When choosing an over the counter sleeping pill, the first decision is whether to take one containing melatonin, an anti-histamine or a herbal remedy.
A basic rule of thumb to understand the difference is as follows:
- Anti-histamines – generally have the strongest sedative effect.
- Melatonin – helps regulate sleep after disruption due to events like jet-lag or shift work.
- Herbal pills – usually have a lighter effect.
Over the years I’ve tried many different otc sleep aids, both because I’m an insomniac and to research and test new ones as they become available.
In this review I’ll be looking at the ones which I feel are the best in each of the three categories.
Some of these sleeping pills are quite strong even though you don’t need a prescription, so please ensure you read the reviews carefully.
1) Kirkland Signature
Strongest overall sedative effect
Price: $12.08 for 192 pills
In the anti-histamine category the Kirland Signature is one of the strongest and most effective over the counter sleep aids you’ll find. Furthermore, I find it’s by far the strongest overall in all 3 categories.
The active ingredient is Doxylamine, which is one of the most powerful anti-histamine sedatives. You’re likely to feel very drowsy (both physically and mentally) after taking it, which is of course what you would hope for.
It’s great if you plan on having a long night’s sleep, as it should help you past the annoying period of insomnia you may be experiencing.
It may not be ideal, however, if you’re planning on going to bed late and getting up early in the morning.
There’s no official statement on the exact number of hours that it stays in the body, as it will depend on various factors such as your size, metabolism and age.
So to be on the safe side, it’s probably best to keep in mind that if you plan on getting up less than 8 hours after taking it and rushing out of the house to work, you may still feel a bit drowsy.
But if you have time on your hands to get a good night’s sleep and wake up slowly, then the Kirkland sleep aid could suit you well.
In terms of safety, people don’t usually develop a tolerance to Doxylamine as quickly as some other anti-histamines. And it’s not known to cause problems with addiction like many prescription sleeping pills do.
So if you’re planning on using an over the counter sleeping pill for between a night and a few weeks, Kirkland is an excellent choice.
2) Unisom SleepGels
$10.43 for a pack of 60
Unisom Sleepgels contain the other type of antihistamine typically found in sleeping pills – Diphenhydramine hydrochloride.
There are 3 main versions available – SleepGels, SleepTabs and QuickMelts. The main difference is in whether the tablet contains 25mg or 50mg, and how quickly it’s absorbed by the body.
Unisom doesn’t pack the same punch as Kirkland in terms of its strength of knock-out. But it’s useful if you just need a little extra to help you sleep and don’t want to feel the effects into the next day.
As with all sedatives though, you may feel a little groggy first thing in the morning depending on how sensitively you react to them.
It’s possible to build a tolerance to this type of anti-histamine compared to the Kirkland sleep aid. So if you find yourself feeling the need to increase the dosage above the recommended level, then it’s a sign you should speak to your doctor or stop taking them.
Overall, Unisom is perhaps the best over the counter sleep aid if you want to try an anti-histamine for the first time, but would prefer a lighter introduction to them.
Most effective melatonin sleep aid
Price: £10.21 for 100 tablets
Mel-O-Chew is a popular chewable melatonin-based sleep aid. Melatonin is the hormone produced by your body which tells your internal body clock when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up.
The idea then is that the synthetic version can boost the amount you naturally have in the body, and therefore help regulate your body clock.
Melatonin is not as powerful as most prescription or anti-histamine sleep aids, but it works in a completely different way.
Rather than simply knocking you out, it helps you to keep to a normal sleeping pattern. And that way it’s promoted as being more natural than pharmaceutical pills or anti-histamines.
The thing to remember is that melatonin is only thought to be useful in certain circumstances. There is scientific evidence that it helps with jet-lag, shift work, delayed sleep phase syndrome and possibly insomnia for older people.
But there isn’t much evidence that it will help everyone with insomnia. Having said that though, some people still swear by it, so you probably won’t really know if it’ll work for you until you try it.
If you’re in the category of people who melatonin can help though, then Mel-O-Chew is one of the best otc sleep aids available.
4) Source Naturals
Fast-acting melatonin and easy to take
Price: £14.98 for 240 tablets
Source Naturals is another Melatonin based sleeping tablet, made by a company with a reputation for producing high quality supplements.
The main reason for including them in the list is that they’re sub-lingual. The fact that they dissolve under the tongue means they’re good if you can’t swallow pills.
Another plus is that they are absorbed into the bloodstream faster than normal pills, and so take action very quickly.
As with most melatonin products they only tend to work for certain sleep conditions (see the Mel-O-Chew explanation above). But if you do fall into one of those categories, they should help you get some rest at night.
So if you’re looking for a fast-acting melatonin-based sleep aid, Source Naturals is a reliable and effective option, especially if you’re not a fan of pills.
5) Vitafusion SleepWell
Combination of melatonin and natural herbs
Price: $11.30 for 250 tablets
Vitafusion is a well-respected brand of supplements, and they’ve created an interesting concoction of natural ingredients in the SleepWell tablets.
Again containing Melatonin, this would usually mean they would only work for the same sleep problems as the two other melatonin pills in the review.
However, the inclusion of passion flower, chamomile and lemon balm means it’s not so easy to ignore the possibility of it helping other sleep problems such as insomnia.
In previous articles I’ve talked about how there isn’t much evidence that herbal remedies actually work. But despite the lack of hard evidence my personal opinion is that they can be far more effective than research suggests.
I find that the Sleepwell tablets do in fact help, and especially when I’ve had some disruption to my sleep pattern. I travel a lot for example, and find they help me adjust to new time zones.
And at times when I’ve had general problems sleeping I’ve had some success with them, though usually only felt a light effect.
So it probably boils down to a willingness to try them out yourself and see what happens. With the combination of melatonin and herbs it’s impossible to guess whether they will actually help you or not.
It’s also worth mentioning that they’re a chewable gummy, again great if you don’t like swallowing whole pills.
If you like herbal remedies and are interested in trying melatonin, then in my opinion these are one of the best over the counter sleeping pills.