When choosing an over the counter sleep aid, 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 sleep aid overall
Price: $11.95 for 192 pills
In the anti-histamine category Kirkland Signature is one of the strongest and most effective over the counter sleep aids you’ll find. Furthermore, I’ve found it to be 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’d hope for.
It’s great if you plan on having a long night’s sleep, as it should help you get through the annoying period of insomnia you may be experiencing.
It might 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) Berry Sleep
Most effective melatonin sleep aid, made from all-natural ingredients
Price: $14.12 for 24 pills
Berry Sleep is a very popular 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 anti-histamines or other strong pharmaceutical pills.
Melatonin may not be 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 maintain a regular sleep pattern. Therefore it’s promoted as being more natural than most prescription sleeping pills or anti-histamines.
The majority of over the counter melatonin sleeping pills are made with synthetic melatonin. What makes Sleep Berry different though, and what I particularly like about it, 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 also found there was indeed no grogginess the next day, and no other side effects. So overall I was pleasantly surprised by its effectiveness.
Personally, I think if you’re keen on trying melatonin you don’t need to look much further than Sleep Berry.
3) Unisom SleepGels
Price: $10.73 for a pack of 60
Unisom Sleepgels contain the other type of anti-histamine 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 help to 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.
4) Source Naturals
Fast-acting melatonin and easy to take
Price: $15.88 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’re 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 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.
5) Vitafusion SleepWell
Combination of melatonin and natural herbs
Price: $18.63 for 250 tablets
Vitafusion is a well-respected brand of supplements and they’ve created an interesting concoction of natural ingredients with their SleepWell tablet.
Again containing Melatonin, this would usually mean they 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 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 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.
If you like herbal remedies and are interested in trying melatonin, then these are possibly one of the best over the counter sleeping pills.