Best Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
It’s estimated that 10% to 30% of the population suffers from insomnia, which is why many turn to sleep aids to help fall asleep and/or stay asleep. Sleep medications that don’t require a doctor’s prescription are known as over-the-counter or OTC sleep aids and can be purchased at grocery and drug stores.
Travelers sometimes use OTC sleep aids to help with jet lag when crossing different time zones. They can also help shift workers with irregular sleep patterns catch up on rest. For everyone else, OTC sleep aids can be a short-term remedy for restless nights.
We’ll give an overview of the main types of OTC sleep aids, as well as who should and shouldn’t use them, so you can choose the best over-the-counter sleep aid for you.
Our Top Picks
- Best Overall
- Best Value
- Best Gummies
- Best for Pain Relief
- Best for Kids
- Best Time Released Delivery
Our Top Picks for 2021
Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid GelsBest Overall
- 50 mg of diphenhydramine HCl per liquid softgel
- 100 softgels per bottle
- Designed to minimize grogginess the next day
Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid Gels are intended to help adults and children over the age of 12 fall asleep quickly. The active ingredient is diphenhydramine HCl, a mild antihistamine that may be less likely to cause drowsiness the morning after you take it.
Each bottle contains 100 small softgels, which many people find easier to swallow than tablets. The suggested serving size is one 50 mg softgel about 30 minutes before bedtime.
Diphenhydramine HCl can help you fall asleep by blocking the neurotransmitter histamine. Because the drug leaves your system fairly quickly, you’re less likely to experience “hangover” symptoms the next day.
You should consult your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding before taking Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid Gels. People with chronic respiratory disease, an enlarged prostate, or other underlying medical conditions should also speak to a medical professional before using this sleep aid. While you’re taking Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid Gels, don’t use anything else with diphenhydramine in it, including anything you can apply to your skin. You should also avoid alcohol.
Unisom Nighttime Sleep-Aid Gels are only intended for short-term use. If you have insomnia lasting more than 2 weeks, you should talk to your doctor.
Amazon Basic Care Sleep Aid TabletsBest Value
- 25 mg of doxylamine succinate per tablet
- 96 tablets per bottle
- Free of pain relievers and gluten
Amazon’s Basic Care Sleep Aid Tablets will appeal to value seekers, as each bottle offers 96 servings at a very accessible price-point. Every tablet contains 25 mg of doxylamine succinate, which is an antihistamine used to treat both allergy symptoms and short-term insomnia. This OTC sleep aid is designed to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep when taken 30 minutes before bed.
The active ingredient, doxylamine succinate, has been shown to block histamine and acetylcholine, leaving you drowsy and ready to sleep. However, Amazon Basic Care Sleep Aid Tablets are not meant to be a long-term solution to insomnia.
Children under the age of 12 shouldn’t use this sleep aid. If you’re pregnant, nursing, or have an underlying respiratory condition, you should talk to your doctor before trying Amazon Basic Care Sleep Aid Tablets. As with most OTC sleep aids, you should avoid using alcohol, tranquilizers, and other sedatives at the same time. The tablets do not contain gluten or pain relievers.
Since doxylamine succinate can take awhile to clear your system, you may find that you’re still drowsy the morning after taking these tablets. Other possible side effects include nausea, dizziness, and a dry mouth, nose, or throat.
Nature Made Sleep and RecoverBest Gummies
- A blend of melatonin, L-theanine, and magnesium
- 30 servings per bottle (60 gummies)
- No artificial sweeteners
If you’re not a fan of taking pills, you might like Nature Made Sleep and Recover gummies, which combine melatonin, L-theanine, and magnesium in one naturally sweetened gummy. Each berry-flavored gummy is smaller than a penny and is meant to be more palatable than swallowing a chalky tablet or a large pill. The recommended serving size is two gummies 1 hour before bedtime, and each bottle contains a 30-day supply of 60 gummies.
The gummies are made of three ingredients intended to make it easier to fall asleep. Each serving size contains 3 mg of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle. Melatonin is commonly used to treat insomnia and jet lag, and studies indicate that it can help some people fall asleep faster.
Two gummies contain 200 mg of L-theanine, which is an amino acid often used in supplements to help reduce anxiety and tension. Each serving also has 100 mg of magnesium, a mineral that can promote muscle relaxation.
Nature Made Sleep and Recover gummies don’t contain any synthetic dyes, artificial sweeteners or flavors, high fructose corn syrup, or gluten. If you’re pregnant or have a bleeding disorder, high blood pressure, or a seizure disorder, you should consult a doctor before taking supplements containing melatonin.
These gummies are intended for adults 18 and older and should only be used for occasional sleeplessness.
Advil PM Pain Reliever and Nighttime Sleep AidBest for Pain Relief
- 25 mg diphenhydramine citrate
- 200 mg of ibuprofen for pain relief
- 50 packets of 2 coated caplets
Because pain and sleep difficulty often go hand in hand, Advil PM uses two active ingredients to address both issues. Ibuprofen can reduce aches and pains that can interfere with sleep, and diphenhydramine citrate is a traditional sleep aid as well as an antihistamine that can help you sleep through the night.
Two caplets of Advil PM contain 200 mg of ibuprofen and 38 mg of diphenhydramine citrate. Both drugs have been well tested and are considered safe and non-habit-forming when used as prescribed.
The caplets are coated, so you shouldn’t experience any unpleasant chalky aftertaste. The recommended dosage is two caplets at bedtime for adults and children over 12 years old.
Advil PM Pain Reliever and Nighttime Sleep Aid comes in 50 small packets, making it ideal for travelers or anyone on the go.
This sleep aid shouldn’t be combined with alcohol, tranquilizers, or other sedatives. Possible side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, headache, and stomach issues. You shouldn’t use this sleep aid for more than 2 weeks at a time.
OLLY Kids Sleep Melatonin GummyBest for Kids
- 0.5 mg of melatonin and 15 mg of L-theanine per gummy
- A combination of herbs for additional sleep support
- 60 or 30 servings per bottle, depending on age
Most OTC sleep aids are not suitable for children under 12 years old, but OLLY Kids Sleep Melatonin Gummies were developed for kids aged 4 and older. Each gummy has 0.5 mg of melatonin and 15 to 30 mg of L-theanine.
OLLY Kids Sleep also contains botanical extracts of chamomile, passionflower, and lemon balm. This herbal blend is designed to work with the melatonin and L-theanine to promote relaxation.
Some children have trouble swallowing pills, but these berry-flavored gummies are designed to be kid-friendly. They’re naturally sweetened and don’t contain any artificial colors or gluten. They have also been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation.
The suggested serving size is one to two gummies 30 minutes before bedtime, but the manufacturer recommends starting with just one. As is the case with any melatonin supplement, your child might experience mild symptoms like drowsiness, headache, nausea, or dizziness. The gummies are meant for occasional use only and are not intended to treat chronic insomnia or sleep disorders. OLLY Kids Sleep Gummies include a 30-day risk-free return policy.
Wellness Tree Natural Sleep Aid PatchesBest Time Released Delivery
- A combination of melatonin, 5-HTP, and magnesium
- Hops and lavender for additional sleep support
- 50 time-released patches
Wellness Tree Natural Sleep Aid Patches are a great alternative for sleepers trying to avoid pills or sugary gummies. The time-released patches are meant to be applied at bedtime and worn while sleeping for up to 10 hours.
Rather than relying on antihistamines, the patches use natural ingredients designed to improve sleep quality. The patches deliver a steady release of melatonin, 5-HTP, and magnesium, which are intended to encourage sleep onset and normalize sleep patterns. Melatonin in particular can regulate a person’s sleep-wake cycle. The amino acid 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is a precursor to serotonin and can have a sedative effect, and magnesium is an essential mineral commonly used to improve muscle relaxation and insomnia. Hops and lavender essential oil are included because they are thought to increase sleepiness and relaxation.
Medicinal patches bypass the digestive system, so they are usually absorbed more quickly than pills or gummies. The patch also releases the ingredients slowly over the night so that the effects last longer.
To use these patches, apply one at bedtime to a hairless body area like your chest, stomach, or back. Be sure to use a new patch every night. One package of Wellness Tree Natural Sleep Aid Patches includes a 30-day supply.
The patches are not suitable for pregnant or nursing women, or anyone under the age of 18. If you’re taking an antidepressant, be sure to check with your doctor before using this sleeping aid, as 5-HTP can interact negatively with antidepressants. You may also experience drowsiness the following day.
What Are Over-The-Counter (OTC) Sleep Aids?
OTC sleep aids are intended to help a person fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. And according to some travelers, melatonin-based OTC sleep aids minimize their jet lag by helping to calibrate their circadian rhythm.
OTC sleep aids may use natural or synthetic ingredients, or a combination of both. Many contain antihistamines like diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate, which can make you sleepy by counteracting the effects of histamine. Other common OTC sleep aid ingredients include magnesium, amino acids like L-theanine and L-tryptophan, and herbs such as valerian, chamomile, and lemon balm.
OTC sleep aids usually come in pills, capsules, tablets, or gummies; however, some can be externally applied in the form of a patch.
The majority of OTC sleep aids are designed for adults and children over the age of 12, but some are tailored to young children. No matter which age group they’re designed for, these supplements are meant for occasional use and aren’t a long-term solution for insomnia or other sleep disorders.
When Should You Take OTC Sleep Aids?
You may want to use over-the-counter sleep aids for a variety of reasons. People who travel across time zones often find that melatonin or other sleep aids can help them readjust to regular sleep cycles. OTC sleep medicines can also help manage shift work sleep disorder, particularly after abrupt schedule changes.
Aside from these situations, there are times when it just seems impossible to fall asleep naturally. Taking OTC sleep aids can provide much-needed relief on such nights, but they shouldn’t be relied upon long term.
When Should You Not Take OTC Sleep Aids?
OTC sleep aids may do more harm than good for certain groups of people and during specific situations. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should speak with your doctor before taking sleep aids, which could potentially have adverse effects on you and/or baby.
Unless otherwise specified, children younger than 12 should avoid over-the-counter sleep medicine, since their growing bodies have very different tolerances and needs than adults.
If you have a chronic illness or take medication, it’s important to ask your doctor about potential risks or adverse drug interactions. Even certain herbs and non-prescription medicines can have dangerous outcomes when combined with sleep aids. In particular, people with chronic lung or respiratory disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or neurological/mental disorders should talk to their doctor before taking over-the-counter sleep medicines.
OTC sleep aids are intended to help occasional sleeplessness and aren’t a remedy for chronic insomnia or other sleep disorders. These medicines could just mask the symptoms of a more serious underlying condition that requires medical attention.
Can You Use OTC Sleep Aids Long-Term?
Over-the-counter sleep aids are meant to be used on a short-term basis and only as needed. Most manufacturer guidelines state that the sleep aid should not be used for more than two consecutive weeks. Always talk to your doctor if you experience persistent sleeplessness.
Common Active Ingredients Used in Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
The majority of OTC sleep aids use some type of antihistamine to induce sleep. These drugs can cause sedation by blocking the same pathways that contribute to allergy symptoms. Side effects are generally pretty mild, but some users report feeling groggy the next day.
Melatonin is another very common OTC sleep aid, as it’s the hormone that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels begin to decline with age, which might explain why insomnia and other sleep issues are more prevalent in the elderly.
Certain amino acids and herbs like valerian and hops are also sometimes used in OTC sleep aids. These ingredients are said to have a calming and/or sedating effect, but more scientific data is needed to confirm their efficacy.
Diphenhydramine is a relatively mild antihistamine used to treat allergy symptoms and intermittent insomnia. Diphenhydramine causes drowsiness by blocking the neurotransmitter histamine, which plays an important role in our sleep-wake cycle. Histamine is produced by the nervous system and can energize you, which may explain why blocking it with an antihistamine can make you sleepy. That said, children under 12 shouldn’t use it.
Diphenhydramine clears the body relatively quickly, so you’re less likely to be sleepy the next day. The trade-off, however, is that you may build up a faster tolerance to the drug as compared to other antihistamines. And if you use it too often, the drug might become less effective.
Like diphenhydramine, doxylamine succinate causes sleepiness by blocking histamine receptors. It has a similar effect on the body as diphenhydramine but metabolizes more slowly. As a result, you may find doxylamine succinate to be more effective than diphenhydramine, particularly if you’ve developed a tolerance to diphenhydramine. However, doxylamine succinate tends to have greater side effects the day after you take it, such as headaches and excessive drowsiness.
Naturally produced by the body, melatonin plays a key role in regulating the circadian rhythm. It’s produced by the pineal gland but can also be found in certain foods, such as tart cherries. Melatonin essentially triggers your sleep mode, which is why it can be helpful in resetting sleep patterns for travelers and shift workers.
OTC sleep aids typically use synthetic melatonin, but the dosage level can vary widely. Up to 3 mg a day is thought to be safe for children, while formulas for adolescents and adults might contain up to 5 mg. Since increasing or decreasing a hormone can potentially alter other hormones in the body, it’s best to speak with your doctor before taking melatonin sleep aids.
What Are Common Side Effects with OTC Sleep Aid Usage?
|Common Side Effects|
|Gastrointestinal Distress (Constipation & Diarrhea)|
|Dizziness or Light-Headedness|
If you experience one or more of the above side effects, stop using the sleep aid immediately and speak with your doctor.
What Precautions Should You Take Before Using OTC Sleep Aids?
Consult Your Doctor
Even though OTC sleep aids are widely available, they still come with certain risks. Always talk to your doctor before taking any OTC sleep aid, especially if you have an underlying health condition, take medication, or regularly consume alcohol. Some active ingredients in sleep aids can either speed up or slow down the metabolism of other drugs, potentially making them less effective or even toxic.
Avoid Using OTC Sleep Aids with Alcohol
You should avoid alcohol when taking OTC sleep aids, as it can magnify the sleep aid’s sedative effects to an unhealthy degree. Alcohol is known to interact with antihistamines and certain herbs, leading to negative effects on the body. Alcohol can also impair the metabolism of some active ingredients in OTC sleep aids, which may cause dangerously high drug levels to stay in your system.
OTC Sleep Aids Are Short-Term Solutions
OTC sleep aids are designed to offer relief for periodic sleeplessness and should not be used for more than two consecutive weeks. Talk to your doctor if your insomnia doesn’t improve, as it may be a sign of a more serious health condition.
If You’re Pregnant or Nursing, Consult Your Doctor
Always speak with your doctor before taking OTC sleep aids, so you can avoid anything that might harm you or your baby. Many ingredients, particularly herbs, haven’t been studied enough for us to know their full effects on the body of someone who’s pregnant or nursing. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Beware of Side Effects
Prior to taking OTC sleep aids, always note the possible side effects listed on the bottle and/or packaging. If you experience any of them, stop taking the sleep aid immediately. Speak to a medical professional if you still have symptoms even after stopping the medication.
Getting the Best Results From OTC Sleep Aids
Sleep aids, whether they are over-the-counter, natural, or prescription, are not a replacement for good sleep hygiene. They may be necessary from time to time, but long-term, high-quality sleep depends on implementing certain habits and avoiding others. If you’re having to rely on OTC sleep aids for longer than the amount of time the manufacturer recommends, you should talk to your doctor about other options.
Creating an ideal bedroom environment is an important part of sleep hygiene. Try to keep the thermostat around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and make sure your room is dark and quiet. You might also want to consider some lifestyle changes to improve sleep quality with or without the use of sleep aids:
- Wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends and holidays
- Don’t go to bed until you are sleep
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day
- Stop using electronics at least one hour before bed
- Exercise daily
- Don’t eat large meals before bedtime
Breathing and relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapies, and essential oils have also been shown to help both acute and chronic insomnia. By practicing good sleep hygiene, you may be able to improve your sleep to the point where you only need sleep aids occasionally, or not at all.