If you’re experiencing a difficult period of bad sleep, an over the counter sleep aid can help get your sleep back on track.
The main plus is that they are less likely to cause the same side effects that powerful prescription sleeping pills are known for.
Some of them are still quite strong though, so it’s usually advised not to take them for longer than a couple of weeks.
As a rule of thumb, most fall into one of four categories:
- Anti-histamines – usually have the strongest sedative effect.
- Melatonin – helps regulate sleep patterns, particularly with jet lag or shift work.
- Herbal remedies – often have a milder effect and might help with anxiety.
- Combination sleep aids – mixes of melatonin, plant extracts and sometimes other ingredients. These vary in strength and effectiveness.
As someone who regularly suffers from insomnia, I’ve tried a wide range of over the counter sleep aids over the years. And in this review, I’ll be discussing the most effective I’ve found in each category.
1. Kirkland Signature
Strongest over the counter 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 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, the Kirkland sleep aid could suit you well.
In terms of safety, Doxylamine doesn’t cause problems with addiction like many prescription sleeping pills. 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. Vitafusion SleepWell
Best melatonin and herbal sleep aid
- Melatonin 3 mg
- Passionflower 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 the principal ingredient, it’s most useful to correct 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 your busy mind, this might be one to try.
I’ve personally found it very effective, especially when I’ve had disruption to my sleep pattern when traveling. And at times when I’ve had general problems sleeping, I’ve also found they help me fall asleep faster.
I had no morning grogginess the next day, and the only side effect at all was feeling a bit out of it when I woke in the night to use the bathroom. A good sign that I’d been sleeping deeply!
It’s also worth noting that it comes in gummy form, with a pleasant taste. So it’s a good alternative if you have difficulty swallowing tablets or capsules.
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.
I’ve also written a more detailed review of Vitafusion you might find helpful.Buy from Amazon
Vegan sleep aid with a wide range of ingredients
- Melatonin 6 mg
- Magnesium 10 mg
- L-Theanine 200 mg
- Valerian extract 150 mg
- Chamomile extract 150 mg
- Passionflower extract 100 mg
- Lemon balm extract 100 mg
- Hops extract 100 mg
- GABA 100 mg
Luna has an interesting combination of nine different 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 have the potential to help with relaxation or sleep.
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
4. 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
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 manufacturers 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. 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.
There’s a longer Kalms article where you can find out more about my experience trying them.Buy from Amazon
7. Zenwise Labs Sleep Support
A 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 light sedation, you can try the full dose the next time.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.