Can't Sleep Without Benadryl? Sleep Doctor Explains Why

You may not be able to sleep without Benadryl because you’ve got allergies, you’re psychologically dependent on it, or you’ve got poor sleep hygiene.
Published
2024-03-12
11 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Can't Sleep Without Benadryl? Reasons Why and How to Sleep Naturally  

  • If you can’t sleep without Benadryl, it may be because allergies are disrupting your sleep, you’ve become physically or psychologically dependent on the drug, or other factors like poor sleep hygiene are keeping you up.
  • Fall asleep without Benadryl by treating allergies (if you have them), improving your sleep hygiene, and getting in sync with your body clock. 
  • The RISE app can guide you through 20+ daily sleep hygiene habits and predict the timing of your body clock to help you sync up and drift off naturally.

Benadryl is great when allergies have you sniffling and sneezing, but it’s not so great when you find yourself reaching for it to drift off night after night.

If you can’t sleep without Benadryl, there may be more factors to blame than just your runny nose. But even if you have allergies, there are ways to fall and stay asleep without reaching for the drug. 

Below, we’ll explain why you can’t sleep without Benadryl, why Benadryl is bad for your sleep, and how you can use the RISE app to sleep without it — even when allergies hit.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“If you can’t sleep without taking Benadryl, it may be because allergy symptoms keep you up, or, if you’re taking Benadryl for the sleepiness effects, you may have become psychologically dependent on it and feel anxious when you don’t take it before bed,” says Dr. Chester Wu, Rise Science sleep advisor and double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“If you’re in the latter camp, try giving yourself plenty of time to unwind in the evenings and focusing on good sleep hygiene habits that’ll help you feel sleepy at bedtime.”

Why Can’t I Sleep Without Benadryl? 

You may not be able to sleep without Benadryl because you’ve got allergies, you’re physically or psychologically dependent on it, you’ve got rebound insomnia, or you’re sleeping better than you think without it. You may also be falsely attributing sleep improvements to Benadryl or something else (like poor sleep hygiene) is causing your sleep problems. 

Here’s why you may struggle to sleep when you don’t take Benadryl: 

  • You’ve got allergies or a cold: Benadryl is an antihistamine that can reduce the symptoms of allergies or the common cold and make you feel drowsy, helping you fall and stay asleep. If you don’t take it, you may find yourself sneezing, wheezing, and itching late into the night. 
  • You’re physically dependent on it: You may have developed a physical dependence on Benadryl. This can happen when you become tolerant to the effects and experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop. Research suggests this can happen in some people with mental health conditions, those who take high doses of Benadryl, or those with a history of addiction. Withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, and an increased heart rate can make it hard to sleep, too. 
  • You’re psychologically dependent on it: If Benadryl helps you drift off, you might get anxious when you crawl into bed without taking it. This anxiety can keep you up, not the fact you haven’t taken Benadryl. RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest sleep challenges! When you don’t take the drug, sleep effort might keep you awake, too. This is when you try to control and force sleep, and it can cause or perpetuate insomnia
  • You’ve got rebound insomnia: A 2015 systematic review found diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl and over-the-counter sleep aids such as Advil PM, Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM, and Zzzquil) may cause rebound insomnia when you stop taking it. This is when your sleep problems get worse than they were before you started taking the drug.
  • You’re sleeping better than you think: It may feel like you get less sleep when you don’t take Benadryl, but that may not be the case. You may have paradoxical insomnia, or sleep-state misconception, which is when you feel like your sleep problems are worse than they really are. This can be especially true if allergies aren’t keeping you up and you’re taking Benadryl for the drowsiness effects. The 2015 review we mentioned above found “limited beneficial effects of diphenhydramine on sleep,” so it may not be helping you much to begin with or it may only help your sleep due to the placebo effect — you believe it helps you sleep, so it does. 
  • False attribution: You might sleep better when you take Benadryl, but it’s actually due to other factors, like taking more time to unwind before bed that night. On the flip side, you might feel like you can’t sleep without Benadryl, but again, other factors are to blame. Perhaps you have a glass of wine when you don’t take it, for example, and the alcohol disrupts your sleep
  • Something else is causing sleep problems: Similarly, you might not be able to sleep without Benadryl, but that’s because the drug is masking a sleep problem. You might have poor sleep hygiene, be out of sync with your circadian rhythm (your body clock), have a medical condition like high blood pressure or diabetes, or a sleep disorder like insomnia or sleep apnea. Benadryl is a sedative, so it might temporarily override one too many cups of coffee, for example. 

We’ve covered more reasons you can’t sleep here.

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Is It Bad to Take Benadryl to Sleep? 

Yes, it can be bad to take Benadryl to sleep if you’re using it as a sleep aid to fall asleep when you don’t have allergies or you’re using it every night. It may not necessarily be bad to take Benadryl to sleep if you take it in the short term when allergy symptoms are disrupting your sleep. 

You’ll still need to weigh up the pros and cons, though. Allergies can cause sleep loss and poor sleep, but Benadryl doesn’t guarantee good sleep. And there isn’t much research looking into which one is most disruptive. 

Why Can Benadryl Be Bad for Sleep?

Benadryl contains the active ingredient diphenhydramine, which can make you feel drowsy. This may sound like a good thing before bed, but the sedating effect causes what scientists call manufactured sleep or pharmacologically-induced sleep — not natural, healthy sleep. Manufactured sleep may may not be as restorative as natural sleep, and your sleep stages may look different — for example, some medications suppress rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is needed for creativity, learning, and memory consolidation.

Benadryl may also affect how you perform the next day. A 2012 study found diphenhydramine can cause next-day sleepiness and impaired psychomotor performance (think slowed reaction times and accuracy) when taken before bed. 

If you’re sleepy the next day, you might drink more coffee or skip your workout, and this could make it harder to sleep that night. Although allergies can make you tired, too.

Beyond sleepiness, Benadryl can cause side effects like: 

  • Dizziness
  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth  
  • Headache 
  • Loss of appetite 

These potential side effects can make it harder to get enough sleep. 

Benadryl may also come with the risk of serious health issues, so it’s not something you want to rely on night after night. Diphenhydramine has been linked with an increased risk of cognitive decline in older adults. And it’s an anticholinergic drug, and these drugs have been linked to an increased risk of dementia.   

And histamine plays a role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle, so taking antihistamines — like Benadryl — may disrupt your sleep-wake cycle, which can lead to sleep problems, low energy, and health issues. 

You may also develop a tolerance to Benadryl, so, health issues aside, it’s not a long-term solution. 

This can happen fast, too. One small study looked at 15 healthy men who took either a placebo or 50 milligrams of diphenhydramine twice a day for four days. The men were more sleepy taking diphenhydramine on day one, but by day four, sleepiness was the same whether they took diphenhydramine or the placebo. 

If you’re using Benadryl for insomnia, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine doesn’t recommend diphenhydramine for insomnia. The ASSM guidelines say the overall evidence for diphenhydramine (50 mg) is "weakly against its effectiveness for improving sleep onset and total sleep time."

If you’re taking it for allergies, overusing diphenhydramine decongestants can actually make congestion worse — which won’t do your sleep any favors! 

Learn how to sleep with a stuffy nose here.

Expert tip: Keep an eye on your sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the worse you’ll feel and perform day to day. RISE keeps track of how much sleep debt you have, so you can see if allergies or taking Benadryl are making a difference.

Sleep debt is compared to your sleep need — how much sleep you genetically need. 

This number is unique for everyone. When we looked at 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, we found sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need
RISE users’ sleep needs.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

Is It Bad to Take Benadryl Every Night to Sleep? 

Yes, it can be bad to take Benadryl every night to sleep. Benadryl is designed as a short-term allergy medication, not a sleep aid you should take night after night. Even if you have allergies, Benadryl can cause manufactured sleep, next-day sleepiness and performance impairments, and potentially dementia, so consider other allergy treatments. 

Is Benadryl Addictive as a Sleep Aid? 

It’s not clear whether Benadryl is addictive. There are studies suggesting Benadryl can be addictive, but more research is needed. 

Even if Benadryl isn’t physiologically addictive, it can be habit-forming if you rely on it every night to fall asleep. And you can build a physical dependence and tolerance to Benadryl, so you may need to take more and more of it to get the same effects. 

Long-Term Use of Benadryl for Sleep  

There’s not a lot of research into the long-term use of Benadryl for sleep, but it may increase your odds of serious health conditions like dementia. And as you can develop a tolerance to it, it may not be helping your sleep much in the long run. 

Benadryl isn’t designed for sleep, but if you’re taking it for allergies, it’s usually recommended you take it for one to two weeks.

What Happens When You Stop Taking Benadryl for Sleep?

When you stop taking Benadryl for sleep, you may experience rebound insomnia, or worse sleep problems than before you started taking the drug. You may also experience withdrawal side effects, such as nausea, sweating, and an increased heart rate.

While there are no health risks to going cold turkey, you can reduce the severity and likelihood of withdrawal symptoms by slowly tapering off Benadryl. 

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How to Sleep Without Benadryl? 

You can sleep without Benadryl by treating allergies, improving your sleep hygiene, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, doing a relaxing bedtime routine, and speaking to a doctor. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Treat allergies: You can treat allergies without Benadryl. Try sleeping on your side or with your head elevated, doing breathing exercises to decongest your nose, or using a HEPA air filter. And don’t panic if you need to turn to allergy meds in the short term. We’ve covered more on how to sleep with allergies here.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: These are the daily habits that can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits, including when to drink your final coffee of the day, when to finish up dinner, and when to get and avoid bright light. 
  • Get in sync with your circadian rhythm: Check RISE to see when your body naturally wants to go to sleep. Look out for your Melatonin Window in the app, you’ll have an easier time falling asleep naturally if you head to bed at this time. 
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: If you feel anxious when you try to sleep without Benadryl, prioritize plenty of time for a relaxing bedtime routine. If you do have allergies, stress and anxiety can make allergy symptoms worse. A 2022 study found allergic rhinitis (cold symptoms from allergies) was linked to anxiety and depression. Another study found, “individuals with persistent emotional stress have more frequent allergy flares.” Try reading, journaling, doing yoga, listening to relaxing music, or taking a warm shower or bath — bonus: the steam can help with decongestion.
  • Speak to a doctor: If you have chronic allergies, a healthcare professional can recommend the best treatment for you. If you’re taking Benadryl as a sleep aid, they can check for sleep disorders or medical conditions that could be behind your trouble sleeping and treat the root cause. For example, if your sleep problems are classified as insomnia, they may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which is a first-line treatment for the sleep disorder. If needed, they may prescribe a more precise antihistamine for sleep problems, like hydroxyzine, or an alternative sleeping pill. A doctor can also suggest a taper schedule to slowly reduce the dose of Benadryl you take, rather than quitting cold turkey.

Turning to Benadryl for the sleepiness effects? We’ve covered how to sleep without sleeping pills here. 

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app tells you when to do 20+ healthy sleep habits.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

You Don’t Need Benadryl to Sleep 

It can feel like you can’t sleep without Benadryl if you have allergies or you’ve become physically or physiologically dependent on it to drift off. 

To sleep soundly without turning to Benadryl, try treating allergies with other (potentially drug-free) methods, improving your sleep hygiene, and syncing up with your circadian rhythm. 

The RISE app can help with those last two. RISE sends you personalized reminders for when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits and predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm each day to make syncing up second nature. 

Small lifestyle changes can make a big difference: 

“Just becoming more aware of when’s the best time to drink caffeine, eat dinner, and get sunlight according to my circadian rhythm has helped my sleep quality tremendously…I now sleep better than ever and feel so much more productive throughout the day. Thank you RISE!” Read the review.

This user isn’t the only one — 80% of RISE users get better sleep within five days. 

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