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In the photo above, you can see three of the over the counter sleep aids I tried before writing this article: ZzzQuil, Kirkland Signature, and Unisom.
If you’re reading this, you may have 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 will discuss the over the counter sleep aids I’ve found to be most effective shortly. Before I do though, I think it’s important to go over some key safety points about sleep aids, even if you don’t need a prescription for them.
Safety precautions when taking over the counter sleep aids
- If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or take other medications, it’s important to consult your healthcare provider before taking any sleep aids. They can advise on possible drug interactions or other complications.
- Remember that sleep aids should ideally only be used in the short-term. If your sleep issues last beyond two weeks, consult your doctor.
- Always read and follow the instructions on the product label. Different sleep aids may have varied recommendations for usage and potential warnings.
- Even “mild” over the counter sleep aids can cause side effects. It’s important to monitor for any changes and keep your healthcare provider informed.
- After using sleep aids, avoid tasks needing alertness, like driving or using machinery.
- Never combine sleep aids with alcohol or other drowsiness-causing substances.
- If pregnant, under 18, or over 65, consult a doctor before taking sleep aids. If you’re over 65, some sleep aids may increase certain risks, such as dizziness and falls, or interact with common medications such as blood thinners.
- The body can adapt to medications, potentially leading to decreased effectiveness over time. Don’t combat that by increasing the dose.
- Always stick to the recommended dose. Overdosing can have severe consequences.
- There’s a risk of developing psychological or physical dependency on sleep aids. It’s important to address the root cause of your sleep disturbances and look into natural and lifestyle-based solutions.
A straightforward melatonin sleep aid
Natrol is a popular sleep aid that contains melatonin as its active ingredient.
The small, dissolvable tablets are convenient and easy to take. It’s a much more comfortable experience compared to swallowing large capsules or pills.
While Natrol may not induce immediate drowsiness, I’ve consistently found it effective in promoting a restful sleep when I’m struggling with insomnia. Additionally, my sleep tracker appears to back that up, showing more nights of good sleep when I take it.
I’ve taken the 1, 3, and 5mg versions and never had any side effects. I also tried the stronger 10mg version and had no side effects from that either. However, it’s worth noting that melatonin may cause side effects in some people, so it’s important to be aware of your own body’s response.
I like the fact that Natrol contains only a few simple ingredients, primarily focusing on melatonin without unnecessary additives or combinations. As you’ll see below, you can find sleep aids that combine melatonin and a range of other ingredients. But in my opinion, if melatonin works well enough on its own, extra ingredients may not be necessary.
All in all, Natrol’s reliability and its focus on melatonin as the primary ingredient means it’s become my go-to over the counter sleep aid during difficult periods of insomnia.
Find out more in my in-depth Natrol review.
2. Vitafusion SleepWell
3mg melatonin combined with herbal ingredients
I’ve noticed a growing trend of over the counter sleep aids that combine melatonin and herbal ingredients, which are sometimes included to enhance the sleep-promoting effect.
Even though I personally prefer the simplicity of single-ingredient sleep aids, I do find it interesting to try combinations from time to time, and sometimes have good results with them.
VitaFusion SleepWell is available in different versions, each formulated with a specific combination of melatonin and herbal ingredients, so be sure to check the label to choose the one that best suits you.
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 enticingly like sweets/candy.
Compared to the Natrol, they had a noticeably faster sedative effect while I was in bed, which makes me think perhaps the herbal ingredients contributed to the overall calming and sleep-inducing effect.
Importantly, I usually sleep well when I take them. Occasionally, I’ve experienced slight disorientation during nighttime awakenings, and it can take me a little longer to fully awaken in the morning after taking VitaFusion SleepWell.
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 and may be suitable for those who need a stronger melatonin dose.
Find out more in my detailed Vitafusion review.
3. ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs
2mg melatonin + herbal ingredients
Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs is another well-known sleep aid that takes a step further by combining melatonin with valerian, lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm.
With a melatonin content of just 2mg, this one may be a suitable option if you’d like to try melatonin at a lower dosage.
During the week I took them, I experienced restful sleep for five nights and reasonably good sleep for the other two nights, so it felt quite effective for the majority of the week.
I had a headache one morning, but no other side effects, so I’m not sure if that one isolated headache was due to the ZzzQuil.
The gummy form is convenient to take, but it’s worth mentioning the higher sugar content of 5mg per full dosage, which can be quite noticeable, especially if you chew them after brushing your teeth.
Similar to many over the counter sleep aids that combine herbal ingredients with melatonin, it’s impossible to know which specific components are contributing to the overall effects (or if it’s the placebo effect doing the work for you).
On balance though, I found it helpful during a period of insomnia. And it’s interesting that Vicks ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs brings together several natural ingredients that have long been associated with promoting relaxation and sleep.
Find out more in my ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs review.
4. Alteril Sleep Aid
Melatonin with L-Tryptophan and a blend of valerian and chamomile
Alteril is another commonly available sleep aid in the United States that combines melatonin with L-Tryptophan, valerian, and chamomile. I’ve seen it in many stores and bought 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. The main side effect of note for me was feeling very drowsy when I woke in the night a couple of times.
I also experienced vivid dreams, which can be interesting and thought-provoking if you also enjoy remembering and reflecting on your dreams like I do.
As with other sleep aids combining various ingredients, it’s difficult to determine which specific ingredients are contributing to the overall effects. However, Alteril was effective for me personally, and I would consider using it again if needed.
Just keep in mind that they may not be suitable if you find larger sleep aids uncomfortable to swallow.
Learn more in my full Alteril review.
5. Unisom SleepTabs
An antihistamine sleep aid containing Doxylamine Succinate
In contrast to the sleep aids I’ve discussed so far, Unisom SleepTabs contains 25mg of the antihistamine Doxylamine Succinate as the active ingredient. The SleepTabs are basically tiny tablets that are very easy to swallow.
In my experience, Unisom SleepTabs provided the most noticeable sedative effect while lying in bed reading. They also resulted in faster sleep onset and reduced nighttime awakenings during periods of insomnia.
I consistently experienced restful sleep on most nights I took Unisom SleepTabs, helping me to get enough sleep to function well the following day.
However, it’s important to carefully consider the trade-off between the desired sedative effect and potential side effects, such as a groggy feeling in the morning, dry mouth or headaches. I find it’s fine for a couple of nights, but if I take it for much longer, the side effects tend to increase.
Because of the antihistamine ingredient, if you’re an older adult (65+ is often the age for ‘older adults’), it’s important to consult with your personal doctor or physician to be sure it’s safe for you to take Unisom SleepTabs.
If you’d like to try an antihistamine sleep aid because of its reputation for a stronger sedative effect, Unisom is the one that seemed to work best for me. Just bear in mind there are valid reasons why it’s typically not recommended for long-term use.
Find out more in my in-depth Unisom article.
6. Kirkland Signature
Contains Doxylamine Succinate (similar to Unisom)
The Kirkland Signature sleep aid contains the same active ingredient as found in Unisom – Doxylamine Succinate – and the tablets even have a similar appearance.
In addition to Unisom and Kirkland, there are several other brands offering sleep aids with the same dosage of Doxylamine Succinate.
In some ways then, you would expect Unisom and Kirkland to have the same effect. In terms of the sedation, the effects were so similar for me, it’s hard to declare one as better than the other. As with Unisom, I slept reasonably well when I took the Kirkland sleep aid.
Where the side effects are concerned, similar to Unisom, I also noticed a groggy feeling in the morning after consecutive nights of taking Kirkland. Additionally, when I used Kirkland Signature for a longer period of time, I experienced a dry mouth and headaches.
Subjectively, I found that Unisom gave me a slightly better morning feeling and less of a fuzzy head sensation compared to Kirkland. Once again it’s important to note that individual experiences may vary though, and other factors may have contributed to my sleep quality and side effects.
Ultimately, your experience with these sleep aids may differ, and it’s worth considering both Unisom and Kirkland to determine which one suits you best.
Find out more in my detailed Kirkland Signature review.
7. ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid
Diphenhydramine antihistamine – similar to Benadryl
Not to be confused with Pure Zzzs, which is also made by Vicks, ZzzQuil nighttime sleep aid contains diphenhydramine HCL (hydrochloride) as its active ingredient.
Diphenhydramine is a type of antihistamine, with the US version of the widely recognized allergy medication Benadryl containing the same ingredient. In some ways, you could say it’s the side effect of the ingredient that’s put to use as a sleep aid instead in this case.
ZzzQuil nighttime sleep aid comes in the form of small and smooth liquicaps, which are considerably easier to swallow compared to standard pills.
In my experience, ZzzQuil seemed to help increase my total sleep time and made it relatively easy to fall back asleep when waking up in the middle of the night.
From the very first morning, I noticed a hangover-like sensation, the fuzzy head feeling, which gradually intensified and lasted longer over the following mornings. This effect was particularly noticeable when taking the full dosage of 50mg, but slightly improved when I reduced the dose to 25mg.
Overall, I tend to tolerate doxylamine succinate antihistamine sleep aids better than the diphenhydramine ones, such as ZzzQuil nighttime. Despite the groggy feeling, I did feel a sedative effect with ZzzQuil though.
However, as I keep saying in each section, it’s important to keep in mind that these sleep aids may work differently for you.
Learn more in my in-depth Zzzquil nighttime sleep aid review.
A mild sleep aid containing valerian
Kalms is a widely recognized brand among insomniacs in the UK, commonly found on supermarket or chemist shelves.
There are several different versions of Kalms available, and I’ve personally tried them all. However, I found that none of them had a significant sedative effect for me, except for Kalms Night One-A-Night, which contains valerian and had a mild sedative effect.
Fortunately, I’ve never experienced any side effects from the Kalms sleep aids. But it’s worth noting that some people may not tolerate valerian or other herbal ingredients contained in certain versions as well.
Since I first wrote about Kalms several years ago, many readers have shared their experiences in the comments section. Interestingly, while some talked about having excellent results, others expressed disappointment, which just goes to show how these herbal sleep aids affect people differently.
That sums up herbal sleep aids for me really. In my experience, herbal sleep aids, including Kalms, can have unpredictable results, and their effectiveness varies from person to person. You just won’t know how they will affect you until you give them a try.
Additionally, it’s worth considering that if you’re receptive to the placebo effect, herbal sleep aids may work even more effectively for you.
Find out more in my Kalms One-A-Night review.
Just to recap, in the table below you can see all the sleep aids in this article and the ingredients used:
|Vitafusion||Mix||-Melatonin alone, or:|
-Melatonin + herbs
|ZzzQuil Pure Zzzs||Mix||-Melatonin|
|Unisom SleepTabs||Antihistamine||-Doxylamine |
Where else to buy the sleep aids
If you’re wondering where to buy the sleep aids mentioned in this article, you’ll find them available in various stores across the US.
I’ve seen several of the sleep aids in this article sold in popular stores such as Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, Duane Reade, Acme, Walmart, Target, and smaller independent pharmacies.
However, it’s important to note that sleep aids containing melatonin might not be available in all countries. In the UK, for instance, melatonin isn’t sold over the counter, which means you may have difficulty finding those specific sleep aids.
In the UK, you can typically find a range of sleep aids in supermarkets and chemists, including well-known stores like Boots. These retailers often stock herbal sleep aids and, in some cases, antihistamine sleep aids.
Websites with more information about over the counter sleep aids
For more information about over the counter sleep aids, there are several reputable medical websites that provide valuable guidance and overviews. Here are four I recommend:
Mayoclinic – Mayoclinic offers concise yet up-to-date general guidance about OTC sleep aids.
Healthline – Healthline covers natural ingredients found in sleep aids, often citing relevant studies.
NHS – The UK National Health Service (NHS) provides extensive information about sleep and sleeping pills, and I’ve linked their page on diphenhydramine here as a starting point.
Very Well Health – Very Well Health has a useful article focusing on the antihistamine ingredient doxylamine.
Whether you choose to use a sleep aid or not, I recommend trying to tackle your sleep problems without becoming dependent on sleep aids in the long term.
You can find lots of practical sleep tips on my main page about sleep hygiene.
And in a separate article, I describe 10 of the techniques which have worked best for me personally.
Have you tried any of the over the counter sleep aids in this article? Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below.