If you’re experiencing a difficult period of bad sleep, an over the counter sleep aid might help get your nightly slumber back on track.
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 other ingredients. They vary in strength and effect.
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.
Please note that there has been recent advice that older adults (over 65 years) should avoid over the counter sleep aids containing the anti-histamines diphenhydramine and doxylamine.
1. Kirkland Signature
Strongest over the counter sleep aid overall
Active ingredient: Doxylamine succinate 25 mg
Kirkland signature contains the anti-histamine Doxylamine Succinate, which some people will find has a strong sedative effect.
It’s a tiny pill that’s easy to swallow, and takes around 30 minutes to work. I tested it every night for a week, and felt that it helped me sleep well for 6 out of the 7 nights.
Although I slept well, I had a slightly fuzzy head in the morning (the typical sleeping pill hangover effect) and it increased towards the end of the week.
This is a common issue with anti-histamine sleep aids, and one reason only to take them when you really need to – not on a ongoing daily basis.
There are other possible side effects, as there are with all sleep aids. But the cloudy head in the morning was the only one I experienced myself.
Having said that, I’ve also tested Unisom SleepTabs, which have the same active ingredient, and they gave me a dry mouth (as well as a very similar sedative effect).
Note that children, older adults, pregnant or nursing women, people with breathing problems, glaucoma or enlarged prostates are advised to consult a healthcare profesional before using this sleep aid.
If you’d like to find out more about my experience, have a read of my complete review.
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 gummies.
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 research evidence that 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 disorientated when I woke in the night to use the bathroom. Perhaps a good sign that I’d been sleeping deeply.
It’s also worth mentioning that it comes in gummy form, with a pleasant taste. So it’s an option if you have difficulty swallowing tablets or capsules.
Note that they have various different types of this sleep aid. So check whether the one you buy contains purely melatonin or melatonin plus herbal ingredients.
Most people will probably tolerate melatonin and the herbal ingredients well. But there are some possible side effects to be aware of, such as headaches, dizziness or nausea. Webmd.com has a good summary of potential side effects.
And although generally recognized as safe, my advice would be to check with your doctor before taking it if you have any medical conditions or take any medication.
I’ve also written a more detailed review of Vitafusion you might find helpful.
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.
However, several of the ingredients, like melatonin and valerian, can cause some side effects – look out for vivid or bad dreams for one thing!
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 United States, 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.
4. ZzzQuil Nighttime Liquicaps
Active ingredient: Diphenhydramine HCI 25 mg (x 2 in a dose)
ZzzQuil Nighttime is made by Vicks, and is arguably just their famous Benadryl in disguise as a sleep aid.
This makes sense, since the active ingredient of Benadryl – the anti-histamine Diphenhydramine – is known to cause some people drowsiness.
I took it for several consecutive nights, and although I didn’t feel noticeably drowsy after taking it, I did seem to sleep better according to my tracker data and observations.
However, I woke more frequently in the night than I do with
Doxylamine Succinate or melatonin sleep aids. I also had a slightly more cloudly head the next morning.
So although I feel that they increase my total sleep time, the side effects are worse for me than with Kirkland signature or Unisom.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a melatonin + herbal version of Zzzquil (see my review here). I had better results with that one, but the high sugar content was an issue.
On balance, if you’re interested in trying an anti-histamine sleep aid, but don’t for whatever reason want to take Doxylamine Succinate, ZzzQuil might be worth trying.
Just be aware of the potential for similar side effects. And once again, check in with your doctor first if you have any existing conditions or take other medication.
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 better over the counter sleep aids available, especially if you find it difficult to swallow solid pills.
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.
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.
Finally, as with all the sleep aids, check first that it’s safe for you. And be aware of the potential for side effects like next-day grogginess, vivid dreams, headaches, stomach upset and dizziness.
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 practising good sleep hygiene 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 courses you might like to investigate. Have a read of this article for more information about online options.