According to Consumer Reports, 44 percent of people in the U.S. have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or wake up too early at least eight nights per month.
In fact, survey respondents told Consumer Reports that they are turning to drugs when other remedies can be just as effective. Even sound machines, which can be purchased from $20 to $129, can be helpful--often as helpful as drugs, notes the magazine.
In a nationwide survey of 1,466 adults, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in April 2008, the magazine asked people how well they slept the night, week and month before participating in the survey. Here are some of the publication's key findings:
- Many people turn to drugs to solve sleep problems. Almost one in five took prescription or over-the-counter medicines at least once a week to help them sleep. Although sleep medications are usually recommended for no more than two weeks, 14 percent of those surveyed took some type of pill on at least eight of the past 30 nights; 5 percent turn to pills every night of the month.
- Sixty-three percent of those who took sleep medications experienced side effects, while 24 percent said they became dependent on the medication they used. Nearly a quarter of them said that repeated use reduced the drug's effectiveness.
- Among the 15 percent of respondents who had taken a prescription drug during the preceding month, a disturbingly high 38 percent said they'd been on the medication for more than two years.
- More than a quarter of respondents said it took them 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep the previous night, and one quarter awakened in the middle of the night and couldn't go back to sleep for at least a half-hour. A third woke up much earlier than they'd hoped.
- Of six characteristics that problem sleepers had in common, the most prevalent was high stress levels. Most of the time, respondents were anxious over family or money concerns, health issues or work woes.
The magazine's report cautions that far too many people are turning to medicine as a first resort to treat their insomnia. In fact, last year 24 million prescriptions were written for the four best-selling sleep drugs alone. "What people don't realize is these medications can pose a host of side effects including daytime drowsiness, even bizarre behavior like sleep-walking, sleep-eating, and sleep-driving. There are alternative treatments, such as sound machines, that may be quite effective yet pose no risks at all," said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.
According to the report, drugmakers spend hundreds of millions of dollars yearly trying to persuade people to fix their sleep issues with medication. In fact, the two most heavily advertised prescription drugs last year were sleep aids Lunesta and Ambien CR, which had a combined direct-to-consumer ad budget of almost $500 million.
Sound Machines--A Viable Alternative
To gauge the effectiveness of the most commonly used tactics to get sleep, with a parallel survey Consumer Reports analyzed the experiences of 2,021 problem sleepers who used a specific approach for at least eight nights in the previous month before they were surveyed.
Sound machines were found to be almost as effective as pills, with 70 percent of people who tried sound machines saying the machines helped most nights. However, for people suffering from the most severe cases of sleep disturbance, only 50 percent said sound machines helped as much.
Other remedies were less effective: when over-the-counter drugs were used, they helped 57 percent of people most nights, a consistent sleep and wake routine helped 50 percent on most nights and muscle relaxation helped 40 percent on most nights.
With a group of a dozen panelists, Consumer Reports put three sound machines at three price points to the test. The Brookstone Tranquil Moments Sound Therapy System ($129) was a favorite. The machine, with 12 sound settings, masks unwanted noises on the white-noise setting. Half of the panelists said they would purchase the Marpac SleepMate 980A ($60); and just two panelists said they would purchase Homedics SoundSpa SS-2000 ($20).
Tips for a Good Night's Sleep
Consumer Reports offers the following tips for a good night's sleep:
- Think alternatives to drugs. The first step need not be a drug. Consider alternatives such as sound machines and relaxation techniques. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help intermittent and chronic insomnia through a number of steps, such as teaching relaxation.
- Examine bad habits. Habits to avoid are: long or late-day naps; watching TV in bed; drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages close to bedtime; eating large meals at night; allowing pets or children to share your bed; and, varying bedtime and wake-up times.
- Check your mattress. Your bed could be one source of sleep problems. If a mattress is more than eight years old, replace it.
- See your doctor. If sleeplessness persists several nights a week for at least three months, it's probably time to see a doctor. If your doctor suggests a prescription medication, new pills such as Ambien CR, Lunesta, and Sonata, aren't necessarily better than older, cheaper drugs such as estazolam or temazepam for many people who need a sleep aid for just a night or two.