According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, approximately 70 million people experience sleep disorders each year. Whether you deal with occasional sleeplessness due to stress or travel, sleep aids can help promote restfulness, so you can function at your best. The most effective over-the-counter sleep aids include antihistamine ingredients like diphenhydramine, herbs like valerian root, or hormones like melatonin.
Abhinav Singh, MD, Fellow Member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (FAASM), is a sleep medicine specialist and the medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center. He also provides professional insight as a medical review expert for Sleep Foundation.
What is the best over-the-counter sleep aid?
The best over-the-counter sleep aid will have ingredients that work well for your specific needs — and there are a few things to consider in this aspect. Some sleep aids are formulated with herbs while others use hormones or antihistamines to trigger a physiological response in the body that encourages relaxation and sleep. Abhinav Singh, MD, FAASM, notes that “most of these [ingredients] have not been studied in large trials,” and that “efficacy is variable.” That being said, Dr. Singh notes that when used intermittently, they can provide some helpful effects.
With that in mind, the most common over-the-counter sleep aids contain one or more of the following ingredients:
“Melatonin is the most popular sleep aid for a reason — your pineal gland produces it every night in order for you to sleep when it gets cooler and darker,” says Certified Sleep Science Coach Ryan Fiorenzi. Just as when it’s released naturally, the best melatonin supplements may help stimulate drowsiness and sleep, making it a great option if you’re dealing with jet lag or working overnight shifts. Just keep in mind that bright overhead lights and digital screens can neutralize its effects. It should also be noted that melatonin’s effect decreases the longer you take it, so it’s best for short-term relief. Side effects tend to be minimal but may include dizziness, nausea, headaches, and confusion.
Another potentially helpful sleep aid? Magnesium. “Low levels of magnesium have been linked to insomnia and sleep disturbances, and healthy magnesium levels often lead to deep, restful, and uninterrupted sleep.” Fiorenzi explains. “Magnesium also maintains healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep, as low levels of GABA make it hard to relax and sleep.” Another great benefit? Magnesium may help regulate muscle contractions, helping them to relax while reducing cramps and spasming. Just one downside: This mineral may cause gastrointestinal upset when taken in large doses.
Derived from the valerian root, this herbal supplement is thought to have a calming, stress-reducing effect on the body that can help people fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality and duration. Fiorenzi notes it’s one of the “most popular” sleep supplements and side effects tend to be mild but may include dizziness. Keep in mind, though, it has a strong, earthy odor, so it may not be the best over-the-counter sleep aid for anyone sensitive to smell.
You can purchase over-the-counter sleep aids containing two different types of antihistamines, both of which have sedative effects that aid with sleep. Both diphenhydramine (which is found in Benadryl) and doxylamine succinate (found in medications like Unisom) are used to treat allergies and have side effects that cause drowsiness. While antihistamine-style sleep aids can be quite effective, Dr. Singh says that ingredients like diphenhydramine should be used with caution as side effects may include a hangover effect, dry mouth, and increased fall risk for some people.
Fiorenzi says, “5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is created in the body from tryptophan, which is then converted to serotonin, which helps regulate mood and behavior and may have a positive impact on sleep, appetite, mood, anxiety, and pain sensation.” In other words, this sleep aid does more than just promote drowsiness. However, 5-HTP isn’t a quick fix — it may take six to 12 weeks before you see results. It’s also important to keep in mind that it shouldn’t be mixed with certain antidepressants or medications used for Parkinson’s disease, nor should anyone with Down syndrome use it. Side effects may include digestive issues like nausea and heartburn.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea that “may slow brain activity, promote positive feelings, and reduce alertness and anxiety,” says Fiorenzi. It’s considered to be very tolerable and there are no confirmed direct side effects.
Some words of caution
It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before adding a medication or supplement to your regimen. This is especially important if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, have any other co-occurring medical conditions, or are having surgery in the near future. It’s also crucial to note that many of these medications and supplements can cause a range of side effects, including next-day grogginess, so it’s advisable to proceed with caution, especially if you’re planning to drive or operate heavy machinery. Last but not least, active ingredients that cause sleepiness may interact with other medications and supplements (as well as alcohol), so it’s worth speaking with a medical professional to ensure optimal safety and effectiveness.
With that said, the most effective over-the-counter sleep aids come in a range of forms, from dissolving tablets to liquid capsules to chewable gummies, so you can find an option that works best for you — without having to deal with a prescription.
Shop the most effective over-the-counter sleep aids
In a hurry? These are the most effective over-the-counter sleep aids:
- The melatonin tablets: Natrol melatonin fast-dissolve tablets
- The magnesium powder supplement: Natural Vitality Calm magnesium supplement
- The valerian root capsules: NOW Supplements valerian root
- The diphenhydramine liquid capsules: ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid LiquiCaps
- The doxylamine tablets: Unisom SleepTabs
- The 5-HTP capsules: Dr. Emil Nutrition 5-HTP Plus Formula
- The botanical gummies: OLLY sleep gummies with melatonin, L-theanine, chamomile, and lemon balm
1. The melatonin tablets
Boasting a 4.7-star overall rating after 17,000 reviews, Natrol’s strawberry-flavored melatonin tablets contain 1 milligram of melatonin each and dissolve in the mouth in a quick 10 seconds, so you can take them without water if you choose. The vegan tablets are free of many common allergens (aside from wheat and soy) and multiple reviewers reported they “taste great.” Since melatonin helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, it may be an especially good pick if you’re dealing with jet lag or working overnight shifts.
One reviewer wrote: “I have VERY bad insomnia, and for almost my entire life I can recall having an extremely difficult time going to sleep at night. This helps me go to bed, and I always wake up the next day feeling refreshed, which never happened before. Also, it tastes good.”
Amount per serving: 1 mg melatonin | Form: dissolving tablets | Servings per container: 200
2. The magnesium powder supplement
For sleep that’s deep, restful, and — importantly — uninterrupted, Fiorenzi recommends magnesium. Not to mention, it may be a good choice for those who are kept awake by muscle cramping or spasms. Boasting a 4.6-star overall rating after 8,500 reviews, this powdered magnesium supplement can be added to 2 to 3 ounces of water for a fizzy nighttime drink. You can choose from flavors like orange, raspberry-lemon, and watermelon, or stick with an unflavored option. Vegan and gluten-free, the formula features magnesium carbonate that’s sourced from the Pacific Ocean (and turns to magnesium citrate when mixed with water). Just note that those with sensitive stomachs may experience gastrointestinal upset.
One reviewer wrote: “I love this stuff, going to buy more. Puts me to sleep every night! I used to have insomnia, but now I get a lot more sleep and feel so much better!”
Amount per serving: 350 mg magnesium | Form: powder | Servings per container: 113
3. The valerian root capsules
A serving of NOW’s valerian root supplement contains 500 milligrams of the herb, which is known to help induce relaxation, decrease feelings of stress, and encourage rest. The vegan capsules are free of many common allergens (like gluten, eggs, and tree nuts), and valerian generally has few if any side effects. Keep in mind that several reviewers noted the capsules’ potent smell — but many credit them with helping them sleep when nothing else worked.
One reviewer wrote: “Nothing in the world can make valerian taste good, but this item has figured out how to minimize the aftertaste better than other brands I’ve used. The potency of two capsules is enough to give me a quality sleep. I’d recommend it.”
Amount per serving: 500 mg valerian root | Form: capsules | Servings per container: 125
4. The diphenhydramine liquid capsules
With 25 milligrams of diphenhydramine hydrochloride (HCl) in each liquid capsule (with a recommended total dose of 50 milligrams), ZzzQuil sleep aid pills are a fast-acting way to promote sleepiness in as little as 20 minutes — similar to the same benefits you’d get with NyQuil, but without active ingredients that treat cough and cold symptoms. Though it’s not habit-forming, it’s recommended to take ZzzQuil for occasional sleeplessness rather than daily, and it may cause more pronounced side effects than herbal supplements.
One reviewer wrote: “The product is easy to swallow because of the coating. Sleep comes very quickly without any interruption and lasts until I get up. I have tried several OTC over the years, this is the first one that works.”
Amount per serving: 50 mg diphenhydramine hydrochloride | Form: liquid-filled capsules | Servings per container: 36
5. The doxylamine tablets
Unisom’s sleep aid pills contain 25 milligrams of doxylamine succinate and were shown to help people fall asleep 33% faster when compared to a placebo in a clinical study. The tablets should be taken 30 minutes before bed, and they go to work quickly to help you fall and stay asleep. Due to their effectiveness, some reviewers shared that they only need a half of a tablet for a good night’s sleep. Like ZzzQuil, Unisom is not intended for daily use, and should only be taken for occasional sleeplessness.
One reviewer wrote: “I started taking this when I was having trouble falling asleep due to outside noise. I don't react well to anything with a sleep aid in it usually, but I take half a tab (they are ready and easy to split) half an hour before bed and don't feel ‘out of it’ the next morning.”
Amount per serving: 25 mg doxylamine succinate | Form: tablets | Servings per container: 32
6. The 5-HTP capsules
The main ingredient in this sleep aid from Dr. Emil is 5-HTP, which helps promote serotonin production and reduce stress. Other effective ingredients include S-Adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe), tryptophan, and vitamin B6, which work together to support lower stress levels. The non-GMO, vegan, and gluten-free capsules also support brain function and mood, and many reviewers noted falling and staying sleeping better as a result. This isn’t a quick-fix option though — according to Fiorenzi, it may take six to 12 weeks to see results. And keep in mind you’ll want to avoid this pick if you’re on certain antidepressants or medications for Parkinson’s disease.
One reviewer wrote: “I normally wake up several times a night and have trouble getting back to sleep. From the second night I took this product, I was sleeping through the ENTIRE night. Not only did I not wake up a bunch, but I also woke to my alarm in the morning feeling well rested. No grogginess or wanting to just go back to bed after getting the kids off to school.”
Dosage: 200 mg 5-HTP, 20 mg SAMe, 20 mg tryptophan, 10 mg vitamin B12 | Form: capsules | Servings per container: 30
7. The botanical gummies
Each of Olly’s blackberry gummies are formulated with 1.5 milligram of melatonin, along with L-theanine for calmness, plus a blend of chamomile, passion flower, and lemon balm botanicals to soothe and relax the body and promote sleep. The gluten-free gummies are made without artificial colors and flavors, and reviewers reported they taste “delicious.” They are packaged in a soft pouch, which is shipped cold to prevent melting in transit.
One reviewer wrote: “When I have had a few nights of poor sleep I chew one of these 30 minutes before bed and they do seem to relax me and make me tired. My dreams are always weird so [there is] no effect there. I do not use these on a regular basis as I feel that is not an appropriate thing to do with melatonin. But for occasional use I find them a solid choice when I need to sleep.”
Amount per serving: 3 mg melatonin, 100 mg L-theanine | Form: gummies | Servings per container: 30
Dr. Abhinav Singh, Sleep Medicine Specialist and Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center. https://indianasleepcenter.com/physicians/abhinav-singh/
Ryan Fiorenzi, Certified Sleep Science Coach and founder of Start Sleeping. https://startsleeping.org/about/