This Nighttime Habit Is Destroying Your Memory

Doc's note: Today, we're continuing our "best of" essays... We'll tell you what's hurting your sleep this time of year and how to fix it.


You climb into bed, but you can't sleep.

Your brain's racing, you can't relax, and you stare at the clock. It's already an hour past when you should be asleep. You've got a big day ahead and need to get enough sleep.

You rummage around in your nightstand and pop a few sleeping pills. You've taken them for a few weeks now and you figure they're safe... after all, they're sold over the counter (OTC). What could be the harm?

If this sounds like you, you aren't alone. Millions of Americans suffer from poor sleep or insomnia.

Consumer Reports revealed that 30% of folks surveyed reported taking an OTC sleep aid or supplement within the past year. And 48% of those folks said they used the drug several times a week... a habit that's dangerous and possibly robbing their memory.

Here's a list of some of the most common OTC sleep aids:

  • Advil PM
  • Nytol
  • Simply Sleep
  • Sominex
  • Tylenol PM
  • Unisom
  • ZzzQuil

These medications contain a drug called diphenhydramine. This is an antihistamine used to treat allergic reactions. It's the main ingredient in Benadryl.

A side effect of diphenhydramine is that it makes you sleepy. It's being marketed as safe and non-habit forming.

But using these pills can cause constipation, dizziness, and even a hangover effect of feeling groggy and having poor coordination the following day.

Worse, sleep aids with pain killers (like Advil PM or Tylenol PM) contain ibuprofen or acetaminophen, both of which can affect your liver.

The problem is that drugs like Benadryl are anticholinergics. Basically, that means they block a neurotransmitter in our nervous system called acetylcholine. We need this chemical in our brains to help with memory.

That's why long-term use of drugs like Benadryl contributes to dementia. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine discovered that people taking an anticholinergic for three years or more had a 54% higher risk of dementia than those taking it for shorter periods.

Many folks turn to pills before trying better, more natural ways of getting to sleep. If you're having trouble sleeping, try practicing good sleep hygiene.

As you know, we've written several times about proper sleep hygiene. This includes things like...

  • Keep your room dark and cool.
  • Don't have electronics in the bedroom and shut off screens one hour before bed.
  • Make the bedroom a place only for sex and sleep.
  • Skip the nighttime snacking.
  • Cut back on caffeine.
  • Stick to a sleep schedule.

You can read more about each of these right here.

In addition to these tips, try using sound to get some sleep. I like to have a fan going to help establish a bit of white noise while I sleep, and sometimes when I travel I'll put on a white noise machine. My researcher enjoys a sound machine that plays the sound of ocean waves. They're inexpensive, too (like this $20 one on Amazon).

If your poor sleep comes from allergies at night, try sleeping with a breathing strip on your nose. This helps keep your nasal passages open, making it easier to breathe. You can also try an allergy-friendly air filter. I use an air filter in my bedroom since I spend about eight hours a day in there.

Finally, if you find these tips aren't enough, remember this one important rule: only take sleeping pills for two weeks or less. And if you take one, avoid the pain relievers. Melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness, is generally the safest and recommended by sleep-study experts.

However, if you still have trouble sleeping after two weeks, go to your doctor. Sometimes medical conditions such as heartburn or anxiety can keep you tossing and turning.

Whatever you do, make sleep a priority this year. Sleep helps the brain properly clear out waste and helps your body function properly. Use my tips for better sleep hygiene and let us know if you have any other tips by writing to us here: [email protected].

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Retirement Millionaire Daily Research Team
August 29, 2017