If you have difficulty sleeping, an over the counter sleep aid might be a better alternative to strong prescription sleeping pills.
They tend to have less side effects and don’t leave you feeling so groggy the next day. And importantly, they don’t have the same problems with tolerance and dependency.
There are many to choose from, with most falling into one of four main categories:
- Anti-histamines – usually have the strongest sedative effect.
- Melatonin – helps regulate sleep patterns, especially with jet lag or shift work.
- Herbal remedies – plant extracts that usually have a milder effect and can also help with anxiety.
- Combination sleep aids – mixes of melatonin, plant extracts and other ingredients.
As someone who regularly suffers from periods of insomnia, I’ve tried different brands in each of those categories over the years.
Some have worked very well, while others only had the faintest of sedative effects. Hopefully this review will help you choose the right one to get the sleep you need.
1. Kirkland Signature
Strongest sleep aid overall
Active ingredients: Doxylamine succinate 25 mg
In the anti-histamine category, Kirkland Signature is one of the most powerful and effective sleep aids you’ll find. And for me, it was the strongest overall of all the different over the counter sleep aids I’ve tried.
The active ingredient is Doxylamine Succinate, which has a particularly 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.
It’s a good option if you have the time for a long night’s sleep. It might not be the right choice, however, if you go to bed very late and then get 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 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 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 an effective option.Buy from Amazon
2. Zenwise Labs Sleep Support
Strong combination of relaxation inducing ingredients
- Magnesium 80 mg
- Melatonin 6 mg
- Taurine 200 mg
- L-Theanine 200 mg
- l-Ornithine 5 mg
- Chamomile powder 150 mg
- Valerian powder 150 mg
- 5-HTP 100 mg
- GABA 100 mg
The Zenwise Labs sleep aid is one of the more complex, and stronger, over the counter sleep aids I’ve tried. It has a wide range of ingredients, with the idea presumably being that at least one of them works for you.
All of the ingredients are thought to help with either relaxation or sleep – 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, 6 mg of melatonin is more than most people really need. 3 mg is the standard melatonin dose found in sleep aids, and even that’s arguably more than necessary.
Secondly, the range of ingredients 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 try the full dose the next time.Buy from Amazon
3. Vitafusion SleepWell
Melatonin and natural herbs gummy
- Melatonin 3 mg
- Passion flower extract 4.25 mg
- Chamomile flower extract 4.25 mg
- Lemon balm extract 4 mg
Vitafusion is a well-respected brand of supplements, and they’ve combined some interesting herbal ingredients to create the SleepWell tablet.
With melatonin as a principle ingredient, it would appear to target disrupted sleep in situations like shift work, jet lag or sleep patterns that are out of control.
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.
Chamomile in particular has some strong research showing it can help reduce anxiety. So if you find yourself losing sleep because of worries and a busy mind, this might be one to try.
It was reasonably effective when I tried it, especially when I had some disruption to my sleep pattern when travelling. 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 predict how well it will work for you.
But if you prefer herbal remedies to prescription sleep aids or anti-histamines, and are interested in trying melatonin, this could be one of the better over the counter sleep aids to try.Buy from Amazon
4. Kalms One-A-Night
Valerian herbal sleep aid
Active ingredients: Valerian root extract 385 mg
In contrast to the manufacturers who cram multiple ingredients into their sleep aid, Kalms keep things simple with just one natural ingredient – valerian.
Valerian is one of the most commonly used plants in herbal medicine for both insomnia and anxiety. It’s also one which has received a number of scientific studies to investigate its effectiveness.
Unfortunately, the research evidence is so far inconclusive. Some studies found it worked well, others saw no significant effect, and a few that a placebo was just as good.
My personal experience is that it does have a mild sedative effect. And I’ve had no side effects when I’ve tried it, which appeals alongside the fact that it’s a natural, herbal remedy.
Note that there are different versions of Kalms. The standard one can be taken during the day to help with anxiety. Kalms Night has more pills with a lower dose so you can choose your dosage. And One-A-Night has the largest single dose.
It’s good to remember that valerian has an accumulative effect, so you might need to take it for a couple of weeks to feel the full effect.
So I think if you’d like to try a light herbal remedy for a couple of weeks, rather than just the occasional night, Kalms is one to consider.Buy from Amazon
5. Source Naturals
Fast-acting sublingual melatonin
Active ingredient: Melatonin 2.5 mg
Source Naturals is a pure melatonin sleep aid, made by a company with a reputation for producing high quality supplements.
It seems that more and more manufactures are adding other ingredients to their sleep aids. But this one only contains melatonin, with a reasonable dose of 2.5 mg.
It’s useful that they are sublingual, dissolving quickly under your tongue and avoiding the need to swallow any pills. That also means they’re absorbed into the bloodstream faster than normal pills, and so take action very quickly.
So they could be a good choice if you arrive home shortly before your bedtime, or sometimes forget to take medication in advance of the time you need it to work.
As with most melatonin products, they work best in specific situations, such as jet lag, shift workers struggling to sleep, and perhaps insomnia for some people. So if you do fall into one of those categories, they should help you get some rest at night.
Overall, if you’re looking for fast-acting melatonin, Source Naturals is one of the best over the counter sleep aids available, especially if you find it difficult to swallow solid pills.Buy from Amazon
6. Unisom SleepGels
Active ingredients: Diphenhydramine HCI 50 mg
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 25 mg or 50 mg, 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 SleepGels are worth considering if you want to try an anti-histamine sleep aid for the first time, but would prefer a lighter introduction to them.Buy from Amazon
Vegan sleep aid with wide range of ingredients
- Melatonin 6 mg
- Magnesium 10 mg
- L-Theanine 200 mg
- Valerian extract 150 mg
- Chamomile extract 150 mg
- Passion flower extract 100 mg
- Lemon balm extract 100 mg
- Hops extract 100 mg
- GABA 100 mg
Like the Zenwise labs sleep aid, Luna also has an interesting combination of ingredients. It’s promoted as being a vegan and natural sleep aid, with five different plant extracts known to help with relaxation.
But as well as those natural ingredients, it also contains melatonin, magnesium, GABA and L-Theanine, all of which are thought to help with relaxation and sleep too.
As with most over the counter 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 it wasn’t strong enough to overpower my alertness.
On other nights when I was already a little tired, I did feel that it helped me fall asleep. Importantly, I noticed no side effects from taking it, with no 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 U.S., 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.Buy from Amazon
8. Berry Sleep
Melatonin sleep aid made from natural ingredients
- Tart cherry extract
- Passion fruit extract
- Goji berry extract
Berry Sleep is a non-addictive melatonin sleep aid which doesn’t leave you feeling groggy the next day. It’s one to consider if you’re not keen on taking strong anti-histamines or pharmaceutical pills.
Melatonin 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 level of melatonin you already have in your body, and 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 is extracted from fruits rather than synthetically made: tart cherry, passion fruit and goji berry.
I found the effects were very subtle, to the point where I wasn’t sure if it was more of a placebo effect at work. On the plus side, I felt no next day grogginess or other side effects, so it seems like a sleep aid I could take more than once without any issues.
Overall, I think if you’re interested in trying a melatonin sleep aid, Sleep Berry is one to try if you’d prefer to stick to natural plant and berry extract ingredients.Buy from Amazon
Alternatives to sleep aids
1. Develop and maintain good sleep habits
Sleep aids can work extremely well, but it’s not advisable to take them on an ongoing basis. I recommend developing positive sleep habits, and learning what can negatively impact on your sleep.
2. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
If you suffer from insomnia, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be an effective way to treat it. This can be done with a therapist, but there are also online therapy options you might like to investigate.