Sleep aids

Over-the-counter products are short-term solutions, but there are other ways to improve sleep.
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  • Updated:9 Jan 2005


Insomnia can be transient — that is, just occurring for a couple of days — or short-term, lasting for a couple of weeks. If it occurs at least three times a week for longer than one month, it’s classified as chronic insomnia.

Sleep disturbance can be a secondary condition of an illness such as depression or cardiovascular disease, or as a result of physical pain, substance abuse or a side effect to certain medications. It can also be stress-related or due to poor sleeping habits (known as ‘sleep hygiene’). Other sleep disorders, which need medical attention, include narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome (an overwhelming urge to move your legs) and sleep apnoea.

Insomnia may manifest itself as a difficulty going off to sleep, constant waking throughout the night, or waking early in the morning and being unable to get back to sleep. As we age, sleep problems can increase. Older people commonly suffer from insomnia as a reaction to physical pain or as a side effect of medication or illness.

Setting up a cycle

We’ve all managed to drag ourselves through a day at work after a late night, but having persistent insomnia can be distressing. Experts can paint a picture of how it might come about. Some people may have a vulnerability to insomnia in the first place.

But usually there’s an ‘activating event’ — a stressful situation like moving home or a sick child. Sleep problems start and then the sufferer starts to expect them and to see themselves as an insomniac. They may find evidence as to why they’re not sleeping, put a lot of effort into trying to sleep and try to compensate by spending more time in bed. But then bed becomes a stressful, ‘unsafe’ place to be.

At this point many people rush to the chemist to get some help in a bottle or jar. Possibly fuelled by the fear of becoming addicted to prescribed drugs, many sufferers opt for something ‘natural’.


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