Understanding the Differences Between Prescription, OTC, and Natural Sleep Aids

Sleep aids fall into one of three categories: Prescription, over-the-counter, and natural. Learn what each type has to offer.

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Often, sleep issues can be resolved with lifestyle changes. For those that cannot, your doctor may suggest a sleep aid. There are many sleep aids on the market, including prescription sleep aids, over-the-counter sleep aids, and natural sleep aids. Each has its own benefits and works better in certain situations. You want to choose one that addresses your particular needs (falling asleep faster, say, or preventing frequent waking during the night) and helps you wake up feeling rested without residual grogginess. Discover the differences, and learn which one might be most appropriate for you.

Prescription Sleep Aids
If you’ve tried behavioral changes (like turning off technology an hour before bedtime or forgoing your nightly wine) and environmental changes (a quieter bedroom) to get good sleep with no success, your doctor may suggest you try a prescription sleep aid. Your doctor will take into account your age, health, lifestyle, and possible underlying cause of sleeplessness before prescribing you an aid that can help with short-term sleep difficulties. The drugs work in multiple ways, often by either slowing down brain activity, or blocking chemicals that stimulate the brain.

Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
Many over-the-counter sleep aids use antihistamines, a common ingredient in cold medicines, to increase drowsiness. In fact, the primary function of many OTC options isn’t to promote sleep, but sleepiness is a beneficial side effect. As such, these choices can work well if a cold or allergies are keeping you awake at night.

It’s important to know that you can develop a tolerance for OTC sleep aids containing antihistamines, meaning the more you take, the more you’ll need to get equivalent results. Over time, they can become habit-forming. This is why all sleep aids are considered short-term solutions to insomnia; consult with your doctor for a long-term plan.

Natural Sleep Aids
Natural sleep aids use only natural ingredients to create supplements that promote sleep. Keep in mind, however, that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate natural sleep aids. Do your research on the ingredients in natural sleep supplements and discuss your choices with your doctor.

Melatonin and valerian root are two common natural sleep aids, both of which are most often used for temporary sleep issues like jet lag or switching shift schedules at work. The hormone melatonin regulates your body’s sleep wake cycle. Valerian root, meanwhile, reduces anxiety to help you relax and prepare to sleep.