5 Best Over the Counter Sleep Aids
Feb 12th, 2021 •
Many people have trouble sleeping at night, which means they feel groggy and not themselves the next day. A lack of sleep can also lead to a wide range of serious health conditions, including heart attack and stroke, diabetes and obesity.
If you’ve followed the usual tips for getting enough sleep, including sleeping on a regular schedule, exercising consistently and reducing stress, but sleep is still elusive, it may be time to try over-the-counter sleep aids. We’ve compiled a list of the best sleep aids to help you finally get the sleep you need. (Consulting a Doctor is the first best option.)
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Please consult a healthcare practitioner for any sleep-related issues. This post also contains affiliate links, meaning if you purchase a product, we may receive a small commission at no cost to you, the reader.
Best Over the Counter Sleep Aids
- Kirkland Signature
- Zenwise Labs Sleep Support
Active Ingredients: Valerian Root & Melatonin
A 100% all-natural sleep aid, Ambitropin has been specially designed to help you get a restful night’s sleep. Carefully formulated with seven clinically-proven ingredients, this dietary supplement helps you to fall asleep and stay asleep, ensuring you feel rested and refreshed when you awake. There are no harmful side effects, such as drowsiness.
Ambitropin’s main active ingredient is the Valerian root, which works to relax the body and regulate your normal sleep cycle. In fact, it’s often referred to as “nature’s valium.” It also contains hops extract to manage restfulness, and melatonin – a powerful sleep-enhancing ingredient – to stimulate sleep and relaxation. This is an effective sleep aid which soothes and relaxes the body, promoting sleep. It’s also very affordable.
Valerian root may not work for everyone however, and the time it takes to achieve results is not yet known. Also, although the manufacturer claims that it has a 95% success rate, it has failed to reveal any concrete proof to back up this statement. It’s worth a try though, especially as it causes no side effects and is one of the best-selling over the counter sleep aids on the market.
2. Kirkland Signature
Active ingredient: Doxylamine Succinate
Kirkland Signature is arguably the most powerful and effective sleep aid that you can buy over the counter. The active ingredient is doxylamine succinate, which is an antihistamine with a strong sedative effect. This means that you will probably feel very drowsy – both mentally and physically – after taking it. Obviously, this is exactly what you want from an over the counter sleep aid.
Kirkland Signature is a good choice if you want a long night’s sleep. However, if you go to bed late at night and then need to be up first thing in the morning, it may not be ideal. In this situation, a milder sleep aid may be more appropriate. There’s no way of knowing exactly how long this sleep aid stays in the body once you’ve taken it, as this will vary depending on factors such as your age, size and metabolism.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you need to get up less than eight or so hours after taking Kirkland Signature and rush off to work, you may still feel a bit drowsy. But if you have plenty of time to sleep and then wake up slowly, this sleep aid could suit you very well. Fortunately, there isn’t a risk of becoming addicted to doxylamine, unlike with many other prescription sleeping pills, and you won’t find yourself needing to increase the dosage each night.
Ultimately, if you require an over the counter sleep aid to help you get a good night’s sleep, and you have the time to wake up slowly and at your leisure, this could be a suitable option.
Active ingredient: Diphenhydramine HCI 25mg ZzzQuil
Nighttime Sleep Aid is made by Vicks NyQuil and has been available for several years. It remains a firm favourite, being one of the best-selling sleep aids on the market. If you occasionally have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, and you want to be able to fall asleep faster, ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid could be worth a try. It’s a quick and effective remedy for sleeplessness.
If you occasionally have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, and you want to be able to fall asleep faster, ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid is worth a try. It’s a quick and effective remedy for sleeplessness. It may also be worth noting that alcohol is present in the ZzzQuil Liquid drink form.
Diphenhydramine is effective at deactivating alertness, putting the mind and body at ease, and at rest promoting sleepiness. The primary function of diphenhydramine is to act as an antihistamine, switching off mental alertness in order to make you feel relaxed and drowsy in the process.
ZzzQuil is backed up by clinical studies that show that diphenhydramine can provide a solution for occasional sleeplessness, reducing the time it takes to feel sleepy. Although this sleep aid does its job very well, because it induces drowsiness and blocks mental alertness it can be potentially dangerous. Do not drive or operate machinery after taking ZzzQuil.
Active ingredient: Melatonin
REMfresh is a supplemental melatonin sleep aid from the company Physician’s Seal. It works by mimicking the way the body releases melatonin during your sleep cycle, helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer. Ultimately, it helps you to experience better sleep overall. REMfresh contains no narcotics, hypnotics, barbiturates, sedatives, antihistamines, or alcohol, and it’s also non-habit forming.
The company claims that REMfresh is absorbed in the digestive tract for up to 7 hours continuously. However, it’s worth noting that the effectiveness of time-release supplements may vary amongst individuals.
Overall, REMfresh is worth a try if you suffer from sleep deprivation from jet lag or shift work. There’s no “hangover effects” as with some other sleep aids and side effects are few. REMfresh is made with 99% pure melatonin, and because this hormone creates the urge to fall asleep, it’s no surprise that it does its job so well.
On the other hand, if price is a big concern, you may want to try one of the cheaper alternatives on the market. Many products also contain 99% pure melatonin and so could have the same effect for a lot less cash.
5. Zenwise Labs Sleep Support
Active ingredients: Melatonin 6mg, Magnesium 80 mg, L-Taurine 200 mg, L-Theanine 200 mg, Chamomile powder 150mg, l-Ornithine 5 mg, Valerian powder 150 mg, GABA 100 mg and 5-HTP 100 mg.
The Zenwise Labs sleep aid is one of the strongest over the counter sleep aids on the market, which when you consider how many ingredients it has in it, isn’t all that surprising. It contains melatonin (6mg), magnesium, L-Taurine, L-Theanine, Chamomile, l-Ornithine, Valerian, GABA and 5-HTP – all ingredients which are believed to help with either relaxation or sleep.
Zenwise Labs Sleep Support helps you to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep throughout the night. Plus, because there are no reported after-effects in the morning, it’s ideal if you need to rush off to work soon after waking up. It’s an effective sleep aid, but there are a couple of things you may want to consider. Firstly, 6 mg of melatonin is very high, as 3 mg is the usual dose found in sleep aids.
Secondly, because there are so many ingredients in this herbal supplement, it has the potential to be a little too strong for some people. As such, it’s a good idea to try a half dose to begin with. If you only experience a feeling of light sedation, you can always increase the dosage next time.
Which Type of Sleep Aid Should You Choose?
When it comes to choosing an over-the-counter sleep aid, the first thing you should do is decide which type you feel most comfortable taking.
The main types of over-the-counter sleeping aids include:
- Herbal pills and dietary supplements
Antihistamines have been on the market for years as a treatment for common allergy symptoms such as sneezing, watery eyes, hives, and runny nose. But they are also sedating and as such they are also marketed as a sleep medicine. Some antihistamine products also contain drugs for pain relief or cough suppression.
Generally speaking, antihistamines like diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate are the strongest available OTC in terms of sedative effect. Antihistamines induce drowsiness by working against histamine, a chemical produced by the central nervous system. In fact they’re so potent that pilots are not allowed to fly for 30 hours after taking just one dose.
Some diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate are used to treat children’s allergies, but it is not recommended to give children the medication to induce sleep. Furthermore, it may have the opposite effect on them. About 10% to 15% of children become hyperactive after taking antihistamines.
Brand-name diphenhydramine products:
- Tylenol PM (also contains pain reliever / fever reducer acetaminophen)
- Advil PM (also includes anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen)
Brand-name doxylamine succinate products:
- Unisom SleepTabs
- Kirkland Signature
- Vicks NyQuil Cold & Flu Nighttime Relief (also contains pain reliever / fever reducer acetaminophen and cough suppressant dextromethorphan HBr)
- Robitussin Peak Cold Nighttime Cold + Flu (also contains pain reliever / fever reducer acetaminophen and nasal decongestant phenylephrine HCl)
- Mucinex Fast-Max Day & Night (also contains expectorant guaifenesin, pain reliever / fever reducer acetaminophen and nasal decongestant phenylephrine HCl)
- Clinically proven to be effective at helping people fall asleep and stay asleep
- Readily available over-the-counter at drug stores
- Not chemically addicting
- May cause next-morning grogginess if you don’t get enough hours of sleep
- People may become dependent on antihistamines for sleep
Antihistamine Side Effects & Risks
- Increase in thickness of lung secretions
- Blurred vision
- Stomach upset
- Dry mouth, nose, or throat
- Memory problems
- May increase the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in elderly
Melatonin is a key hormone in the body that naturally controls your sleep-wake cycle. It is also sold as a dietary supplement and has a milder effect. Research has shown that melatonin supplements can provide short-term benefit in helping regulate sleep after situations such as shift work or jet lag.
Unlike antihistamines, melatonin doesn’t make you drowsy. It helps reduce body temperature, which cues the brain that it’s time to sleep. It has been used successfully in children who have trouble sleeping due to behavioral conditions like autism or ADHD.
Related: Can you overdose on melatonin?
Some melatonin products even come in gummy bears or brownies. While this may help encourage kids to take the supplement, it also poses a risk for accidental ingestion. The good news is that poison control centers have seen hundreds of cases of accidental melatonin ingestion in kids without significant adverse effects.
If you want to try melatonin, timing is key. You’ll want to take the supplement two hours before bedtime. Typically, 1 to 3 milligrams will do the trick. However, not everyone feels the benefits of melatonin.
- Safe for children
- More natural way of regulating sleep
- Not sedating
- Due to limits on FDA regulations, there is a risk for the supplement to contain less than or more than the amount of melatonin listed on the label
- Melatonin may not work if your sleep problem is linked to stress, anxiety, or depression rather than a circadian rhythm disturbance.
Melatonin Side Effects & Risks
- Short-term feelings of depression
- Daytime sleepiness
- Stomach cramps
- May raise blood-sugar levels
- May increase blood pressure
- May interact with some medications including blood thinners, contraceptives, diabetes drugs, and immunosuppressants
Other Herbal Pills and Dietary Supplements
There are a variety of herbal supplements on the market that claim to naturally promote good sleep. Let’s take a look at a few more common ones:
Valerian is an herb native to Asia and Europe. The root is commonly used to treat anxiety, depression, and menopause, and is often touted as an effective sleep aid. However, the evidence is inconsistent. Some analyses have found valerian improves sleep with only occasional minor side effects. However, the safety of long-term is uncertain.
Possible side effects:
- Stomach upset
- Mental dullness
Chamomile is a daisy-like plant known for its calming effects, which some attribute to an antioxidant called apigenin. Chamomile often claimed to decrease anxiety and help initiate sleep. It is available in teas and oils. There’s not a lot of science on the effects of chamomile on sleep, though some research suggests it could have placebo effects, improving sleep in those who believe in its effects.
Possible side effects:
- Severe allergic reaction
- Skin reactions
- Sensitivity reactions
- Vomiting (high amounts)
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that produces the brain chemicals serotonin and melatonin, which promote good sleep. Tryptophan is also found in some meats, like turkey, and has been given credit for the sleepiness often felt after consuming a big Thanksgiving meal. Tryptophan supplements are promoted as effective at treating severe PMS symptoms, depression, and insomnia, however there is not a lot of solid evidence to back up these claims.
Possible side effects:
- Blurred vision
- Muscle stiffness
Native to the South Pacific islands, kava is an herb from the nightshade family. It has been used for years by natives as a ceremonial drink to induce relaxation. It is sold as a supplement in tea, capsule, powder, or liquid form to treat anxiety and insomnia. Kava is thought to work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain that reduce anxiety and pain sensations and thus promote sleep. Again, there is no solid scientific evidence to back up these claims but for some, it may be worth a try.
Possible side effects:
- Allergic skin reactions
- Enlarged pupils
- Stomach upset
Lavender is a purple flower-producing herb found in many countries. Its pleasant fragrance is believed to have soothing effects, and is often sold as an essential oil, in bath lotions and soaps, and in oral supplements. Studies have found that smelling lavender oil 30 minutes before bedtime can improve sleep quality for some individuals such as women, those with anxiety or depression, and the elderly.
Possible side effects:
- Increased appetite
- Stomach pain
Gingko biloba is a tree native to China that has been used for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. As a supplement, it is used to reduce stress and enhance relaxation and thus, improve sleep. Some studies on Gingko biloba’s impact on sleep have been questionable and the benefits are thought to be largely based on the placebo effect.
Possible side effects:
- Skin reactions
- Bleeding disorders
Should You Take Herbal Supplements?
Herbal Supplement Pros
- More natural than sleep aids that contain drug ingredients
- Fewer side effects than sleep aids that contain drug ingredients
- Readily available over-the-counter
Herbal Supplement Cons
- Due to limits on FDA regulations, there is a risk for the supplement to contain less than or more than the amount herb listed on the label
- Some herbal supplements used as sleep aids may interfere with the effectiveness of other medication
A Word of Caution about Herbal and Dietary Supplements
Dietary and herbal supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are not held to as high a standard as drugs or foods. Manufacturers don’t have to seek FDA approval before selling their supplements, but they can’t claim to address a specific medical claim. It is up to manufacturers to follow good manufacturing practices to ensure that their supplements are processed consistently with no wrong or harmful ingredients or contaminants, and with ingredients in proper amounts.
The FDA monitors dietary and herbal supplements and only steps in if it finds a product doesn’t accurately depict the ingredients or dosage of what’s listed on the label, if there are undeclared ingredients in the products, or if the supplement contains an ingredient deemed unsafe for consumers. For example, the FDA has found some supplements to contain less than or more than the active ingredient than listed on the label.
In rare cases, the FDA has become aware of some herbal supplements containing undeclared prescription drug ingredients (like sildenafil, the active ingredient in the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra) or even dangerous prescription drugs that have been pulled from the market due to health risks (such as the appetite suppressants sibutramine, known by the brand name Meridia, which is linked to heart attacks and strokes).
As a result, it is imperative that you purchase your dietary and herbal supplements (including melatonin) from reputable retailers and manufacturers.
OTC Sleep Aids vs. Prescription Sleep Medications
There are options available for people in search of a good night’s sleep. Over-the-counter sleep aids are more readily available than prescription products and they are generally considered safe for short-term use.
However, that doesn’t mean that an antihistamine or dietary supplement won’t cause side effects or interact with a medication you are already taking. It’s best to consult with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure the OTC medicine or supplement is safe for you.
If your insomnia or sleep problem cannot be treated with an OTC product, or if you are using the OTC sleep aid nightly to get sufficient sleep, a prescription medication may help. There are some options when it comes to sleep medications.
One group of sedative-hypnotics are benzodiazepine agonists, such as Xanax or Valium. However, these drugs are restricted because they can be addictive. Another option are prescription sleep aids such as Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone), or Sonata (zaleplon). However, these drugs carry potentially serious side effects, including next-day impairment that has led to sleep walking and even sleep driving.
Bottom line: Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking any medication or supplement. Your doctor will want to see you first to make sure your sleep problem isn’t the cause of an underlying medical or psychological problem, or possibly a sleep disorder.
Important Considerations: Are Sleep Aids Safe?
Before you reach for that bottle of sleep aids, here are some common sense things to keep in mind:
- Talk to your doctor. Sleep aids are readily available OTC and even online. But before you buy, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor. Not only can he recommend a preferred over-the-counter product, he can also make sure the sleep aid doesn’t interact adversely with any other medication you are taking or condition you have. Furthermore, your doctor can rule out any underlying medical or psychological condition that may be causing your poor sleep. He may also suggest you see a sleep specialist to rule out the possibility of a sleep disorder.
- Beware of drug interactions. Just because a medication or sleep aid is sold OTC doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry possible risks, especially if you have certain medical conditions. For example, antihistamines are not recommended for people with asthma, sleep apnea, or severe liver disease. These medications have also been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly.
- Beware of side effects. Again, just because a medicine is sold OTC doesn’t mean it can’t pose risks. You can experience side effects with antihistamines, melatonin, or dietary and herbal supplements. Side effects generally go away when the medicine is discontinued. If the effects linger, see a doctor.
- Short-term solution. OTC sleep aids are recommended only for short-term use. If you find yourself taking the drugs for more than two weeks, it may be time to talk to your doctor about a prescription sleeping pill or rule out any other cause for your sleeping problem.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can increase the sedative effects of sleep aids. Mixing the two can have dangerous consequences.
- Buy from reputable source. The FDA regulates supplements but not as closely as it does medical drugs. It is up to manufacturers to follow good manufacturing practices. However, in some cases, manufacturing errors can lead to supplements containing less than or more than the amount of ingredient listed on the label. Or, in rare cases, bad actors will include undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients or banned drug ingredients in their products, which pose serious risks to consumers.
Over the counter sleep aids can be an effective way of getting the sleep that you need to maintain optimal health and wellbeing. They are affordable and can be purchased easily from reputable retailers.
However, if you continue to have trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for additional help. Your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes that could help prevent sleeping problems, as well as behavioral therapy to help you adapt new sleep habits. He or she could also suggest ways in which you can change your sleeping environment so that it’s more conducive to sleep. The short-term use of prescription sleep aids might be recommended as well.
Over the counter sleep aids are a good place to start if you’re struggling to sleep and the best of these promise a good night’s sleep. They tend to be gentler than prescription sleeping pills, but it’s still important to take them in accordance with instructions. You should also keep in mind that most of these remedies aren’t intended to be taken over long periods of time. This can reduce their effectiveness. They are not a permanent solution to getting the sleep you need.
Learn about remedies for a better night's sleep including sleep aids and supplements, essential oils, soothing sounds, natural remedies, sleep therapies, and more.
The Best Natural Sleep Aids
Rather than reaching for a pill, check out the best natural sleep aids and all-natural products to help improve sleep and cure insomnia.