An over-the-counter sleep aid can be effective for an occasional sleepless night. Taken properly, sleeping pills give enormous benefit to people suffering from an inability to get restful sleep. At the same time, the rise in the use of sleep medication has been accompanied by reports of abuse and unpleasant side effects.
Most over the counter options fall into one of three main categories: melatonin, anti-histamines and herbal remedies.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb to understand the difference:
- Anti-histamines – usually have the strongest sedative effect.
- Melatonin – helps regulate disrupted sleep after situations like jet lag or shift work.
- Herbal pills – usually have a lighter effect.
A few examples below
- Diphenhydramine (ex: Benadryl, Unisom SleepGels, others). Diphenhydramine is a sedating antihistamine. Side effects might include daytime drowsiness, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation and urinary retention.
- Doxylamine succinate (ex: Unisom SleepTabs, Kirkland Sleep Aid). Doxylamine is also a sedating antihistamine. Side effects are similar to those of diphenhydramine.
- Melatonin (ex: Luna, Zenwise). The hormone melatonin helps control your natural sleep-wake cycle. Some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating jet lag or reducing the time it takes to fall asleep — although the effect is typically mild. Side effects can include headache and daytime sleepiness.
- Valerian (ex: Luna, Zenwise). Supplements made from this plant are sometimes taken as sleep aids. Although a few studies indicate some therapeutic benefit, other studies haven’t found the same benefits. Valerian generally doesn’t appear to cause side effects.
Most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines. Tolerance to the sedative effects of antihistamines can develop quickly — so the longer you take them, the less likely they are to make you sleepy. Besides, antihistamines are not recommended for older adults because they may increase the risk of dementia. They can also cause numerous side effects in older adults, such as confusion, hallucinations, etc.
Over-the-counter sleep aids can leave you feeling groggy and unwell the next day. This is the so-called hangover effect. Some of these sleeping pills are quite strong even though you don’t need a prescription, so please ensure you read the reviews carefully.
- Take it one day at a time. Over-the-counter sleep aids are a temporary solution for insomnia. Generally, they’re not intended to be used for longer than two weeks.
- Avoid alcohol. Never mix alcohol and sleep aids. Alcohol can increase the sedative effects of the medication.
Medication interactions are possible as well, and much remains unknown about the safety and effectiveness of over-the-counter sleep aids.