Autism, ADHD and Sleep

I have both high functioning autism and ADHD. I have had sleep problems my entire life so I likely have a sleep disorder. It doesn’t help that I was raised to sleep in a quiet environment and when you have ADHD (which causes you to listen to every single creak in your house and every single sound your neighbors make), getting a decent night’s sleep can be tough. There are a variety of remedies to getting a good night’s sleep– and there are enough articles out on the Web about having your room at the right temperature, not watching lots of TV or playing video games before going to bed, getting exercise during the day and not taking a long afternoon nap etc.—so this is NOT one of those articles.

This article addresses what you WON’T see out on the Web routinely. First, I’ll discuss the meds. Physicians like to prescribe Trazodone, which is actually an antidepressant, although it is not used for that anymore, but instead it is used for sleep. I have used this drug for years but it does have side effects.  The most “common1:”

  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating

Then there are the “less common1” side effects such as:

  • Burning, crawling, itching
  • Decreased concentration
  • Fainting
  • Lack of coordination
  • Muscle tremors
  • Headache
  • Nervousness
  • Shortness of breath ETC.

Then there are the drugs actually designed to fight insomnia like Zolpidem (Ambien). They are designed for the short term and can cause dependence long term. Most common1 side effects are:

  • Clumsiness or unsteadiness
  • Depression
  • Confusion

Then there are the over FIFTY “less common”1 side effects…here are some of the highlights:

  • Abnormal or decreased touch sensation
  • Appetite disorder
  • Confusion about identity, place and time
  • Difficulty with moving
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • False or unusual sense of well-being
  • Hearing loss
  • Lack or loss of self-control

A common over-the-counter drug used for sleep is Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), which is actually an antihistamine, but it has a side effect for many people of making them sleepy. Thus the drug is commonly used in sleep medications. Until the news this year that this medicine has been linked to the increased risk of dementia2, I found Diphenhydramine to be highly helpful as a sleep med to use without a prescription. But, frankly, I’d rather have a sleep problem than dementia.

Additionally, there are a variety of herbal and “natural” remedies used for sleep. The only one I personally found effective was chamomile—which I drink as a tea. I also previously used melatonin for sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate sleep and wake cycles. You can get it over the counter most commonly in 3 mg, 5 mg or 10 mg doses. (Note the update below).

So to summarize, medications (prescription or over-the-counter) can have significant side effects. Herbals are minimally regulated so their side effects may not be well known.  The most effective sleep remedy for me, in particular to counteract my ADHD, has been ear plugs to obliterate outside noise, chamomile tea, a Trazodone pill, along with concentrating on my breathing until I fall asleep.  Sure looking like a sleep disorder.

UPDATE Dec. 24, 2015³:  Turns out melatonin pills are not such a good idea to use on a regular basis as an adult or at all in children. The recommended dosage is 0.3 – 1.0 mg (according to research by MIT in 2001), but what you will find in the stores is 3 mg, 5 mg and 10 mg. Taking melatonin pills on a regular basis can ultimately lead to insomnia during the night and grogginess during the day.  So says neuroscientist Dr. Richard Wurtman of MIT and Michael Grandner, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Long term use also has been linked to reduced natural levels of the hormone in the body. In children, excess melatonin can “affect puberty, disrupt menstrual cycles and impede normal hormone development.”

In my case, I went from 5 mg to 10 mg in the mistaken belief that more melatonin supplement would help me sleep better. Exactly the opposite of what the above researchers are saying. Over time, I experienced increased insomnia at night and sleepiness during the day. But as soon as I stopped taking the melatonin, I slept better at night and was not groggy but more alert during the day. So no more regular melatonin for me.

Further edited Feb. 2019

Sources: Drugs.com1 (Jan 28, 2015)2 (Dec. 16, 2015)³

One thought on “Autism, ADHD and Sleep

  1. Medications are quick fixes so doctors often prescribe them because it is easy to, but for many people medications can do more harm than good in the long run. Good for you for figuring this out and turning to the solutions which nature has provided and won’t cause you unnecessary harm when they work for you.


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