If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’ve already made up your mind that a sleep aid might help you sleep a little better.
It’s also possible that you’ve been driven here by the feeling that you’re more likely to win the lottery than consistently sleep well every night.
Either way, you probably don’t want me to waffle on endlessly about whether taking a sleep aid is a good idea or not.
“Just tell me which one will give me some sleep!”, I hear you say.
Believe me, I’ve been there.
Bear with me for a moment though – I promise I’ll discuss the sleep aids I’ve found to be most effective shortly.
But first, it’s worth going over a few general safety points about taking sleep aids, even if you don’t need a prescription for them.
Safety precautions when taking sleep aids
- If you have any medical conditions, or take other medication, it’s a good idea to discuss taking a sleep aid with your doctor.
- Try to only use them for as short a time as possible. If you still have sleep problems after two weeks, speak to a medical professional.
- Side effects can happen, even with mild sleep aids. If you have any new symptoms, consult a medical professional.
- Don’t drive or do tasks requiring alertness when you take a sleep aid.
- Don’t mix them with alcohol or other substances that can cause drowsiness.
- Consult your doctor first before taking any sleep aid if: you’re pregnant, nursing, lactating, under 18 years old, or an older adult (some say 75 or above, but I’ll let you be the judge of what ‘older’ means).
- They can work less effectively as time goes on. Resist the temptation to increase the dosage or take more in the night. Look for natural ways to tackle your sleep problems instead.
- Don’t exceed the recommended dosage.
With those safety points in mind, let’s take a look at the sleep aids that have worked best for me. Please keep in mind that I’m talking from my personal experience in this article, so they may have a different effect for you.
A straightforward melatonin sleep aid
Natrol contains melatonin as the active ingredient and is a sleep aid that I’ve personally found to be consistently effective when I’m struggling with insomnia.
It doesn’t exactly knock me out in minutes, if that’s what you’re looking for. But I feel like I always sleep well when I take it, and my sleep tracker data seems to back that up.
I’ve taken the 1, 3 and 5mg versions and never had any side effects. I also tried the 10mg and had no side effects from that either. Please note that some people do get mild side effects from melatonin though, so my experience might not be the same for you.
I like that it comes in tiny tablets that dissolve under your tongue, which is preferable to swallowing large capsules or pills. I also like the simplicity of the ingredients. As you’ll see below, you can find sleep aids that combine melatonin and other ingredients. But in my opinion, if melatonin works well enough on its own, there’s no need to add more and more ingredients.
So on balance, Natrol has been the most reliable over the counter sleep aid for me for some time now, and is the one I’m most likely to use when I have a bad patch of insomnia.
2. Vitafusion SleepWell
3mg melatonin combined with herbal ingredients
I’ve seen an increasing number of over the counter sleep aids with a combination of melatonin and herbal ingredients. I do find it interesting to try this style of sleep aid from time to time, and have had good results from them.
Viutafusion SleepWell comes in different versions, so it’s worth checking the label to be sure you get the one you want. The version I first took contains 3mg melatonin, along with passionflower, chamomile and lemon balm.
They come in gummy form, and have a sweet taste despite being sugar-free. I’d be careful to keep them out of the reach of children as they look like something they’d munch through, given half a chance.
Compared to the Natrol, they had a noticeable sedative effect while I was in bed, which makes me think perhaps the herbal ingredients are playing a role.
I usually sleep well when I take them, but sometimes feel disorientated when I wake in the night. And it takes me a little while to fully wake up in the morning after taking them.
Other than that, I’ve had no side effects other than them putting the thought in my head of eating more sweet stuff.
I’ve also tried the extra strength melatonin version, though it only has 5mg, which is quite a common dosage. Those ones have a pleasant blackcurrant taste.
3. ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs
2mg melatonin + herbal ingredients
Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs go a couple of steps further than Vitafusion, adding valerian, lavender, chamomile and lemon balm to the melatonin. With just 2mg, it might suit people who want to try melatonin at a lower dosage.
I took them for a week and slept well for five nights, and reasonably well for two. I had a headache one morning, but no other side effects so I’m not sure even that one headache was due to the ZzzQuil.
I like that it comes in gummy form, so it’s very easy to take. Once again though, my main issue is the sugar content – 5mg for a full dosage. And I found it’s very noticeable, especially if you chew them after brushing your teeth.
Like so many over the counter sleep aids that combine various herbal ingredients with melatonin, it’s impossible to know which ones are actually doing anything, or even if it’s just the placebo effect.
But I found it helpful during a period of insomnia, and it’s interesting that it brings together some of the A-list celebrities of natural sedatives.
4. Alteril Sleep Aid
Melatonin with L-Tryptophan and blend of valerian and chamomile
Before we get to the antihistamines, let’s take a look at one more melatonin mix. Alteril is a sleep aid that’s very widely available in the United States – I’ve seen it in many stores and picked up mine from Target when I tested it.
It contains 3mg melatonin, L-Tryptophan, valerian and chamomile, all packed into the brightest yellow softgels I’ve ever seen. They are also quite large softgels, so this isn’t one for people who don’t like swallowing larger capsules.
I found it worked well for me, and slept pretty well every night for a week when I took it. I didn’t have any notable side effects other than feeling very drowsy when I woke in the night a couple of times. I did have vivid dreams though, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on how much you enjoy reflecting on your dreams generally.
As with the previous sleep aids, it’s of course hard to know which of the ingredients is really working (or if it’s simply the placebo effect!). But I had success with it, and would take it again if needs be. As I said though, there are easier sleep aids to swallow, chew or dissolve, so it won’t be for everyone.
5. Unisom SleepTabs
Antihistamine sleep aid with the strongest sedation
In contrast to the sleep aids I’ve discussed so far, Unisom SleepTabs has 25mg of the antihistamine Doxylamine Succinate as the active ingredient. The SleepTabs are basically tiny tablets that are very easy to swallow.
For me personally, it’s provided the most noticeable sedative effect while lying in bed reading. And I’ve slept pretty well most nights I’ve taken it, getting enough sleep to function well the next day. It seems to help me fall asleep faster and have fewer wakings in the night during periods of insomnia.
However, I do think you need to carefully balance the need for a sedative effect with the potential side effects. I find it’s okay for a night or two, but then starts to give me a groggy feeling in the morning, along with a dry mouth and headaches if I use it for more than a few days.
And just to repeat my comment at the start of this article, if you’re an older adult reading this, I strongly advise checking with your personal doctor or physician if it’s safe for you to take.
If you’d like to try an anti-histamine sleep aid because of their reputation for a stronger sedative effect, Unisom is the one that seemed to work best for me. Just bear in mind there are good reasons why it’s usually not recommended to take in the long-term.
6. Kirkland Signature
An effective antihistamine sleep aid
The Kirkland Signature sleep aid contains exactly the same ingredient as Unisom, and even looks the same. Perhaps that’s why the label states that it’s not the same company that makes them!
It’s not just those two though – there are various brands of sleep aid with the same amount of Doxylamine Succinate.
So really, you would expect Unisom and Kirkland to have the same effect. And in terms of the sedation, the effect was so similar for me, it’s hard to pinpoint which one was better.
I actually had Kirkland down as the strongest OTC sleep aid in the review for a couple of years until this recent update. But on reflection, I think they are probably equally strong.
I only made the change because the groggy feeling in the morning seemed marginally better with Unisom. Now, I’ll admit that this could be due to other factors. But this has been my experience, so I feel obliged to describe it as such.
7. ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid
Diphenhydramine antihistamine – similar to Benadryl
Not to be confused with Pure Zzzs, which is also made by Vicks, the ZzzQuil nighttime sleep aid contains diphenhydramine HCL (hydrochloride).
Diphenhydramine is a different kind of antihistamine than found in Kirland and Unisom. And interestingly, Benadryl has the same ingredient. So in this case, it’s the side effect of the famous Vicks cold medicine which is put to use as a sleep aid instead.
When I took it, it seemed to help increase my total sleep time. And when I did wake up in the night, I found it relatively easy to go back to sleep.
However, it also gave me a noticeable fuzzy head, right from the first morning. And that hangover effect increased in strength and duration over the next few mornings. It was particularly strong when I took the full dosage of 50mg, and better when I only took 25mg.
It comes as liquicaps, which need to be swallowed rather than chewed. But they are small and smooth, so considerably easier to take than standard pills.
On the whole, I personally seem to tolerate doxylamine succinate anti-histamine sleep aids better. But it might be a different case for you, and I can at least say that Zzzquil nighttime does appear to have a sedative effect.
A mild sleep aid containing valerian
This is one for insomniacs back home in the UK, who will probably have seen Kalms on more than one supermarket or chemist shelf.
There are a few different versions, and I’ve tried them all. What I can say is that none of them had a very strong sedative effect for me, though I do feel Kalms One-A-Night, which contains valerian, had a mild sedative effect.
Importantly, I’ve never had any side effects from a Kalms sleep aid. But some people might not tolerate valerian so well, or the other herbal ingredients that some versions contain.
Interestingly, I first wrote about Kalms several years ago, and since then many readers have shared their experience in the comments. For some it seems to work really well, while others were left disappointed.
And that sums up herbal sleep aids for me really – you just don’t know how they will affect you until you try them. And perhaps if you’re the kind of person lucky enough to benefit from the placebo effect, they will work even better for you!
My detailed reviews
If you’d like to know more about my own experience with any of the sleep aids in this article, I’ve written longer reviews of each one.
You can find them all on my sleep aids archive page, along with others that you might find interesting to read about.
Websites with more information about over the counter sleep aids
There are many medical sites that cover different sleep aids. Here are two I recommend:
Mayoclinic – they keep it very brief, but usually have current general guidance about OTC sleep aids.
Healthline – they cover some of the natural ingredients found in sleep aids, and highlight key studies where applicable.
Whether you choose to use a sleep aid or not, I highly recommend trying to tackle your sleep problems without becoming dependent on sleep aids in the long-term.
You can find lots of useful tips for better sleep in my main page about sleep hygiene.
And in a separate article, I describe 10 of the techniques which have worked best for me personally.