Anyone who's ever experienced insomnia or other sleep disorders understands the pain of struggling through the night just to catch few winks. But whether you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both, an easy solution like an over the counter sleep aid can make all the difference. In this post, you'll discover what over the counter sleep aids are, how they benefit you, reviews of some quality products, and an overview of the best over the counter sleep aid currently available.
Sleep MD-NightTime Sleep Aid
Unisom Sleep Gels
Kirkland Sleeping Aid
ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid
Tylenol Simply Sleep Nighttime Sleep Aid
What Are Over the Counter Sleep Aids?
We all know the important role sleep plays in our busy lives. Among other reasons, it's the basis on which good health is built. One of the easiest and most available ways to facilitate a good night's sleep is via over the counter (OTC) sleep aids: sleep remedies that can be bought without doctor prescriptions.
In the age of e-commerce, however, this definition doesn't always hold true since popular prescription-based sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta can now be bought online without a prescription on some websites. But for our purposes, we'll follow the traditional understanding of an OTC sleep aid, which falls into one of these three delivery methods:
- Antihistamines (e.g., Benadryl, etc.)
- Hormones (e.g., melatonin, etc.)
- Herbs (e.g., valerian, etc.)
Let's look at each of these individually…
Antihistamines – OTC antihistamine medications are normally used to treat allergies. But its main ingredients — diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate — often cause drowsiness as a side effect, which is why they're also commonly used in OTC sleep aids.
Melatonin – A hormone naturally produced by the body, melatonin handles sleep and wake cycle regulation. As darkness falls, your body produces more melatonin to prepare you for sleep, while daylight slows down production as your body prepares to wake up. But some people have a persistent low level of melatonin, which makes it difficult to fall asleep. A quality OTC sleep aid can help address this problem.
Herbs – While not conclusive, evidence suggests that certain herbs like valerian, chamomile, and kava kava act as a sedative on the nervous system, which prepares you for a more restful sleep (source). Many OTC sleep aids include one or more herbs as part of their formula.
What Are the Benefits of Over the Counter Sleep Aids?
There are three main reasons why OTC sleep aids have an edge over prescription-based drugs:
First, you can get them immediately without waiting for a phone call or appointment with your doctor.
Second, they're widely available. Discount stores, grocery stores, drug stores and warehouses generally have a wide selection to choose from.
Last, they're non-habit forming and tend to make you feel more alert the following morning.
How to Choose an Over the Counter Sleep Aid
When taking any OTC supplement, you're deciding to take responsibility for your own health, which is a good thing. But to make an informed decision, a bit of effort is required on your part:
- Research the product manufacturer to gauge its reputation
- Study up on the product's ingredients and how it will affect your body (and possible side effects it may cause)
- Learn whether the product would be incompatible with other supplements or medications you're currently on
For example, with a little research, you'd discover that diphenhydramine and doxylamine succinate aren't recommended for older adults or people with certain physical conditions, thus disqualifying any sleep aid containing antihistamines for these groups (source).
General Guidelines for Taking an Over the Counter Sleep Aid
Once you've selected an over the counter sleep aid, pay close attention to the product's guidelines and instructions before taking it, including common warnings like these:
- Don't exceed the recommended dosage
- Don't take with alcohol or recreational drugs
- Give yourself at least eight hours before driving or operating machinery
Moreover, be alert to bad or allergic reactions and how to counter them should they arise (make sure to consult your doctor with any concerns you might have).
Reviews of the Best Over the Counter Sleep Aids
Developed by a team of doctors as a drug-free method to assist those with sleeping problems, Sleep MD contains natural ingredients consisting of the hormone, melatonin, and the herb, valerian — two often used sedatives mentioned earlier in this article.
These natural ingredients are less likely to interact with other medications or cause common side effects like grogginess, which antihistamine-based sleep aids sometimes do.
Sleep MD comes in the form of caplets, which may be difficult for some people to swallow, but can be cut into smaller pieces.
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While Unisom contains diphenhydramine — the same antihistamine used in two other products mentioned below (ZzzQuil and Tylenol Simply Sleep) — it's twice the dosage at 50 mg per liquid capsule and thus difficult to cut into smaller doses. As such, this sleep aid is more geared toward those suffering from major bouts of insomnia. Like most non-prescription OTC sleep aids, Unisom is non-habit forming and a powerful alternative to drugs like Ambien and Lunesta.
Unlike diphenhydramine — the antihistamine found in three products on our list (Unisom, ZzzQuil and Tylenol Simply Sleep) — the active ingredient in the Kirkland Sleeping Aid is doxylamine succinate, an even more powerful antihistamine and thus better choice for those having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
This product comes in tablet form, which may be difficult for some people to swallow. But unlike liquid caplets, they can be cut into halves or thirds for easier consumption.
Not to be confused with NyQuil, Proctor & Gamble's popular sleep aid, ZzzQuil, is another product made from diphenhydramine (along with Unisom and Tylenol Simply Sleep). This non-habit forming product is a staple for many insomniacs because it produces results quickly and reliably. ZzzQuil comes in liquid caplet form and shouldn't be mixed with other medications containing diphenhydramine.
From the renowned Johnson & Johnson consumer products company, the active ingredient in Tylenol Simply Sleep is diphenhydramine, the same antihistamine used in two other products on our list (Unisom and ZzzQuil).
Not to be confused with Tylenol PM, Simply Sleep is solely a sleep aid, not a cough and cold medication. This product contains 25 mg caplets, which can be divided for easier consumption. By most accounts, Simply Sleep provides great results.
What Is the Best Over the Counter Sleep Aid for You?
Whenever possible, we prefer taking the natural approach to treating insomnia and other sleep disorders. As such, our top pick goes to the Sleep MD-NightTime Sleep Aid, which does as good of a job as many prescription-based drugs.
But like most medications, Sleep MD doesn't work for everyone, in which case an antihistamine-based sleep aid may work better. Among these, the best over the counter sleep aid goes to Unisom Sleep Gels for its potency and excellent track record.
With great choices like these on the market, there's no reason to miss out on the benefits of a good night's sleep!
Now Over to You!
What are your thoughts about over the counter sleep aids? Leave your comments below!