Drug-Free Sleep Aids: Herbs, Earplugs, and Other OTC Products to Help You Rest

If earplugs can block outside noise, they may be a good alternative to sleeping pills.
Sleeping better without the use of medication often requires changes in your behavior or your environment. And there's a whole market of gadgets and gizmos out there to help you do just that. But will they work?

"It's impossible to tell which products will help which people," says David Rapoport, MD, medical director of the New York University Sleep Disorders Center, "because sleep preferences are so personal. In general, if it helps you relax, feel comfortable in your bedroom, and relieve stress, it's probably a good thing. If you don't feel that way about a product, then it's not for you."

Slideshow: 10 drug-free products that may help you sleep

A soothing environment
Aromatherapy candles, sprays, and oils advertise the promise of sleep-inducing calm, and one study has shown that lavender scents, specifically, may help some people sleep better. But scent is deeply personal; different blends will have different effects on your mood and energy levels. And for people with allergies, any foreign scents (especially those from chemical-filled products) could be irritating instead of relaxing.

Then there's the category of light and sound blockers: sleep masks, earplugs, white noise machines, and calming music soundtracks. "If the problem is external stimulus, these products may be just what you need," says Dr. Rapoport. "We often don't realize just how much effect light or noise can have on our sleep, until we actually spend a well-rested night without it." (Watch a video about why light disturbs sleep.)

Finally, there's comfort—another very personal target. Comfort does factor heavily into the ability to sleep well, but there's no magic formula for choosing your mattress, sheets, and pillows, even your pajamas. In specific circumstances, certain products may help: a specially contoured pillow to reduce snoring, for example, or moisture-wicking pajamas to keep you cool. Overall, choose products that feel good to you and are within your budget—and beware of any too-good-to-be-true claims, says Dr. Rapoport.

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Last Updated: May 01, 2008

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