Need a better night’s sleep? Here’s what the doctor recommends… and doesn’t

Experts from SSM Health and Consumer Reports break down the treatment options for improved sleep

MADISON, Wis. — As the Chief of Sleep Medicine at SSM Health, Dr. Jacalyn Nelson knows a number of people who come to see her have already tried other remedies.

“I always think of myself as kind being a sleep detective, and my job is to figure out not only what the problems are, but try to get to the root of them,” Nelson said.

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While there’s a greater awareness of conditions like insomnia and sleep apnea, Nelson says there’s no way to meet the demand the general population has for more sleep.

Consumer Reports expert Laura Friedman points out a lack of sleep doesn’t just mean fatigue, but can also lead to more serious consequences.

“The truth is not sleeping enough isn’t just annoying, it can actually contribute to serious health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain and depression,” Friedman said.

When it comes to self-regulated treatments, Nelson is particularly concerned about people using over-the-counter drugs on a regular basis.

“It’s out there, I can’t do much about it, but I am concerned when people are taking, for instance, over-the-counter antihistamines to help with sleep over the long term.  Definitely not safe,” Nelson said.

Friedman adds there are side effects that can come with those medications.

“All prescription sleep medicine comes with risks, including being drowsy the next day. Some have also been linked to sleepwalking and other odd nighttime behavior,” Friedman said.  “So you should take the lowest dose for the shortest time possible.”

Nelson sees patients as young as two years old who are dealing with sleep issues, and some of them are using supplements like melatonin.  She warns that because that’s a supplement, it is not regulated by the FDA.  That can lead to inconsistent doses and even other substances being mixed with the melatonin.

CBD oil and other CBD products are also growing in popularity, but Nelson says there’s not enough science to back up official medical recommendations.

“It may have its use in sleep medicine, but there’s just not enough research out there to really intelligently guide anyone,” Nelson said.

Overall, both Nelson and Friedman say the best ways to get better sleep don’t involve medications, but rather a solid routine.  That includes having a dark, cool sleep space, and avoiding things like alcohol, large meals, rigorous exercise, or screen time just before bed.  Nelson says electronics are a factor for nearly every patient she sees, especially kids and teens.

If you are wondering why you are feeling chronically tired or have serious concerns about your sleep pattern, Nelson suggests seeing a medical professional instead of consulting the Internet.