When you’re struggling to sleep, you’ll likely attempt anything to assist you doze off. And at some point between tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling in distress, you might contemplate taking Benadryl (Diphenhydramine). After all, the antihistamine has a reputation for inducing drowsiness and it’s convenient to purchase (odds are you already have a box in your medicine cabinet), so it might seem like a clever sleep-inducing notion. But is it genuinely a good idea? Ahead, sleep experts evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using Benadryl for sleep.
What Is Benadryl?
Benadryl is a trade name for diphenhydramine, an antihistamine. Antihistamines function by obstructing histamine — a substance in the body that causes symptoms of allergies (think: sneezing, congestion, watery eyes) — in the body, according to the National Library of Medicine. However, histamines do more than provoke the scratchy throat and runny nose that afflicts many individuals during spring. Research in the academic journal Sleep suggests certain histamines also contribute to regulating your sleep-wake cycle, with these histamines being more active when you’re awake.
But let’s return to Benadryl: The over-the-counter drug is intended to alleviate symptoms of hay fever and other summer allergies as well as those triggered by an allergic reaction and the common cold. Diphenhydramine can also counteract histamines to combat issues such as a cough from minor throat irritation as well as to treat or prevent motion sickness and insomnia, according to the National Library of Medicine.
How Does Benadryl Help You Sleep?
“Histamine is more likely to wake you up,” says Noah S. Siegel, M.D., director of the Sleep Medicine and Surgery Division at Mass Eye and Ear. So, “by obstructing that substance in the brain, [Benadryl] is more likely to make you drowsy.”
In other words, “by removing alerting influences on the brain — histamines — the drug can assist some individuals in falling asleep more easily,” explains Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. This diphenhydramine-induced drowsiness or, in Dr.
Winter’s phrases, sensation of being “calmed” can happen at any time you consume Benadryl, including for its approved purpose to alleviate allergy symptoms. And that’s precisely why you’ll observe the medicine’s packaging clearly states that “when utilizing this product tagged drowsiness might occur” and advises against using it while operating a vehicle, operating heavy machinery, or in conjunction with any other sedatives (e.g. alcohol), sleep aids (e.g. Ambien), or products containing diphenhydramine (e.g. Advil PM).
Pros and Cons of Using Benadryl for Sleep
Certainly, if you desire to sleep, the fact that Benadryl can induce drowsiness is a positive aspect. Put simply: “It facilitates falling asleep quickly,” asserts Dr. Ian Katznelson, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital. If you struggle to feel sleepy or unwind at bedtime, this can be beneficial, according to him.
Dr. Winter affirms that you can easily find Benadryl at almost any drugstore. It is also considered “safer” than benzodiazepines, a category of psychoactive drugs employed to treat anxiety or insomnia (including Valium and Xanax) that may lead to dependency, or “relying on alcohol to aid in sleep.”
While Benadryl is not typically addictive – particularly when taken in the appropriate dosages (one to two tablets every four to six hours for individuals aged 12 and older for relief from cold/allergy symptoms) – it is not without risks. There is at least one documented case of a man who required hospitalization after experiencing withdrawal symptoms while trying to overcome a diphenhydramine addiction.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine specifically advises against using Benadryl to treat chronic insomnia (i.e. long-term sleeplessness) because its long-term efficacy is minimal, and after four or more days of regular use, it is debatable whether it has any effect as tolerance develops rapidly,” says Dr. Winter. It is not entirely clear why this occurs, but research by the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology has demonstrated that individuals tend to develop a tolerance to antihistamines within a short period of time. This can have negative consequences for a few reasons: if you have been relying on Benadryl to aid in sleep, it will eventually lose its effectiveness, and, more crucially, if you genuinely require Benadryl to manage an allergic reaction, it may not be effective.
Dr. Siegel agrees that Benadryl is not necessarily the most effective sleep aid, noting that “its sedative effects diminish after only a few hours in the bloodstream.
difficulty drifting off and remaining asleep for prolonged periods) with antihistamines due to insufficient substantiation of their efficacy or safety. Essentially, the foremost authoritative body committed to promoting healthy sleep advises against engaging in this practice, or at least not on a consistent basis. It is also noteworthy that Benadryl does not promote itself as a slumber facilitator on its packaging or website.
When it comes to utilizing Benadryl for slumber or allergies, there is also a potential for some less-than-desirable side effects, declares Dr. Katznelson; these can encompass parchedness of the mouth, constipation, urinary retention, cognitive impairment (i.e., difficulty thinking), and risk of seizure if the dosage is excessively high. Diphenhydramine has the potentiality to induce nausea, vomiting, diminished appetite, headache, muscular debility, and uneasiness, as per the National Library of Medicine. Moreover, if you abhor feeling sluggish after a subpar night of sleep, perhaps you should bear this in mind before ingesting one of those rosy capsules: “Benadryl possesses the potential for ‘hangover’ sedation the following day,” discloses Dr. Winter.
Furthermore, there exists the possibility of fostering a “psychological dependence” on Benadryl when employed for sleep, adds Dr. Siegel. To elaborate, you may reach a point where you perceive an inability to doze off sans the antihistamine. “I would rather individuals acquire sleep techniques,” he suggests, encompassing aspects like reducing caffeine consumption, maintaining a dimly lit bedroom, and engaging in regular exercise. And, again, there is a slight chance that one might develop a physical reliance (think: addiction) on it.
Additionally, there is a potential risk of grappling with amnesia and possibly dementia, a connection that at least one significant investigation has established with the prolonged utilization of Benadryl.
Who Might Ponder Taking Benadryl for Slumber?
On the whole, employing Benadryl as a sleep aid is truly not something that sleep medicine specialists endorse. However, if you are an otherwise hale and hearty individual, encounter an instance where you cannot fall asleep on a random occasion, and happen to possess Benadryl within reach, Dr. Katznelson argues that consuming the recommended dosage should be acceptable. Nevertheless, he underscores, “it should not be employed on a habitual basis and scarcely, if ever.”
“Explicit guidelines are inadequate,” observes Dr. Katznelson. “Yet in my estimation, the ideal candidate for sporadic use of Benadryl for insomnia would be below the age of 50 with no other concurrent medical ailments or predicaments,” such as respiratory difficulties (e.g., chronic bronchitis) or glaucoma. (FWIW, Benadryl is also acknowledged to exacerbate prostate conditions such as benign prostatic hyperplasia or prostate gland enlargement.)
“I genuinely do not endorse resorting to these types of medications more than a couple of times per month,” adds Dr. Winter. “There exist superior solutions to experiencing difficulty with sleep. I mean, why not simply peruse a book? The fear of ‘not sleeping’ in the moment is genuinely the predicament for most.
The Food and Drug Administration maintains that diphenhydramine can be utilized for occasional difficulty falling asleep, but it is not intended to be a regular occurrence.
Alternative Approaches For Enhancing Sleep
If you only require assistance with falling asleep sporadically, taking Benadryl occasionally should be acceptable. However, if you discover that you consistently rely on the product for sleep, sleep medicine experts suggest attempting to practice proper sleep hygiene, such as establishing a consistent sleep and wake schedule, avoiding lengthy daytime naps, and maintaining a consistent bedtime routine. Other methods that can aid in falling asleep: Engage in physical activity throughout the day, but allow yourself at least 30 minutes to unwind at night. The Sleep Foundation also suggests using light-blocking curtains to minimize the amount of light in your room and utilizing headphones or earplugs to block out noise.
Dr. Siegel suggests seeking professional assistance if you experience recurrent challenges falling asleep or staying asleep multiple times per week and it is affecting your life. Need something more specific? Dr. Winter states that it is likely advisable to consult a doctor for your sleep problems, “when you reach the point of purchasing Benadryl [for sleep].”
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