Ironically, getting 8 hours of sleep every night is just a distant dream for many people. If you are here reading this, know that you’re just one of the 164 million Americans who struggle to sleep at least a few nights each week. So, it’s no surprise that there’s a whole market dedicated to pills, tablets, remedies and tricks to help you drift off peacefully.
This guide is going to cover the best over the counter sleep aids for you to try in 2020. If you dislike the sedative feel of prescribed medicine but can’t seem to find a natural sleep aid that’s genuinely effective, then over the counter (OTC) sleep aids are the middle road and certainly worth a try.
Before we delve into our favorite sleep aids, there are some important things you need to know. Seriously, don’t skip this bit.
How Over the Counter Medicine Differ from Prescription Sleeping Pills
Over the counter medicine doesn’t require a prescription. You just head to the nearest drugstore, pick the medicine you want off the shelf, and pay for it ‘over the counter’.
Prescription medicines must be prescribed by your doctor. You then take the prescription to the pharmacy section of the drugstore and the pharmacist will dispense the medicine for you.
In either case, you should talk to your doctor first as they’ll help you decide whether you need the super-strong sleeping pills that only a doctor can prescribe or the mild over the counter sleeping pills you can pick up at any Walgreens. They’ll also be able to pinpoint any underlying medical issues that are causing the sleeplessness in the first place.
The biggest difference between prescribed and OTC sleeping aids (besides the strength) is how they are used. Your prescribed sleeping aid is for you only and is for serious, diagnosed sleeping problems like insomnia. Over the counter sleeping aids, on the other hand, can be used by anyone with sleep troubles and are a temporary solution for those occasional nights when you can’t drift off to sleep. They’ll have instructions in the box with different doses depending on your age, weight, etc.
Both over the counter and prescribed medicinal sleeping aids are regulated by the FDA.
This is How Sleeping Pills Work
Focusing on over the counter sleeping pills, there are generally 3 types available. The first thing you want to look for in the ingredients list is the active ingredients. Usually, the active ingredient will be antihistamine, melatonin, or an herbal ingredient (e.g. valerian or chamomile extracts) but some sleeping pills also add extra active ingredients like ibuprofen or paracetamol.
If you just have sleep troubles, pick a brand that has only active ingredients to solve that. Leave the painkiller/sleep mixes for when you need to reduce pain as well as get to sleep.
This is the most common active ingredient in over the counter sleep aids. Antihistamine is a drug that antagonizes histamine (a chemical) in your brain. It’s a common and very safe drug that’s usually associated with providing allergy relief, but it’s also great as a sleep aid as antagonizing histamine makes you feel sleepy.
Zzzquil, Unisom, and Aleve PM are some of the popular sleep aids containing antihistamines. Look for diphenhydramine, doxylamine, and cyclizine in the ingredient lists – these are the most effective sedative antihistamines for sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates how sleepy and how awake we feel during the day (in layman’s terms) and is produced naturally in our brains. Taking melatonin supplements could be an effective way to help you feel sleepy and drift off to sleep naturally. However, not everyone will find it strong enough to work.
Yet melatonin is still an awesome over the counter sleep supplement as it has a chronotropic effect. Basically, this means that taking melatonin shifts your sleep cycle to whenever you take it. So, if you troubled sleep patterns leave you awake in the early hours of the morning and very sleep during the day, melatonin can help shift it back to a healthier pattern.
While melatonin itself is considered a very safe ingredient to consume, it falls under the supplement category. Just like natural remedies, melatonin isn’t regulated by the FDA so you should take extra care to investigate melatonin sleep aids for other active ingredients that may not be as safe.
More You Should Know: Can You Overdose On Melatonin?
The most common herbal ingredient that’s used a sleep aid is valerian root, which has been used traditionally for centuries to treat sleep troubles. There are plenty of studies into the effects of valerian root that suggest it can improve the quality of sleep and help you drift off… but nothing conclusive.
Other herbal ingredients that could help you sleep include chamomile and lavender. These natural ingredients are also good for calming your mood and soothing anxiety, getting you in the right mood for a good night’s rest.
You can find these natural ingredients in supplement form or as tea (check out Yogi and Traditional Medicinals, as these brands are well-known for high-quality herbal teas like chamomile). They’re not regulated by the FDA.
3 Very Important Things to Know About Sleep Medications
Top 5 Best Over the Counter Sleep Aids
Our best sleep aid list covers the 5 best over the counter sleep aids we could find. There are plenty more out there, all with similar ingredients lists yet different price points.
But you can forget about sifting through hundreds of top 10 sleeping pills lists online. We’ve focused on 5 very different but ultimately effective sleeping aids you can buy over the counter at your nearest drugstore.
Natrol Melatonin (Melatonin Supplement)
Natrol Melatonin Sleep Tablets are melatonin supplements with only 1 active ingredient – the melatonin. Each serving contains 10mg of melatonin.
This melatonin supplement is very easy to take – the tablets are designed to dissolve easily on your tongue for faster absorption, meaning you don’t even need to drink water to take them. Furthermore, you shouldn’t experience any groggy or hangover type feelings in the morning.
The ingredients list of inactive ingredients is not bad. It contains a few chemical names that are common in supplements (and totally safe, don’t worry), plus natural color from beetroot extract and a little lift from menthol.
The biggest drawbacks to this sleep aid are flavor-based. The strawberry flavored tablets that we recommend contain artificial flavoring and sweeteners, but lower doses and different flavors from Natrol Melatonin use different sweeteners and sometimes natural flavorings. For most people, this isn’t a problem. But if you decide to switch to a different dose sleep aid from Natrol Melatonin, just don’t expect the flavors to be the same!
- 10mg melatonin tablets
- Fast dissolve formula for faster absorption
- Suitable for vegetarians with no wheat, soy, yeast or preservatives
- Contains artificial flavors
- Different sweeteners/flavors to lower dose pills from Natrol Melatonin
- No other effective ingredients included
Zzzquil Nighttime Sleep Liquid (Liquid Sleep Aid)
Zzzquil Nighttime Sleep Liquid is a drinkable antihistamine sleep aid with no other active ingredients. There’s 50mg of diphenhydramine HCI in each 30ml serving.
Zzzquil is one of the most well-known brands in the sleep aid market and they’re trusted by millions. Their formulas are known to be effective and reliable while sending you off to sleep within 20 minutes of taking a dose.
As it’s a liquid sleep aid, reducing the dose is much easier. You can pour into the 30ml cup provided, or use your own measuring cups/spoons to accurately reduce the dose. 1 US tablespoon is approximately 15ml, for example.
Despite having an unpleasant flavor (to most people) it’s not difficult to consume. You could take the 30ml like a shot, in one gulp, or dilute it in water if that helps you swallow the syrupy texture. Besides the active ingredient, this sleep aid does contain flavorings, alcohol, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrup.
The only other issue customers have with this sleep aid is its similarity to Benadryl. Unhappy customers have compared the ingredients list and wonder why they’ve paid so much extra for this sleep aid when Benadryl is almost identical yet cheaper!
- 50mg diphenhydramine liquid
- Easy to drink if you dislike tablets/pills/capsules
- Fall asleep within 20 minutes
- Unpleasant flavor
- More expensive than Benadryl
Simply Sleep Caplets (Antihistamine Sleep Aid)
Simply Sleep Nighttime Sleep Aid is an antihistamine caplet-shaped tablet made with 25mg of diphenhydramine HCI per dose. It doesn’t contain any other pain reliever or active ingredient.
It’s simple to take. Each pill contains 12.5mg of diphenhydramine HCI, so a full dose is 2 pills. This makes it much easier to halve a serving and start with the smallest possible dose and work your way up. On the other hand, it does mean that you have 2 pills to swallow for the full recommended dose – not great for those that dislike pills!
Bear in mind that the 100-caplet bottle is only 50 servings when you compare sleep aids by the price per serving.
These caplets contain titanium dioxide, which is a chemical ingredient that makes the pills that bright white color. Despite being considered safe in very small amounts in some food items, many people avoid this ingredient due to carcinogenic worries (it’s actually banned as a food ingredient in France already).
We also spoke to several users of the Simply Sleep Caplets and they reported back that they sometimes had weird dreams or nightmares when taking this sleep aid, although not all users experience this.
- 25mg diphenhydramine caplets
- Easy to reduce/increase dose by halving/doubling caplets
- 100 caplets per bottle
- Contains titanium dioxide
- Not good for those that dislike taking many pills
- Some reports of nightmares
Aleve PM Caplets (Pain Relief Combined)
Aleve PM is an antihistamine and pain reliever caplet with 2 active ingredients. 25mg of diphenhydramine HCI per dose is the sleep aid portion, while 220mg of naproxen sodium is added as a pain reliever.
This option is best if you have minor aches and pains that prevent you from getting to sleep. It’s good for injuries, back aches, headaches, etc. However, it’s not suitable if you have chronic pain and sleeplessness – don’t forget that it’s for short-term use only!
Naproxen sodium is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which is more than just a pain reliever. It will reduce inflammation, bring down a fever, and prevent blood clots. This makes it great for conditions like arthritis but unsuitable for anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease.
If you do decide to purchase this sleep aid, we recommend picking up a non-pain-relieving sleep aid too, as you cannot Aleve PM if you are sleepless but not actually in pain.
One other drawback to this product is that Aleve PM instructs you to drink a full glass of water when taking the pills (not just a sip) which is not ideal for anyone with a weak or small bladder who can’t hold it in all night long.
- 25mg diphenhydramine and 220mg naproxen sodium
- Relieves minor aches and pains preventing you from sleeping
- 2 pills per serving make it easy to halve your dose
- Cannot be taken if you are sleepless without pain
- Must be consumed with a full glass of water
- Contains titanium dioxide (see previous product for more info)
Sleep Fairy Natural Sleep Aid (Herbal Supplement)
Sleep Fairy is a melatonin and herbal supplement tablet sleep aid, free of antihistamines and other chemical medicines. The main ingredients are magnesium (10mg), valerian root extract (200mg), L-theanine (200mg), GABA (200mg), 5-HTP (100mg), chamomile flower extract (100mg), magnolia bark extract (50mg), and melatonin (5mg). The only other ingredients are rice bran powder to bind everything and the vegetable capsule to create the tablets.
Magnesium – deeper, more restful sleep.
L-theanine – encourages dopamine and serotonin release for relaxed feelings.
GABA – a mood-balancing neurotransmitter to calm the mind.
5-HTP – an amino acid that improves the quality of your sleep and your mood.
It won’t knock you out like an antihistamine sleep aid, but it will definitely improve the quality of your sleep. Customers report having a full night’s sleep, a few extra hours of sleep, or improved quality of sleep/mood/reduced anxiety when taking this sleep aid. It really varies.
Although it’s not regulated by the FDA as it’s simply a supplement, Sleep Fairy do manufacture the sleep aid in an FDA-registered facility and have their products tested by third party labs.
- Melatonin, magnesium, L-theanine, GABA, and 5-HTP formula with natural extracts
- Non-GMO, stearate-free, and vegan herbal formula
- Soothes your mood and anxiety – especially for women
- Not regulated by the FDA
3 More Sleeping Tablets to Check Out
If you’re unsatisfied with those 5 sleep aids, or you’ve tried them before unsuccessfully, then here’s 3 more that we believe would be great choices!
Check out Nature’s Bounty Melatonin tablets. This is one of the best OTC sleep aids that doesn’t contain artificial flavors or a long list of chemical inactive ingredients.
Or, maybe you need an all-round supplement that can help you function better during the day and sleep peacefully without anxiety at night. In which case, it may be worth expanding your budget to include more expensive options like Dr Emil’s 5-HTP PLUS.
If you need melatonin pills that are suitable for kids, take a look at Zarbee’s Natural Children’s Sleep with Melatonin, which is great for kids over the age of 3.
Natural Sleep Remedies – Are They Better for You?
As you’ve probably realized, even the best sleeping pills can have side effects that are a bit unpleasant. Add in the fact that they are less effective the more you take them, and unsuitable for long-term use, and it’s no wonder that natural and herbal remedies are a popular alternative.
Studies into valerian root remedies for sleep found that participants taking valerian had an 80% greater chance of improved sleep over participants who took a placebo medicine instead. It’s also worth noting that valerian doesn’t produce that common groggy, hangover feeling that you get from medicinal sleeping pills the morning after.
Natural remedies are also more nutritious and have long term health benefits. Chamomile tea, for example, not only reduces anxiety and promotes sleep but also may have anti-cancer effects.
Of course, drinking herbal tea or taking supplements as natural sleeping pills isn’t risk free either. For a start, there’s little clinical evidence to say once and for all “yes, this herbal remedy will send you to sleep.” And with teas especially, the dose of antioxidant/chemical that promotes sleep is very small unless you decide to consume a vast amount.
There’s also the very slight risk that you may be allergic to the herbal ingredients, or simply not like the taste of them.
Regardless, natural sleep remedies can be very easy to get your hands on (over the counter and online) and affordable. So, what do you have to lose?
Besides the melatonin and herbal supplements mentioned above, these 3 teas are a good place to start:
- Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night Tea (passionflower, chamomile, linden flower).
- Yogi Bedtime Tea (passionflower, valerian root, chamomile, lavender).
- Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea (chamomile, spearmint, lemongrass).