Seeing a doctor for an instant insomnia "cure," however, shouldn't be the first course of action, says a Purdue University expert.
"When new products come out on the market, doctors tend to rely upon them because samples are readily available and doctors are short on time," says Gail Newton, an associate professor of pharmacy practice in Purdue's School of Pharmacy. "One of the main factors in patients seeking these prescriptions is the constant direct-to-consumer advertising by the makers of these medications that is full of symbolism, but low on content, promising a great night's sleep.
"The fact is that for most suffering from occasional insomnia, behavioral changes or over-the-counter options are often just as effective and more appropriate."
This year's National Sleep Foundation's Sleep Awareness Week is March 27 through April 2. A poll by the organization last year found that about half of the respondents experienced at least one symptom of insomnia at least a few nights a week within the previous year. A third had experienced at least one symptom every night or almost every night.
Another poll released last year by a managed-care company found that the use of prescription sleeping medications among adults doubled from 2000 to 2004.
Newton says this trend is troublesome because, while not physically addictive, newer sleep aids can be psychologically habit-forming. She says this creates a situation in which people feel like they can't sleep without the drug, even though they physically might be able to do so.
Newton says for those having trouble sleeping, the following steps should be tried before seeking a prescription:
* Establish a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends.
* Exercise regularly - about 30 minutes most days of the week - at least a few hours before bedtime.
* Do something relaxing before bed.
* Make sure the sleep environment is cool and dark.
* If you don't feel sleepy within 15-20 minutes, get out of bed and do something until you do.
* Turn the alarm clock around so you won't constantly be looking at it.
* Avoid nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and large meals several hours before bed.
* Avoid naps of 30 minutes or more because they upset the normal sleep rhythm.
* Bring your list of medications to a pharmacist to see if they are causing the insomnia.
She said if these steps don't work, the next thing to try is over-the-counter sleep aids containing substances like diphenhydramine or doxylamine. These are generally safe to take for about two weeks and are not habit-forming, Newton says.
She says the newer sleep medications may be appropriate for those suffering from chronic, long-term insomnia that affects their daily job performance or interactions with friends and family.
"The real cure for beating insomnia is to find out what is causing it in the first place," Newton says. "But these newer medications can help a person get the sleep they need until the real cause of the problem is found."