to Dr. Hussam Al-Sharif, a sleep medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to get the rundown on all things sleep and sleep aids.

Read more: 8 products to help you stop snoring

Do I really need to use sleep supplements?

If you know that you're not getting adequate rest at night, you may turn to sleep aids as a first defense. Sleep supplements are found at nearly every drugstore, ranging from melatonin to Nyquil

While sleep supplements can be helpful in certain situations, Dr. Al-Sharif notes that they're somewhat overused by the American population and sometimes come with side effects. He recommends taking other steps to improve your sleep quality first (more on that later).

The specific concern that Dr. Al-Sharif has is that people are using a sleep aid for the wrong reason. For example, if someone has undiagnosed sleep apnea and turns to sleep supplements to fix their unrestful nights, it's not going to help the problem much. Any improvement in sleep quality will only mask the underlying issue, delaying the correct treatment of using a CPAP machine.

People who suffer from sleep apnea aren't the only example of this either -- if you can't sleep at night because you're drinking caffeine too late in the day, taking long afternoon naps or staring at screens right before you nod off, it's better to address the underlying problem rather than relying on a sleep supplement. The caffeine-sleep aid cycle can be vicious and hard to escape.

McDaniel seems to agree with Dr. Al-Sharif -- he says he tells athletes to "cover your bases" in terms of sleep hygiene and other relaxation methods before jumping to a supplement, and to always talk to someone in the medical field if you're unsure about your sleep aid use. Nielsen practices deep breathing and meditation as well to help her get better quality sleep, and turns to sleep aids when those aren't enough.

So, if you feel like you're doing everything right in terms of sleep hygiene and still aren't getting the rest you need, a sleep supplement might be worth a shot. Sleep aids are helpful in certain situations -- maybe you want to get a ton of sleep before a hard workout, are suffering from jet lag or are dealing with a temporary life stressor that makes it hard to fall asleep. 

Just make sure to follow the product's recommendations -- a lot of sleep aids have instructions to only take them for a certain amount of time to prevent physical dependence. Also, always make sure that your sleep aid doesn't interfere with any other medications you're taking.

Do sleep supplements actually work?

sleep aid sleep

Here's how I slept one night after taking Momentous -- I often wake up earlier than I want to and can't fall back asleep, but with the natural sleep aid I slept soundly until my alarm rang at 7 a.m. I had similar results the other nights I tried the product.

Screenshot by Caroline Roberts/CNET

Now that we've covered when you should take a sleep supplement, let's address how effective they are. Dr. Al-Sharif explains that natural products like melatonin or magnesium can be helpful in certain situations when you're struggling to fall asleep, like jet lag or shift work. Research on over-the-counter sleep aids backs him up -- studies show they are suitable for certain situations (like jet lag and insomnia), but only work to a limited extent.

He says that while melatonin helps people fall asleep, synthetic sleep medications like diphenhydramine (an ingredient in Tylenol PM and Benadryl) have more effect on maintaining sleep than on sleep onset. Therefore, if you're sick with the cold and have no trouble passing out, but keep waking up with coughing fits, a medicine with diphenhydramine might do the trick.

Your reaction to different sleep aids is highly personal -- some research suggests their effect is partly psychological -- so if a particular one doesn't work for you it could be worth trying another. I tend to respond pretty well to sleep aids, and have successfully used everything from NyQuil to melatonin to Momentous during times when I have trouble sleeping.

A longer-term solution to fixing sleep issues, including insomnia, is cognitive behavioral therapy. If you're consistently having trouble sleeping, it's much better to address the underlying problem with your healthcare provider than use sleep aids as a quick fix.  

Does it matter if my sleep aid is natural or not?

From what Dr. Al-Sharif says, you'd likely want to pick a natural supplement if you can't fall asleep, and a synthetic sleep aid if your problem is with sleep maintenance. But beyond that the main difference between the two is their side effects.

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Melatonin is one of the most popular natural sleep aids out there.

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Dr. Al-Sharif explains that synthetic sleep aids can cause difficulty focusing or concentrating, dizziness, sedation, dry mouth, blurred vision, urinary retention and constipation, because they usually contain antihistamines. On the other hand, the only commonly reported side effect of natural sleep aids like melatonin (a hormone our bodies already produce) is a headache. 

While your reaction to sleep aids is highly personal, drowsiness upon waking up is more associated with taking synthetic supplements. Nielsen told me that she feels groggy after taking a synthetic product like Benadryl, but has no issue waking up after taking a natural product, like Momentous and others. For what it's worth, I had the same experience -- I always notice drowsiness after taking a synthetic product like Simply Sleep, but I was surprisingly alert in the mornings after I tried Momentous.

How can I get better rest without supplements?

You should always make sure that your sleep habits are on point before turning to a sleep aid. Dr. Al-Sharif points to several things you can do to increase your chances of a good night's rest -- not taking long afternoon naps, cutting out caffeine intake later in the day, keeping a consistent wake-up time, exposing yourself to natural morning light after waking up and limiting time spent in bed besides sleeping.

Undiagnosed sleep disorders or medications can also affect your quality of rest, so if you can't figure out why you're not sleeping well, it's always worth it to check in with your doctor.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.