If earplugs can block outside noise, they may be a good alternative to sleeping pills.
| Credit: (CORBIS)

If earplugs can block outside noise, they may be a good alternative to sleeping pills.(CORBIS)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."

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.)

More about drug-free options

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.

[ pagebreak ]Herbal blends
Some of the sleep products on drugstore shelves don't contain any medication at all; instead they include a blend of herbs and nondrug ingredients—mainly valerian, melatonin, lemon balm, hops, coenzyme Q10, and chamomile. They're available as pills, tablets, liquid formulas, and even incorporated into mainstream tea products.

Though they've been used for hundreds of years to promote better sleep, it's nearly impossible to gauge the effectiveness of these supplements. Very few have been studied in depth, and they're often combined, so it's difficult to tell which ingredients, if any, have a beneficial effect. If you do use them, tell your doctor: Herbs and supplements can interfere with medications and may be unsafe for people with certain medical conditions.

Behavioral techniques
For patients who don't want to devote the time or the financial cost to sessions with a cognitive-behavioral therapist, there are countless books and audio recordings that teach techniques for relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, and stress relief.

Choose these resources carefully, says Dr. Rapoport. "Some may be helpful, if they target your specific issues," he says. "But there are also a lot of scams out there. So do your research and enlist the help of your doctor, if possible."

Other methods of meditation, yoga, and relaxation have been shown to help reduce insomnia in some people as well. And a recent Chinese study suggested that acupuncture may improve sleep quality, although more research is needed.

Even just a blank notebook—used as a sleep diary to help you become familiar with your sleep patterns and potential problems—could be a worthwhile investment. Patients with chronic insomnia will try almost anything to get a good night's rest, and trial and error can ultimately help them find what works for them.