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Expert Column - What Every PCP Should Know: Over-the-Counter Insomnia Treatments

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Expert Column - What Every PCP Should Know: Over-the-Counter Insomnia Treatments  CME


Irina V. Zhdanova, MD, PhD   


According to various estimates, 15% to 40% of the general population suffer from transient, short-term, or chronic insomnia associated with subjective complaints of prolonged sleep latency, frequent nighttime awakenings, long periods of nighttime wakefulness, or early-morning awakening.[1,2] Because altered nighttime sleep leads to daytime fatigue and sleepiness, any type of insomnia negatively affects mood and performance, and thus increases the risk of accidents and health problems, including major depression.

Although some insomniacs consistently seek and follow medical advice in addressing their sleep problems and use prescribed therapy (pharmacologic, circadian, behavioral, or cognitive), many choose over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids in an attempt to shorten latency to sleep or promote nighttime sleep maintenance. A rationale for using OTC sleep aids may differ; some are searching for a "quick fix" with a readily available medication, and others have found conventional hypnotics to be ineffective or their side effects intolerable. Many are also attracted by a label "dietary supplement," which is often perceived as a safer or more natural alternative to drugs.

It is critically important to know whether your patient suffers from insomnia and, if so, which medications he or she is using to combat it. The major categories of OTC sleep medications widely available in stores, pharmacies, and on the Web include antihistamines as well as hormonal and herbal preparations. In addition, some insomniacs use ethanol or marijuana as a sedative despite the disadvantages, such as dependence. OTC preparations also are frequently used in combination, which is likely to amplify both their sleep-promoting and adverse effects.


First-generation antihistamines (eg, diphenhydramine, brompheniramine, or chlorpheniramine) have been used to treat allergies for a number of years and are available without prescription. However, they can also induce sedation via central antihistaminergic and anticholinergic mechanisms,[3,4] and this effect is widely exploited.

A number of clinical studies have addressed the dose- and time-dependent properties of antihistamines and found both subjective and objective changes in sleepiness, sleep, and psychomotor performance associated with the reduction in latency to sleep onset or increase in sleep duration.[5-8] Although previous studies tended to support the use of this class of drugs to treat occasional mild-to-moderate insomnia,[9,10] more recent opinions of sleep specialists have shifted strongly against this practice.[11]

The major reason for limiting the use of antihistamines for treating insomnia is their multiple side effects, including changes in sleep architecture, notably a reduction in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep caused by their anticholinergic effects; a reduction in cognitive functions;[12] day-after sedation; an increased risk of accidents;[13] the development of tolerance;[14] and interference with other medications. The side effects of antihistamines appear to be especially risky for elderly patients, almost 50% of whom use sleep medications occasionally or on a regular basis and who often choose OTC sleep aids.[15]Adverse Effects of Diphenhydramine

A recent study, involving 1627 individuals aged 65 and over, found that between 1989 and 1996 the use of prescription sedative-hypnotics (primarily benzodiazepines) rose from 1.8% to 3.1%, whereas OTC sedative-hypnotic use (primarily diphenhydramine) increased from .4% to 7.6%, and reached 8.17% by 1998.[16] This study also highlighted a significant association of diphenhydramine use and cognitive impairment in elderly individuals without dementia.

In a Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut) hospital study, 114 (27%) of 426 hospitalized medical patients aged 70 years or older received diphenhydramine during hospitalization.[17] Although at baseline these patients demonstrated similar characteristics (age, sex, delirium risk, and Mini-Mental State Examination scores) to those of patients who did not receive diphenhydramine, the ones who received diphenhydramine showed a significantly greater risk for delirium symptoms, disorganized speech, and altered consciousness during hospitalization. A diphenhydramine dose-response relationship was demonstrated for most adverse outcomes.

In view of the antihistamine-induced side effects, it is especially disturbing that a large number of OTC preparations contain diphenhydramine under a score of brand names,* which can confuse patients. Furthermore, many OTC medications include diphenhydramine as a second active ingredient (eg, Tylenol PM, Aspirin PM, Acetaminophen PM, Alka-Seltzer Plus, etc). Typical doses of diphenhydramine in these preparations are 25-50 mg per tablet or capsule, and, in most cases, 2 tablets are the recommended dose, 3-4 times per day. Syrup, elixir, spray, cream, and gel forms of diphenhydramine are also widely available.

The Swiss Toxicological Information Centre has recently studied the dose-dependent toxicity of diphenhydramine in 282 patients with acute diphenhydramine poisoning.[18] They found that mild toxicity symptoms (somnolence, anticholinergic signs, tachycardia, and nausea/vomiting) accounted for 55% to 64% of the cases and were associated with doses under 300 mg. Moderate symptoms (isolated and spontaneously resolving agitation, confusion, hallucinations, and electrocardiogram disturbances) were documented in 22% to 27% of those who ingested more than 300 mg of diphenhydramine. Severe symptoms (delirium/psychosis, seizures, and coma) manifested in 14% to 18% of the patients after ingestion of nearly 1 g of the drug. Thus, combining several tablets of an OTC "cold" medication with a topical cream for allergy could place a patient at health risk.

Recognizing the complexities of the OTC antihistamine market, in 2002 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that drug products containing diphenhydramine should carry warnings, advising consumers not to use oral OTC diphenhydramine products with any other product containing diphenhydramine, including products used topically.[19] Overall, occasional use of low-dose antihistamines for acute sedation may be relatively safe, but using them frequently to control sleep is not a good idea.

*40 Winks, Aid to Sleep, Aler-Dryl, Allergia-C, Allergy Medicine Antihistamine, AllerMax, Altaryl, Anti-Histamine, Antihist, Antihistamine, Antihistamine Allergy, Antituss, Banaril, Banophen, Beldin, Belix, Benadryl, Benadryl Allergy, Benadryl DF, Benadryl Dye-Free Allergy, Benadryl Ultratab, Benahist-10, Benahist-50, Benoject-50, Bydramine, Calm-Aid, Child Allergy, Complete Allergy, Complete Allergy Relief, Compoz Nighttime Sleep Aid, Diphedryl, Diphen, Diphen AF, Diphen Cough, Diphenadryl, Diphendryl, Diphenhist, Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride, Diphenyl, Diphenylin, DPH, Dytan, Dytuss, Genahist, Hydramine, Hydramine Compound, Hydramine Cough Syrup, Hyrexin, Nervine, Night Time Sleep-Aid, Nu-Med, Nytol Caplet, Pardryl, Phendry, Q-Dryl, Quenalin, Scot-Tussin Allergy Relief Formula, Siladryl, Siladryl DAS, Siladyl SA, Silphen Cough, Simply Sleep, Sleep, Sleep Aid, Sleep Tab II, Sleep Tabs, Sleep-ettes, Sleep-eze-3, Sleepinal, Sominex, Sominex Maximum Strength Caplet, Somnicaps, Total Allergy, Trux-adryl, Tusstat, Twilite, Uni-Hist, Unisom Sleepgels Maximum Strength, Valu-Dryl, Wehdryl(


The onsets of sleepiness, sleep quantity, and sleep quality depend not only on the duration of prior wakefulness, the so-called homeostatic mechanism of sleep regulation, but also on the time of day when an attempt to initiate sleep is taking place. The latter reflects circadian mechanisms of sleep regulation and is linked to the biological clock structure, the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus.

The neuroendocrine system is likely to play a major role in both homeostatic and circadian sleep processes. However, so far we know very little about hormonal mechanisms of sleep regulation. An exception is melatonin, the principal hormone of the circadian system, released nightly into the cerebrospinal fluid and blood circulation by the pineal gland. The ability of high doses of melatonin to induce sleepiness was reported over 40 years ago, during an unrelated clinical trial.[20] More recently, low-dose melatonin (.1-.5 mg, orally) was found to promote objectively documented sleep.[21-25] Of importance, these low doses induced circulating melatonin levels within those normally observed in human blood (50-150 pg/mL). The latter suggests that melatonin may normally play a role in homeostatic sleep regulation, acutely promoting sleep onset and maintenance at night, in addition to its ability to shift a circadian phase of sleep, resulting from its effects on the "biological clock."

Melatonin does not appear to significantly affect nighttime sleep quantity and quality in healthy individuals but can help them to fall asleep during the day.[21-25] It was shown to be especially helpful for insomnias associated with neurologic disorders in children.[26-31] The results of melatonin administration to elderly insomniacs are more variable, ranging from mild but significant improvements in their sleep[32-34] to a lack of therapeutic effect.[35,36] Of note, sensitivity to the effects of melatonin on sleep is not uniform among individuals and may decline with age or as a result of neurodegenerative diseases.[37,38] Melatonin coadministration can also facilitate the effects of common hypnotics, helping to reduce their effective dose and side effects or attenuating drug withdrawal.[39] A combination of circadian and homeostatic effects of melatonin with its surprisingly low toxicity and lack of significant effects on sleep architecture and day-after performance at high pharmacologic doses makes it a popular compound among insomniacs.Sleep Effects

The nature of melatonin's effect on sleep, which is only starting to emerge, is such that it promotes a behavioral state resembling quiet wakefulness, which predisposes to normal sleep initiation, rather than sleepiness or profound drowsiness. A comparison of the effects of melatonin on human performance with those of conventional hypnotics (such as temazepam, zaleplon, and zopiclone) has shown that melatonin administration induces a smaller or no deficit in performance on a range of neurobehavioral tasks, despite a similar duration of subjective sleepiness.[40,41] However, stimuli that would interfere with normal sleep, eg, turning lights on, changing to an upright position, or the necessity of conducting a task requiring a high level of attention or motivation, will temporarily interfere with the effect of melatonin on the sleep process. Under such circumstances, a person would typically feel quite alert rather than sedated, despite the high circulating melatonin levels. Once the interference is removed, the ability to fall asleep faster under the influence of melatonin is restored.

It is important to distinguish between the circadian and acute effects of melatonin, because timing of administration may be crucial. Morning melatonin treatment can delay the onset of evening sleepiness by delaying the phase of the circadian rhythms, whereas administering melatonin in the evening can advance the circadian rhythms by 30-60 minutes per day, including time of sleep onset. By contrast, acute sleep-promoting effects of melatonin can manifest at different times of the day and, in insomniacs, at night, within 30 minutes after treatment.

Melatonin's short 20- to 40-minute half-life makes it possible to choose different approaches when using it to treat insomnia. Near-physiological doses of the hormone (.2-.5 mg) can be administered at bedtime to shorten sleep latency or to entrain the free-running circadian rhythms in individuals with circadian sleep disorders. Low melatonin doses (.1-.2 mg) can also be administered in the middle of the night, upon early awakening, in order to reinitiate sleep and prolong an overall sleep period.Preparations

It should be noted that despite melatonin being sold in the United States under the label of a dietary supplement, no meaningful amount of this pineal hormone is ever consumed through food intake. Normally, mammals rely on their own pineal glands to produce melatonin from tryptophan and to release it into the circulation. This process is precisely regulated, synchronizing melatonin secretion with both nighttime and darkness. Environmental light can suppress nocturnal melatonin production, whereas darkness during the day does not stimulate it.

In the United States, melatonin is available OTC in both immediate- and slow-release preparations and at a large variety of doses, typically from .1 to 5 mg. No major side effects have been documented after ingestion of high melatonin doses, and some researchers and practitioners choose to use them, hoping to augment melatonin efficacy. A few dose-dependency studies, however, failed to show significant improvement in the sleep-promoting effects of melatonin after the blood melatonin levels exceed those normally observed at night.[21-23, 25,34]

Slow-release melatonin preparations have a potential to mimic a physiological pattern of overnight melatonin production, prolonging their sleep-promoting effects. However, unless optimally designed, such preparations, as well as immediate-release doses higher than .5 mg, may result in increased daytime melatonin levels and thus alter a circadian signal provided by this hormone, which would provoke insomnia rather than treating it.[42]


Many herbs or herb-based preparations appear to have some sedative properties. These include valerian (Valeriana officinalis), hops (Humulus lupulus), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and kava (Piper methysticum).[43] Of these, valerian is the most popular and well-studied phytosedative. It has been and continues to be used in many cultures and is widely believed to have calming and relaxing effects that can also help to initiate sleep and ease anxiety in insomniacs.

Several recent reviews provide detailed information from clinical trials involving valerian.[44,45] Repeated administration of valerian was typically found to be beneficial to insomniacs, reducing time to sleep onset and promoting sleep maintenance.[46-49] By contrast, single-dose-treatment studies produced controversial results, some demonstrating sleep improvement in insomniacs,[49-51] others finding no difference between valerian and placebo.[52] These inconsistent outcomes may be related to both mild effects of valerian on sleep and individual sensitivity to its effects, or they may reflect differences in formulations, populations, and methodological approaches used to test these effects.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic and adenosine-ergic mechanisms of valerian's effects on sleep have been proposed, but remain to be further elucidated. Valerian root contains a number of biologically active substances, including valepotriates (iridoid esters), valeric acid, alkaloids, and free amino acids (including GABA). The role of each of these components in the sedative effects of valerian remains largely unknown, and a combined action of several of them and their correct proportions may be required. The nature of valerian preparations, however, suggests that their constituents may differ, depending on when and where the plants were harvested.Preparations and Treatment Duration

Because some components of valerian are not water-soluble, valerian extracts and tinctures are prepared with alcohol or alcohol-free (eg, glycerite) bases. Powdered valerian is available in capsule or tablet forms or as valerian tea. Typically, valerian preparations are taken about 30 minutes before bedtime, and the dose depends on the type of preparation. For example, 1-3 g of dried root can be used as valerian tea or 150-600 mg of valerian extract can be added to a small glass of water. Typically, individualized doses are established empirically, and a wide range of valerian doses appears to be well tolerated. That said, some individuals may experience a paradoxical reaction to this herb, associated with anxiety, tachycardia, and insomnia, and thus a gradual increase in dose should be recommended to first-time users.

The treatment duration depends on the specific symptoms of sleep disorder, and herbalists recommend a 2- to 3-week break after a 4- to 6-week period of valerian treatment. Perhaps shorter courses should be recommended to those who are initiating this treatment, before they acquire personal experience in using a specific valerian preparation. Until now, clinical trials have not documented valerian-withdrawal symptoms. However, a recent study suggests that valerian can have a positive effect on withdrawal from benzodiazepines.[53]

Valerian is often used in preparations containing multiple herbs that are traditionally believed to provide sedative or hypnotic effects. Interactions between different ingredients of these plants and their possible synergistic effects are very likely. However, representative placebo-controlled studies involving these other herbs (eg, passionflower, hops, lemon balm, or kava) and their combinations remain to be conducted. Possible toxic effects of individual herbs or their combinations also cannot be excluded. For example, repeated reports of liver damage linked to kava intake prompted European and North American regulatory agencies, including the FDA, to warn consumers of the risk involved in using this herb.Regulatory Issues

In addition to safety issues typical for any standardized medication, such as dose-response, toxicity, or interactions with other drugs, OTCs marked as "dietary supplements" pose an additional challenge. According to current US regulations, premarket evaluation and approval by the FDA are not required for the marketing of so-called "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS) ingredients, unless claims are made for specific disease prevention or treatment. GRAS status can result from a history of safe use before 1958, self-declaration by the manufacturer, or affirmation by the FDA. Furthermore, the FDA, rather than a manufacturer, has the burden to prove that a specific GRAS substance is unsafe.[54]

Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States but must comply with food Good Manufacturing Practice regulations, which are primarily concerned with safety and sanitation rather than dietary-supplement quality.[55,56] Such products are only infrequently tested for manufacturing consistency and batch-to-batch composition may vary considerably.


Although scores of sleep aid are on the OTC market, for the most part they represent 3 products: diphenhydramine, melatonin, and valerian. They are sold separately or in combination with other biologically active substances, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (with diphenhydramine), vitamins (with melatonin), or herbs (with valerian or melatonin).

All these substances can facilitate sleep onset or maintenance, with different potencies for different individuals. However, each of these sleep aids should be used by patients with appropriate caution, at the right time, with minimal effective doses, and (importantly) without combining several preparations containing the same active ingredient.

This program was supported by an independent educational grant from Takeda.


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