We’re all guilty of it from time to time. Our sleep cycles seem off. We can’t get a good night’s sleep, we never seem to be tired when we want to go to bed at the end of the night, and when the morning comes around, we’re exhausted and set for a full day of playing catch up ahead. We may have even slept through an alarm or two when the time came. This is a vicious cycle and one of the most popular cheats to breaking the cycle is taking drowsiness-inducing antihistamines like Benadryl. In fact, in 2017, The Gerontologist said that one in five adults regularly use such medicines as sleep aids and Benadryl is one of the most popular.
“One reason people turn to Benadryl is the feeling of drowsiness that ensues,” says Tania Elliott, a New York-based allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. “The onset of action is about 20 minutes, so people feel like it’s really ‘working,’” Elliott added.
These over the counter medicines work by blocking histamine, a chemical that produces allergy symptoms and plays a role in your overall wakefulness. This is why blocking them also makes you feel sleepy as a result of fighting allergy symptoms, making them a reliable short-term remedy when you want to get to sleep, whether you’re fighting allergies or not. But Elliot points out that the real risk with making use of these products as a regular, even nightly sleep aid is that they don’t really improve your quality of sleep. And in the long run, quality sleep is really what’s best and healthiest for you. According to Elliot, the eight hours you may spend asleep will really only feel more like five.
The reason for this is because antihistamines block acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter in your brain that takes part in REM. Without that deeper phase of sleep, you’re more likely to wake up with that very unpopular drowsiness the next morning. Some of that “next day sedation” is a byproduct of the medication still being in your system, but much of that feeling is also fatigue from the brain not getting to go through its normal stages of sleep throughout the entire night. To top it all off, according to the Mayo Clinic, the more you take these over-the-counter medications the greater your tolerance to them will become, meaning they’re not only less likely to be effective for what you’ve chosen to start using them for — a sleep cheat — but they’re also going to be less effective when you actually need them for their intended use.
So what can you do?
There are countless tactics you can adapt to getting a good night’s sleep, from adjusting your nightly habits to focusing on a diet that’s better for quality sleep at night and every during the day, finding natural aids like CBD products, cutting caffeine, and having a regular bedtime. But no matter what you choose, it’s worth considering abandoning over the counter allergy medicines over the long term.