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Is Unisom a Safe Sleep Aid? Here’s What You Should Know

Find out if it's the right OTC drug for you.

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Tossing and turning every night? Sometimes, natural remedies (think melatonin, breathing exercises, and herbal teas) just don’t do the trick. But it’s important not to give up and live with relentless insomnia. Older women are at a higher risk of sleeplessness, and with that risk comes a greater chance of serious health issues, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and depression. So, will turning to a sleep aid like Unisom help? Get a better understanding of what the product is, how it works, and its potential risks below.

What is Unisom?

Unisom is a brand that sells multiple products to promote better sleep. Its most well-known product is the Unisom Sleep Tab, a pill that contains 25 milligrams of doxylamine succinate as the main active ingredient. Doxylamine succinate is an antihistamine, a type of drug that reduces the effects of histamines — chemicals the body releases in response to an allergen. According to the Unisom website, doxylamine succinate is a non-habit forming drug.

Note that Unisom Sleep Tabs are different from Unisom Sleep Gels, which contain another antihistamine, diphenydramine HCl, as the main active ingredient (this is the same active ingredient in Benadryl). Your doctor may recommend one or the other depending on the medications you take currently and whether you have had an adverse reaction to diphenhydramine or doxylamine in the past.

What is Unisom used for?

Unisom products are designed to ease occasional sleeplessness. And while doxylamine and diphenhyadramine HCl are antihistamines, the company that makes Unisom does not recommend taking the Sleep Tabs, nor the Sleep Gels, for allergy relief.

When combined with vitamin B-6, or pyridoxine, doxylamine may help ease nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. This is because doxylamine is also an antiemetic, or a drug that blocks the receptors in the gut that trigger nausea in the brain. Meanwhile, vitamin B-6 helps the body process certain amino acids, which may also reduce nausea.

Why does doxylamine succinate make you drowsy?

As mentioned above, doxylamine reduces the effect of histamines. But why does a lack of histamine signaling make you sleepy? We often think of histamines as “bad” because they flare up in response to allergens, but they have other purposes in the body — they also regulate your sleep-wake cycle and brain function.

Does generic Unisom work?

Generic Unisom, which is any over-the-counter sleep aid that contains doxylamine as the main ingredient, is safe and effective for home use. It may be a good alternative if you’re looking to save money. One box of 48 Unisom Sleep Tabs costs $11.90 on Amazon, or 25 cents per tablet. In contrast, Amazon’s Basic Care Sleep Aid Tablets (96 count, with the same amount of doxylamine succinate) costs $11.75, or 12 cents per tablet on Amazon — a big difference. Even better: One container of 96 Kirkland Signature Sleep Aid Doxylamine Succinate Tablets costs $7.48 on Amazon, or 8 cents per tablet.

How long does Unisom last?

This drug may have a sedative effect for up to six hours. For most people, this is enough to treat occasional sleeplessness. If you have more serious insomnia that lasts more than two weeks, talk to your doctor — you don’t necessarily want to take Unisom every evening, and chronic insomnia may be a symptom of a medical condition.

How long does Unisom take to work?

According to the website, Unisom begins to work in about 30 minutes, though it may work more quickly for you.

What if it isn’t working?

If you still aren’t sleepy after 30 minutes, try one of these tricks:

  • Hop out of bed and gaze at a candle for three minutes. This “mindfulness” meditation may help break a worry loop that’s preventing you from falling asleep.
  • Try a “body scan.” The easy how-to: Take slow, deep belly breaths while relaxing each muscle in your body, one at a time, from head to toe.
  • Cover any lights, or wear a sleep mask. That tiny light from your alarm clock might not seem like a big deal, but it may be keeping you awake.
  • Cool down your room. Reduce the temperature on the thermostat, plug in a fan, or open a window.
  • Wear fuzzy stocks. One study found that comfy bed socks encourage better sleep, and keeping your feet warm may signal your brain to stay in a state of slumber.

You may also want to consider a different over-the-counter medication or supplement the next evening — medical experts do not recommend taking more than one sleep aid in the same night. A good alternative: ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb, which has been used as a holistic treatment for sleep, anxiety, and stress for years. Another option? Cannabinoil, or CBN — a nonpsychoactive chemical from the cannabis plant that can make you drowsy in just 5 mg. Just be sure to consult your doctor before taking new medications or supplements.

Do any foods, drinks, or medications interact with or heighten the effects of Unisom?

Avoid alcoholic beverages if you are taking Unisom. Since alcohol is a depressant — meaning it has a sedative effect — you should never drink alcohol when taking a drug that also has a sedative effect. Taking both could cause a dangerous level of sedation. Other drugs that may heighten the effects of Unisom to a dangerous level include opioids like codeine and hydrocodone, marijuana, sleep or anxiety medication, muscle relaxants, and other antihistamines.

What are the side effects of Unisom?

Unisom will likely cause drowsiness, but it may also cause dizziness; headache; constipation; stomach upset; blurred vision; reduced coordination; or a dry mouth, nose, and throat. Serious side effects, which are less likely, include hallucinations, irritability, nervousness, confusion, ringing in the ears, trouble urinating, easy bruising or bleeding, and a fast or irregular heartbeat. Contact your doctor if you have any side effects that are serious, lasting, or worsening. Seek emergency medical help if you experience a seizure or allergic reaction.

Who should not take Unisom?

The best person to tell you whether or not you should take Unisom is your doctor. As such, let your doctor know if you want to take this drug but have one of the following conditions: asthma, emphysema, glaucoma, heart issues, high blood pressure, liver disease, seizures, ulcers, a stomach blockage, an overactive thyroid, or urinary retention. You should also ask your doctor about the safety if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

What’s the bottom line?

As long as it is taken as directed with the approval of your doctor, Unisom is a safe and effective over-the-counter drug for occasional insomnia. It may be exactly what you need to get a good night’s rest, especially if you’ve tried every other remedy out there. But it’s important not to rely on it every evening. If this is the case, talk with your doctor about the possible reasons for your sleeplessness and what you can do to treat it.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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