Popular OTC Sleep Aids for Insomnia

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Before you opt for prescription medications to combat your insomnia, you may want to try an over-the-counter sleep medication first. Here are some of the most popular.

Diphenhydramine (antihistamine)

The main purpose of this drug is to induce sleep. The journal _SLEEP _reported taking 50mg over two weeks can reduce insomnia and increase sleep, compared to a placebo. This drug is normally well-tolerated with little in the way of side effects. However, some have reported feeling groggy or having a “hangover” feeling the day after using antihistamines for sleep.

Doxylamine (antihistamine)

Doxylamine is touted as one of the more hypnotic drugs on the market available without a prescription. A study in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics suggests that 25mg doses of Doxylamine can also enhance sleep quality. The study noted that sleep effects were greater when paired with one gram of acetaminophen.

Valerian (herb)

Valerian is made from roots of the Valeriana officinalis plant and can be purchased in most health food stores. A study published in _SLEEP _suggests this drug can help reduce insomnia after 28 days of use. No harmful side effects were seen during the study.

Kava (herb)

Similar to Valerian, Kava can be found in most health food stores, but is made from the Piper methysticum plant. In a study, over a six-week period, 120mg was shown to help improve sleep and decrease stress. But 42 percent of the participants in the study reported dizziness and other minor side effects. Kava can also be hard on the liver and comes with safety warnings.

Melatonin (hormone)

Melatonin is normally released from the brain’s pineal gland, but can be purchased as a supplement at health food and drug stores. A study in Aging: Clinical and Experimental Research, reported that five mg over 60 nights decreased depression and increased sleep for older adults with insomnia. It had no apparent side effects.

But avoid long-term use

Over-the-counter sleep aids are not intended for long-term use. They should be viewed only as a temporary solution. You should also avoid mixing alcohol with OTC sleep aids, as it can increase their sedative effects.

Antihistamines aren't for everyone

Antihistamine sleep aids should not be taken by those with glaucoma, asthma, liver disease, urinary retention, or obstructive pulmonary disease. They should also be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Keep in mind that a tolerance to antihistamines can develop quickly. So the longer you take these, the less sleepy they will make you.

And first, talk to your doctor

While sleep aids can be purchased without a prescription, it’s best to let your doctor know that you are taking them. Your doctor will know if a particular sleep aid will interact with any prescription medications you are taking. He or she may also give you special dosage instructions.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.