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The Best Sleep Aids for Seniors: Ways To Help Older Adults Dealing With Insomnia

Constant tossing and turning, incessant thoughts churning, and the continual yearning for just a bit of shut-eye — if insomnia has a grip on you or an older loved one, you may be familiar with this picture.  Sleep issues like insomnia may often have a trickle-down effect that dampens an older individual’s quality of life […]

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Constant tossing and turning, incessant thoughts churning, and the continual yearning for just a bit of shut-eye — if insomnia has a grip on you or an older loved one, you may be familiar with this picture. 

Sleep issues like insomnia may often have a trickle-down effect that dampens an older individual’s quality of life and overall mental and physical health. To shelter oneself from the flooding effects of insomnia, you or a loved one may be searching for over-the-counter or prescription solutions.

So, let’s discuss the best sleep aids for seniors while acknowledging a few safety precautions. 

Table of Contents

Why Do Seniors Often Experience Insomnia?

Insomnia is medically categorized as:

  1. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or nonrestorative sleep.
  2. Difficulty with sleeping despite adequate opportunities and circumstances to sleep.
  3. Sleep issues that exacerbate daytime impairment or distress.
  4. Sleep difficulty that occurs at least three times per week and persists for at least one month.

Research suggests that more than 50% of seniors experience insomnia. While our circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles are subject to change as we age, it is argued that insomnia in elderly individuals may not be a regular part of aging. 

Factors that may contribute to seniors experiencing insomnia include:

  • Primary sleep disorders, such as:
    • Sleep apnea
    • Restless leg syndrome
    • REM sleep behavior disorder
  • Acute and chronic medical illness including:
    • Psychiatric diseases
    • Metabolic issues
    • Neurological disorders
    • Pain
  • Behavioral and environmental issues like:
    • Taking too many daytime naps
    • Improper sleep settings
    • Lack of daytime exercise
    • Medications

In addition to decreased quality of life, sleep problems in seniors may compound current health issues and instigate other long-term consequences, such as:

  • High blood pressure 
  • Weight gain 
  • Stroke 
  • Heart attack 
  • Diabetes 
  • Memory problems 
  • Increased risk of death

Natural Sleep Aids for Seniors: 5 Non-Pharmacological Options

The first step in remediating sleep issues in elderly individuals often focuses on addressing possible factors that may challenge sleep. 

A doctor may sit down with the patient to get a better understanding of what kind of changes may be needed to improve nightly habits before supplementing bedtime routines with natural sleep aids for seniors. 

During this consultation, a doctor may educate the patient on non-pharmacological sleep improvement options. 

#1: Improved Sleep Hygiene

Good sleep hygiene fosters healthy sleep through:

  • Setting an appropriate sleep schedule
  • Following a nightly routine
  • Cultivating healthy daytime habits

#2: Stimulus Control

Stimulus control therapy relies on a technique that requires patients to only go to bed when they are tired. This may eliminate the habit of lying awake all night, which may be detrimental to habitual sleep. 

If you or an elderly loved one lies awake in bed for at least 20 minutes without falling asleep, try getting up, getting busy, and not returning to bed until you feel tired once again. Furthermore, naps may need to be avoided in the daytime when using stimulus control, especially if you already have trouble falling asleep at night. 

When using stimulus control therapy, the bedroom should also be limited to sleep and intercourse, and not activities like eating, watching TV, using a cell phone or computer, etc. This prevents the brain from associating the sleep environment with activities associated with wakefulness, alertness, and frustration. 

Changes in how individuals interact with their sleep environment may help reclaim it for rest and relaxation. 

#3: Bright Light Therapy

For seniors who go to bed and rise early, timed exposure to bright lights may help them stay awake longer, sleep through the night, and wake up later. 

Bright light therapy is simple and straightforward. Sessions typically occur once a day for 20 to 40 minutes. The patient is positioned in front of a special light box or visor, where 10,000 lux is shined indirectly on their face. 

The light therapy is designed to mimic daylight without harmful UV rays. 

When used correctly and under the instruction of a doctor or trained professional, light therapy may delay sleep chemicals, like melatonin and serotonin, in the brain, allowing patients to stay awake in the evening longer and feel less tired. 

#4: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be used to address negative attitudes and incorrect perceptions about sleep and replace them with a better-informed and positive mindset. 

Studies suggest that multicomponent cognitive behavioral therapy sessions may help as many as 70% to 80% of patients improve insomnia symptoms. 

CBT sessions may include cognitive, behavioral, and educational components, as well as therapeutic practices like:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Autogenic training
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation

#5: Sleep Restriction

While sleep restriction therapy sounds counterintuitive for someone who is already having problems accessing sleep, it helps by reducing the amount of time you spend in bed while maximizing the amount of sleep you actually get. This is referred to as the sleep efficiency ratio. 

Before implementing sleep restriction, insomnia patients may be directed to keep a diary that records time asleep and time spent awake. Based on these notes, patients can restrict their time in bed until their sleep efficiency ratio improves. 

5 Best OTC Sleep Aids for Seniors

Over-the-counter sleep aids may increase the effectiveness of sleep measures like the ones mentioned above. In the following, we will explain how each supplement works and any symptoms or precautions you may want to be aware of before trying them. 

Be sure to talk to your healthcare professional before trying any OTC sleep aids. 

#1: Melatonin

Melatonin is a natural hormone the brain produces that helps regulate sleep cycles. Generally, the body produces melatonin after dark, but people who experience insomnia may have issues naturally making it. 

Melatonin as a sleep supplement helps improve reduced melatonin levels and may activate neural receptors to encourage sleep.

Generally, melatonin is a safe sleep aid for seniors when used correctly. 

Side effects and precautions to consider when taking melatonin for insomnia may include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • In seniors, melatonin may decrease blood pressure or cause hypothermia

#2: Valerian

Valerian extract (valerian root) has been used as a natural remedy for sleep issues for over a millennium. 

Research suggests that this natural supplement may induce sleep by acting on the GABA and serotonin receptors in the brain to reduce anxiety. However, these effects may vary from person to person. 

A general review of studies suggests that valerian root may improve sleep quality. One of the studies in the mentioned review found that 80% of patients taking the supplement reported improved sleep. 

Side effects and precautions to consider when taking valerian as a sleep aid for seniors may include:

  • Headaches 
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort 
  • Mental dullness 
  • Excitability 
  • Uneasiness or unrest 
  • Heart disturbances

#3: Chamomile

Chamomile is another time-tested sleep remedy. One of the main ingredients in this flowering herb is apigenin, which is a flavonoid that induces a mild sedative effect. 

By binding to the receptors in the brain associated with sleep and relaxation, chamomile may be an effective natural sleep aid for seniors (and it doesn’t taste too bad when brewed in a tea and topped off with a dash of honey).

Side effects and precautions to consider when taking chamomile for insomnia may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Allergic reactions
  • Interactions between chamomile and the drugs cyclosporine and warfarin have been reported

#4: Antihistamines

Antihistamines work by blocking the action of histamine at the H1 receptors in the hypothalamus, which may result in drowsiness, sleepiness, or sedation.

First-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine are not recommended for seniors as they are anticholinergics, which are associated with an increased risk of dementia in persons 60 or older. 

Side effects and precautions to consider when taking antihistamines, like diphenhydramine and doxylamine, as a sleep aid for seniors may include:

  • Confusion
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Urinary retention
  • Blurred vision
  • Next day sedation
  • Impaired psychomotor and cognitive function
  • Heart palpitations
  • Low blood pressure
  • Antihistamine use as a sleep aid for seniors has been associated with toxicity and numerous drug-to-drug interactions

#5: Magnesium

Magnesium is a dietary supplement that may help older individuals with insomnia by regulating neurotransmitters such as melatonin. 

One double-blind study found that magnesium has the potential to improve subjective measures of insomnia, such as:

  • Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) scores
  • Sleep efficiency
  • Sleep time
  • Early morning awakening

Side effects and precautions to consider when taking magnesium for insomnia may include:

  • Drowsiness or fatigue during the day
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Skin flushing
  • Diarrhea 

Are Prescription Sleeping Pills Safe Sleeping Aids for Seniors?

Prescription sleeping pills may be considered safe sleeping aids for seniors when they are prescribed by professionals, and their use is monitored. Talk to your doctor to see if prescription sleep aids are right for you. 

In elderly individuals, prescription nonbenzodiazepines, such as zolpidem, eszopiclone, zaleplon, and ramelteon, may generally be prescribed as a last-ditch effort to treat insomnia. These types of medications are typically safer and better tolerated in older patients than other prescription sleep aids, tricyclic antidepressants, antihistamines, and benzodiazepines.

Prescription sleep aids for seniors may have adverse effects, including:

  • Interactions with other medications
  • Dangerous decreases in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased risk of abuse, dependence, and addiction
  • Increased risk of falls or injury
  • Drug accumulation due to decreased renal (kidney) clearance
  • Exacerbated confusion and disorientation

What Is the Safest Sleep Aid for Seniors?

Over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids are typically safe for most seniors. However, everyone reacts differently. 

As an older person or a loved one of a senior, it is paramount that whatever supplement or medications are being taken for insomnia are discussed with a doctor. 

Any prescribed or suggested sleep aids should be monitored closely by a healthcare professional, and any issues should be reported. Along with this advice, make sure you:

  • Keep precautions in mind
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Beware of potential side effects
  • Use OTC and prescription sleep aids as short-term solutions, not long-term

Senior Services of America Cares About the Well-Being of Older Adults

Senior Services of America communities prioritize the health, happiness, and safety of all residents. 

We understand the challenges sleep issues pose to mental, physical, and emotional health. By entrusting your loved one into our care, we can relieve some of the burdens you may face as a caregiver of a senior with insomnia. 

Find your nearest community to speak to an advisor. 


**The content in this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.**