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Ranking Sleep Aids by How Effectively They Put You to Sleep

Ambien? Warm milk? Sticking one foot out from under the covers? Please, God, tell me which one will help me fall asleep, it’s already 4 a.m.

Falling asleep can be a frustrating affair. You could spend the whole day nodding off at your desk and wanting to take a nap, but when it comes time to snooze, your mind inevitably goes into hyperdrive, frantically analyzing the most cringeworthy moments of your being, from conception until now.

Because sleeping can be such an undertaking, gobs of exhausted people have come up with a whole range of tools and methods for promoting sleep. The problem is finding which one works best for you. To that end, I asked Deirdre Conroy, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan and creator of Happy Healthy Rested health coaching, to help me rank an array of sleep aids by how well they put you sleep — from snooze-inducing to still worth a try.

Pull up the covers and come along.

1) Ambien: “While sleep medications aren’t recommended as the first line approach to insomnia, per recent guidelines from the American College of Physicians, Ambien and other benzodiazepine receptor agonists [sleeping pills] work fast to put you to sleep,” Conroy explains. “Ambien can induce sleep in about half an hour, so make sure it’s taken while in bed, and don’t plan to engage in any activities or conversations after ingesting it. Beware of odd behaviors, too, such as eating without having memory of it the next day.” That explains where my Oreos went.

2) Melatonin: “Although the data on melatonin used specifically as a sleep aid isn’t impressive — studies show a minimal decrease in the time it takes to fall asleep — melatonin is found by many people to be helpful in helping them fall asleep,” Conroy says. “It may be less effective in helping you stay asleep, though. Melatonin is best used if you’re a night owl and you’d like to shift your body clock to an earlier time. See a sleep specialist for help designing a plan to shift your clock.”

3) Benadryl: While not inherently a sleep medication, anyone who’s taken Benadryl knows that it can knock you the hell out. “The key ingredient in Benadryl that induces sleepiness is diphenhydramine, an antihistamine that can be very sedating,” says Conroy. “However, the sedating properties of Benadryl can last in the body for many hours after ingestion and may lead to next-day grogginess. Studies also show that the effectiveness of Benadryl as a sleep aid may decrease over time.” Which is one of several reasons why taking Benadryl over an extended period of time is a bad idea.

4) Whiskey: “Alcohol at bedtime can reduce latency to fall asleep, but typically contributes to awakenings and/or poor-quality sleep in the second half of the night when it’s metabolized,” Conroy warns, which is why, even if some whiskey helps you fall asleep, you still wake up feeling like crap. “Beware of drinking alcohol to help you fall asleep. This can lead you down a slippery slope. Tolerance can develop to the sedating effects of alcohol, leading you to consume more, and possibly leading to alcohol dependence.” But a little bit here and there might not be the worst thing if you need a night cap.

5) Ol’ Faithful, aka Beating Your Meat, Then Falling Asleep, aka Masturbating (Sometimes With the Help of Another Person): Hormones released during sex can make it easier to fall asleep, particularly in men,” Conroy explains. “This is thought to be related in part to chemicals that are depleted from the muscles during sex. Since men typically have greater muscle mass than women, they may feel more tired after sex. Couples might feel more connected after sex, too, and this might favor sleep. On the other hand, sex may be too emotionally triggering or alerting for some people, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep after.” In which case, only you know what’s best for you.

6) Warm Milk: “Warm milk does contain tryptophan, a chemical also found in turkey that’s said to make people feel sleepy,” Conroy says. “Tryptophan can be converted into melatonin down the line, chemically. However, the amount of tryptophan is so small in milk that it’s unlikely to induce sleep. Usually, this ritual of a warm drink can be all we need, though. However, drinking too much liquid — more than about 10 ounces — before bed can lead to awakenings to urinate.” In other words, easy on the milk, buddy.

7) A Warm Bath: “Taking the time for a bath can be relaxing, and this is an important part of promoting self-care and sleep,” says Conroy. “However, having a warm bath too close to bedtime — within about one hour — might lead to an elevated core body temperature. The body could associate this high core temperature with activation, and therefore make it harder to fall asleep.”

8) Valerian: While Valerian root is an herbal (i.e., unpredictable) remedy, Conroy says, “Valerian root has been used for centuries for its anti-anxiety and sleep effects, and products containing Valerian are plentiful. If it puts you in a more relaxed frame of mind, you’re one step closer to sleep.” Fair enough!

9) Sleep Music: “Listening to sleep music might help to put one in a more relaxed state or frame of mind for sleep to happen,” Conroy explains. “However, the brain might be very sensitive to sounds at night, so the varying sounds — e.g., from low to high or fast to slow — might actually lighten sleep.” For the best results, check out our guide to sleep music that actually works.

10) Sticking One Foot out From Under the Covers: Despite being last place on our list — even though I know it works — Conroy says this is one of those methods that, if you believe in it, could have a very real effect. “Thermoregulation of the extremities can be an important piece of the process leading to sleep onset and maintenance,” she says. “If this ritual works for you, continue. It’s easy to do and doesn’t cost a penny.”

So now there’s only one question left: Can I sneak in an Ol’ Faithful in the bath before the Ambien kicks in?