We've all had those nights where we're stressed out about something in our lives or we're nervous about something the next day, and we just can't get to sleep. I've had stretches of 2-3 weeks where I can barely sleep 2 to 3 hours per night during stressful times.
To say the least, this has a big impact on your daily life, and it's very important to find a way to get some rest. I've tried many solutions, from over-the-counter sleeping pills, to prescription drugs, to herbal remedies. Here are my thoughts and advice on each.
OTC sleep aids
These include drugs like Sominex, Tylenol PM or Unisom. Many of these include antihistamines, Seth Stevenson over at Slate, has a good breakdown:
"When it comes to OTC pills, you're basically looking at two options: 1) antihistamines; or 2) herbal remedies. Antihistamines use either diphenhydramine hydrochloride (brands include: Sominex, Compoz, Tylenol PM, and Unisom SleepGels) or doxylamine succinate (Unisom tablets, Equate). The two ingredients are pretty interchangeable. Each inhibits the same neurotransmitter to depress your central nervous system. These antihistamines are the same stuff you might take for allergies, which is why allergy medications make you so drowsy."
In my experience, OTC sleep aids do work, but they have harsh after effects. I tended to wake up drowsy and tired, and the feeling persisted throughout the day. Of the ones I tried, I found Advil PM to be the least harsh, but all of them were so debilitating the next day that I usually stay away from them.
Herbal sleep aids
These include valerian root, chamomile, passion flower, and melatonin. Of these, I've tried melatonin and valerian root.
Melatonin appealed to me because it's a natural hormone already found in our bodies, it's a hormone which regulates our sleep cycle. So the idea is taking it is a way of manually increasing the level of this hormone, making us sleepy. It does work, and works well. However, it had the strange effect of giving me lots of dreams. The effect was noticeable. I usually do dream, but the intensity of my dreams on melatonin were much stronger. So I stopped taking it for this reason.
I then tried valerian root, which is an herb made from Valerian plants in Asia and Europe. It is supposed to work as a sedative, but the reasons behind how it works are still unknown. My personal experience with it is that is has a mild relaxing effect - similar to drinking a warm tea, but it wasn't strong enough to put me to sleep in many cases.
Prescription sleep aids
Now my advice is that you should visit your doctor only if you've tried other means and really have a problem with insomnia. Many of these drugs are addictive, and falling into that trap can make you worse off than where you started.
I've tried both Ambien and Lunesta as sleep aids. Both are supposedly similar in how they work. These sleep aids do work well to put you to sleep - similar in their effectiveness as some of the OTC medicines. The main difference is that the prescription aids have far less after effects. You wake up without that strong drowsy feeling, and feel pretty good the next day.
These pills work so well, in fact, that I started to take them everyday. This was fine for a month or two, but after a while, they started to lose their effectiveness. I then tried to stop taking them to see if I could get back to a normal sleep routine, and I found myself unable to sleep for several days. It was a pretty scary experience.
My advice around using prescription sleep aids is to avoid using them if possible, but if you do use them, do not use them on a regular basis. Use them only on the nights you really cannot sleep, and limit yourself to 2 to 3 times per week. I have found that on this schedule, it is possible to use sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta for an extended period of time without getting too hooked on them.
Best of luck on your road to a good night's rest!