Users of non-habit forming OTC sleep aids can develop a dependency

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You could be hooked on your over-the-counter sleep aid. (KTRK)

If you're struggling with insomnia, you might want to think twice before you reach for over-the-counter sleep aids. Many of the drugs are labeled "non-habit forming" but there are potential risks in taking them.

Although some ingredients are not physically addictive, there can be a risk of psychological dependency.


"It's not addictive like opioids but it is addictive in the sense that people rely on them to be able to sleep and then once they start taking them it's very difficult without it," said Dr. Richard Castriotta, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth.

Castriotta says a lot of the insomnia patients he sees at the sleep disorders center have had a life event that keeps them from sleeping. He recommends counseling, instead of over the counter aids that will eventually stop working.

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"Usually, what happens is if you're sleeping poorly, you take one of these drugs and you sleep a little bit better and then gradually you start sleeping just as poorly again," Dr. Castriotta said of the vicious cycle many with insomnia fall into using over the counter sleep aids. "Then, when you stop it, you can sleep even less well and it takes a while to come back again."

Still, Consumer Reports national survey found 20 percent have taken over-the-counter sleep medication within a year. In that group, almost 1 in 5 took them daily. Most concerning, 41 percent said they took them for a year or longer.

A January 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found frequent, long-term use of OTC sleep medications linked to an increased risk for dementia.

At the time of their approval as over-the-counter sleep aids, there was not enough evidence to show that the drugs caused dependence, so the label "non-habit forming" still remains.


The FDA tells Consumer Reports that using a sleep aid for two weeks or less at the labeled dose makes it "...very unlikely that the consumer will become dependent on it."

Over-the-counter sleep aids also carry warnings: they can cause serious side effects like next-day drowsiness, dizziness and confusion.

If you are experiencing insomnia, Dr. Castriotta suggests focusing on your sleep hygiene by getting rid of bad habits and stimulants like caffeine, exercising too close to bedtime. Disconnect from electronics and other devices that give off blue light and carve out time before you hope to fall asleep by doing something relaxing, like reading or listening to music. Also, get into a routine of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.

Dr. Castriotta says if insomnia continues, find a sleep specialist who understand cognitive therapy.

"The goal is to do this without medications, without drugs, to put yourself in control," he added.
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