If you’re looking for an over the counter sleep aid, the first decision to take is which type you feel most comfortable with. Most over the counter options fall into one of three main categories: melatonin, anti-histamines and herbal remedies.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb to understand the difference:
- Anti-histamines – usually have the strongest sedative effect.
- Melatonin – helps regulate disrupted sleep after situations 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 sleep aid overall
Price: $12 for 192 tablets
In the anti-histamine category, Kirkland Signature is one of the most powerful and effective over the counter sleep aids you’ll find. And for me, it was the strongest overall in all 3 categories during my tests.
The active ingredient is Doxylamine, which is an anti-histamine known to have a strong sedative effect. So you’re likely to feel very physically and mentally drowsy after taking it, which is of course what you’d hope for.
I think it’s ideal if you’re hoping to have a long night’s sleep. It might not be the right choice, however, if you’re planning on going to bed late and getting up at the crack of dawn.
There’s no official statement on the exact number of hours that it stays in the body, and it depends 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 have to get up less than 8 hours after taking it and rush 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, Doxylamine doesn’t cause problems with addiction like many prescription sleeping pills do. And you won’t find you need to increase the dosage night after night.
So if you need an over the counter sleeping pill to help you overcome a period of bad sleep, this is a very effective option.
2) Unisom SleepGels
Price: $14 for 60 soft gel pills
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 help to sleep and don’t want to feel the effects into the next day.
As with most 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, it’s a sign you should 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.
3) Zenwise Labs Sleep Support
Strong combination of melatonin and other relaxation-inducing ingredients
Price: $18 for 60 tablets
The Zenwise Labs sleep aid is one of the more interesting, and stronger, over the counter sleep aids I’ve tried. It has an impressive range of ingredients, and I guess the hope is that at least one or more of them do the trick for you.
Specifically, it contains magnesium, melatonin (6mg), L-Taurine, L-Theanine, l-Ornithine, Chamomile, Valerian, 5-HTP and GABA. All of these are thought to help with either relaxation or sleep one way or another – assuming the body and brain can actually use them in the supplement form.
I did find it helped me fall asleep quicker and stay asleep during the night, with no after-effects in the morning. So in my experience it worked well. However, there are a couple of points I feel are important to consider before taking it.
Firstly, 6mg of melatonin seems a little high to me. 3mg is the standard melatonin dose found in sleep aids, and even that is arguably unnecessarily high. So I’m not sure why they decided 6mg would be an appropriate amount.
Secondly, the range of ingredients seems a little over the top, and it has the potential to be a little too strong for some people.
My advice would be to try a half dose to start with. If you only feel a light sedation you can always decide whether or not to take the full dose the next night.
Vegan sleep aid with melatonin, GABA and herbal ingredients
Price: $22 for 60 capsules
Like the Zenwise labs sleep aid above, Luna also has a wide range of ingredients, including: magnesium, L-Theanine, Valerian extract, Chamomile extract, Passion flower extract, Lemon balm extract, Hops extract, vegetable cellulose, vegetable magnesium stearate, GABA and Melatonin (3mg).
It’s marketed as being Vegan and all-natural, and interestingly contains some of the classic ingredients found in bedtime teas. It also contains a more standard dose of melatonin than Zenwise.
As with most herbal sleep aids, I didn’t find it knocked me out. Instead, the effect was more subtle, with a feeling of relaxation about 30 minutes after taking it.
I tried it one night when I was feeling wide awake, but don’t think it helped much to be honest. On other nights when I was already feeling a little tired, I did feel that it helped push me in the right direction. Importantly, I noticed no side effects from taking it, nor any grogginess the next morning.
I think if it’s important to you to avoid animal products and/or you prefer herbal remedies to stronger sleep aids, Luna might suit you. I know it’s quite a popular sleep aid in the US, with many people saying it works well.
I also like the fact that they offer a no questions asked money back guarantee. So unlike most other sleep aids, you can get a refund if it doesn’t work for you.
5) Berry Sleep
Melatonin sleep aid made from natural ingredients
Price: $15 for 60 capsules
Berry Sleep is a non-addictive melatonin sleep aid which doesn’t leave you feeling groggy the next day. It’s ideal if you’re not keen on taking strong anti-histamines or pharmaceutical pills.
Melatonin in itself isn’t as powerful as most prescription or anti-histamine sleep aids. However, it works in a different way and can be very effective for particular sleep problems.
Rather than simply knocking you out, it boosts the hormone you already have in your body which helps maintain a regular sleep pattern. For that reason it’s promoted as being more natural than most prescription sleeping pills or anti-histamines.
What makes Sleep Berry interesting is that the melatonin comes from berries: tart cherry extract, passion fruit extract and goji berry extract.
An important point to consider is that melatonin is most helpful for specific sleep problems. There’s scientific evidence that it helps with jet-lag, shift work and delayed sleep phase syndrome.
When it comes to insomnia it seems to help some people more than others. It’s probably most useful if your sleep pattern has become badly disrupted and you need to get it back on track.
I found it did help me to sleep during a period of time when I was having trouble falling asleep and then staying asleep. I felt no next day grogginess or other side effects, so I was pleasantly surprised by it.
Overall, I think if you’re interested in trying a melatonin sleep aid, Sleep Berry is a better option than many others due to the natural melatonin content.
6) Source Naturals
Fast-acting melatonin and easy to take
Price: $15 for 240 tablets
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 a good alternative if you can’t swallow pills.
Another plus is that they’re absorbed into the bloodstream faster than normal pills, and so take action very quickly. Ideal if you get home late at night, or tend to forget to take medication on time.
As with most melatonin products they only tend to work for certain sleep conditions (see the Sleep Berry 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 sleep aid, Source Naturals is a reliable and effective over the counter option, especially if you find it difficult to swallow solid pills.
7) Vitafusion SleepWell
Combination of melatonin and natural herbs
Price: $26 for 250 tablets
Vitafusion is a well-respected brand of supplements and they’ve created an interesting concoction of natural ingredients with the SleepWell tablet.
Again containing Melatonin, this would usually mean they only work for the same sleep problems as the other melatonin sleeping pills in the review.
However, the inclusion of passion flower, chamomile and lemon balm means there’s a possibility it could help with 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, popular opinion is that they can be more effective than research suggests.
I find that the Sleepwell tablets do in fact help, especially when I’ve had some disruption to my sleep pattern when flying long distance. 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 difficult to guess whether they’ll actually help you or not.
But if you do like herbal remedies and are interested in trying melatonin, this could be one of the best over the counter sleep aids to try.