OTC sleep aids can trigger undesirable side effects, and they can interact with other medications.
There is fairly good evidence for the adult use of melatonin, doxylamine, and diphenhydramine as sleep aids, although it is still important to read any associated labels and warnings before using them.
Valerian products are also commonly used as sleep aids, but there is less evidence suggesting these are effective.
OTC Sleep Aids
The following are some of the most common over-the-counter sleep aid options, with links included for where you can buy them:
Melatonin is a hormone made in the body that regulates our sleep-wake cycles. Sleep problems are sometimes caused by a lack of naturally occurring melatonin. There is at least some evidence that supplements containing melatonin can help people with this issue sleep better.
While it’s used for many different things, there isn’t evidence for all the reasons people commonly use melatonin. The strongest evidence supports melatonin for the use of falling asleep at a normal bedtime and for some people who suffer from non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder, namely children and blind adults.
Melatonin comes in many different forms and isn’t generally associated with significant side effects, although it can potentially cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Research into its long-term effects on adults and children isn’t definitive yet, but no serious long-term effects have been found at this time.
The ideal adult dosing can vary, but it’s usually up to about 8 mg a day, with many people buying 5 mg gels or similar concentrations. An example is Nature’s Bounty brand gels found here on Rite Aid’s online store page. It’s also available at many major retailers.
Doxylamine is an antihistamine that can be combined with some other OTC medications to help treat cold symptoms, but it can also be effective as a short-term sleep aid. It works by blocking the action of histamine, which is a key part of allergy symptoms, and it can make a person very sleepy upon use.
Doxylamine is not usually dangerous for adults, but it shouldn’t be used by children. You also should talk to your doctor if you intend to take it for more than two weeks (or have already done so).
Besides causing drowsiness, this medication can cause nausea, increased chest congestion, headache, excitement, nervousness, and dryness in your nose, throat, and mouth. In serious cases, it can cause vision problems or difficulty urinating, which warrants talking to a doctor right away.
One of the more popular brands of doxylamine tablets and gels is Unisom, available here on Amazon and also available at most major retailers. While non-habit-forming and safe for most adults, doxylamine should be taken with more care than melatonin. You should make sure to read any attached instructions and warnings before taking it.
Diphenhydramine is a multipurpose antihistamine with similar properties to doxylamine.
As with doxylamine, it is not usually an appropriate sleep aid for children. It should only be used very carefully and exactly as the instructions specific to child use say to use the drug.
This medication can help many adults feel drowsy quickly. With adults, it’s still important to follow provided instructions and read any warnings.
Because it’s also an antihistamine, diphenhydramine has similar side effects, including the potential for serious side effects that warrant immediately calling your doctor, as with doxylamine.
Wellness Basics soft gel diphenhydramine is available on Amazon at a fairly low cost, with a two-pack of bottles containing 96 gels available for less than $10. Diphenhydramine, like the other aids discussed, is widely available in several different forms at many retailers.
Valerian is a plant traditionally used as a sleep aid, anti-migraine medicine, and for other uses. However, despite its role in traditional medicine, there isn’t a high level of evidence on its effectiveness or safety as a sleep aid.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends against its use, but research does suggest it is at least safe for adults to use in the short term.
Because of the limited evidence regarding its effectiveness, it isn’t recommended as one of the best over-the-counter sleep aids. However, we will also note that research may reveal it is effective as a sleep aid in the future. It is simply difficult to make specific recommendations on it until more research is done.
Tips to Get Better Sleep
The sleep aids discussed can help a person get to sleep, but they don’t generally address the root cause of what may be making it harder to fall asleep in the first place. It’s important to try to identify issues that may be contributing to poor sleep. While medications can help in the short term, they aren’t a long-term solution.
The following are some tips published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that you should also consider implementing if you’re having trouble getting to sleep consistently:
Develop a Bedtime Routine
Going to bed at approximately the same time every night can make sleeping significantly easier. Humans are animals that have evolved to live on a roughly 24-hour cycle, and adopting a rhythm that follows the cycle of the day can make it easier to sleep a reasonable amount of time each night.
Also, treat your “bedtime” as a time of rest. Avoid activities such as eating, making phone calls, watching TV, or playing video games near this time. If you have trouble sleeping, try relaxing activities, like reading or meditating, rather than turning on a screen.
Spend Time Outdoors
During the day, it’s usually recommended that people try to spend at least some of their time outdoors, with the best time to go out being earlier in the day.
The reality is that modern human life often involves much more darkness and artificial light than our bodies are readily adapted for. Spending time outdoors can help counteract some of the negative effects of the typical modern human lifestyle.
Avoid Physical Activity Near Bedtime
Physical activity can cause the heart to race and adrenaline to pump, putting your body and mind in an “active” state that makes sleep more difficult. Give yourself a few hours before bed, whenever possible, to slow down and avoid major physical activity, especially exercise.
Moderate What You Drink & When
Both alcohol and caffeinated drinks are associated with poor sleep. Alcohol should generally only be consumed in moderation, and caffeine should be avoided late in the day.
These substances can throw off your body’s rhythms (although through different mechanisms). Their overuse can also have other negative health effects besides causing sleep issues, especially alcohol use.
There are many notable reasons to quit smoking, but one of them is that nicotine can make good sleep more difficult to attain. Also consider that the cravings smokers get for cigarettes can further cause sleep problems, as they may cause some anxiety and restlessness unless the person gets up to smoke.
Get Control Over Your Stress
While it’s sometimes easier said than done, reducing your stress can help to improve your sleep. Stressors can keep the mind active and put you on edge, which makes going to sleep more difficult.
Try to be mindful of where your thoughts wander when it’s time to go to sleep, and avoid focusing on thoughts that worry you or otherwise get your mind racing.
If you feel consistently stressed, especially combined with other mental health issues like feeling depressed, you should talk with a mental health professional. Not only can getting help for these issues help you sleep better, but it can also improve your overall quality of life.
Create a Good Sleep Environment
One of the more straightforward yet still important tips to getting good sleep is to create a good sleep environment for yourself. Try to set up your bed, blankets, and pillows in a way that makes you comfortable and in an area where you can control the level of light that you’re exposed to. Ideally, you’ll want a way to keep the area quiet at nighttime too.
Many experts suggest keeping electronics like TVs and phones out of the bedroom, especially those that can make light and sound, as these can potentially interfere with your sleep in a number of ways. The goal is to make your bedroom a sanctuary that is dark, quiet, and cool. If you only associate the area with sleep, you’ll be more likely to fall asleep quickly there.
When to See a Doctor for Sleep Issues
Broadly, you should talk with a doctor if you have any problems sleeping that last more than a few days or if you don’t feel well-rested even when you get a normal amount of sleep. You should also talk to a doctor if you experience notable problems related to sleep, such as snoring loudly, gasping or episodes of stopped breathing in your sleep, or if you feel tingling or pain when you lay down or wake up.
If you are frequently tired during the day, nap often, or are consistently drowsy at odd hours (especially if you worry you may fall asleep when you don’t want to), you should talk with a doctor. While it doesn’t necessarily warrant major concern, these issues aren’t normal and may signal a health issue a doctor can help you address. They can help you identify any underlying issues that are contributing and help you find a solution.
Use a multi-pronged approach to get better sleep. While over-the-counter sleep aids can help in the short term, the goal is to develop good sleep hygiene, including a solid sleep schedule, that will support better sleep in the long term.
- Melatonin. (June 2022). National Library of Medicine.
- Doxylamine. (July 2022). National Library of Medicine.
- Diphenhydramine. (January 2022). National Library of Medicine.
- Valerian. (October 2020). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- Get Enough Sleep. (July 2022). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Are Sleep Hygiene Practices Related to the Incidence, Persistence and Remission of Insomnia? Findings From a Prospective Community Study. (July 2018). Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
- The Role of Sleep Hygiene in Promoting Public Health: A Review of Empirical Evidence. (August 2015). Sleep Medicine Reviews.
- Over-the-Counter Agents for the Treatment of Occasional Disturbed Sleep or Transient Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Efficacy and Safety. (December 2015). The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders.
- Over-the-Counter Medications Containing Diphenhydramine and Doxylamine Used by Older Adults to Improve Sleep. (May 2017). International Journal of Clinical Pharmacy.