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Over-the-counter sleeping pills are widely available without a prescription, but many doctors do not recommend using them except for the occasional problem sleeping, such as from jet lag. An estimated 20% of people with chronic sleep problems such as insomnia use over-the-counter drugs to help with their symptoms, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine 1. However, these medications do not have a proven track record with helping insomnia 1. (reference 1) Instead, the best over-the-counter sleeping pills, including antihistamines, hormones and herb, temporarily induce drowsiness and sleep.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
In the United States, antihistamines are the only approved over-the-counter sleep medications by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These medications reduce the body’s release of histamines into the bloodstream, indirectly inducing drowsiness. Medications including doxylamine and diphenhydramine are the most effective antihistamines for this purpose. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine warns that these pills should only be used occasionally, and are not effective for severe or chronic sleep problems 1. These drugs should not be used in conjunction with alcohol or other sedatives.
- In the United States, antihistamines are the only approved over-the-counter sleep medications by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Medications including doxylamine and diphenhydramine are the most effective antihistamines for this purpose.
What are the Best Sleeping Aids?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the human body that regulates sleep and wakefulness. When taken as a supplement, melatonin appears to reduce the effects of jet lag and delayed sleep syndrome. Melatonin shortens the period of time to fall asleep, improves sleep quality and lengthens the period of sleep overall. Also, the supplement reportedly increases daytime alertness the day after it is taken and may be effective for seniors with insomnia. Although these findings are promising, the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine reports that there is not enough evidence to recommend melatonin for cases of chronic insomnia 23. Like all dietary supplements, melatonin is not regulated by the FDA as strictly as pharmaceuticals, so discuss melatonin with a medical provider for more information.
- Melatonin is a hormone produced by the human body that regulates sleep and wakefulness.
- Although these findings are promising, the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine reports that there is not enough evidence to recommend melatonin for cases of chronic insomnia 2.
While many herbs are used as sleep agents, none have as much research behind the claims as valerian root. This herb has been used as a sedative for hundreds of years in Europe and is now available over-the-counter as a supplement. Valerian can bring drowsiness, decrease the time it take to get to sleep as well as improve the quality of sleep. The FDA has not approved the use of valerian root, however the herb is considered safe when taken for less than 6 weeks. However, the jury is still out if valerian is helpful for cases of severe insomnia.
- While many herbs are used as sleep agents, none have as much research behind the claims as valerian root.
- The FDA has not approved the use of valerian root, however the herb is considered safe when taken for less than 6 weeks.
What are the Best Sleeping Aids?
Sleep Side Effects of Melatonin
Is There a Difference Between Valerian Root Tea and Capsules?
Lunesta with Melatonin
Valerian Root and Feeling Tired the Next Day
What are the Side Effects of Long-Term Benadryl Use?
Valerian Root for Kids
Long-Term Side Effects of Benadryl
How to Take Dramamine to Fall Asleep
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine: Treating Insomnia with Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
- National Sleep Foundation: Sleep Aids and Insomnia
- National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine: Sleep Disorders and CAM
- Sateia MJ, Buysse DJ, Krystal AD, Neubauer DN, Heald JL. Clinical practice guideline for the pharmacologic treatment of chronic insomnia in adults: An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Clinical Practice Guideline. J Clin Sleep Med. 2017;13(2):307–349. doi:10.5664/jcsm.6470
- National Sleep Foundation. How alcohol affects the quality—and quantity—of sleep.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Sleep disorders: In depth. Updated October 2015.
- National Sleep Foundation. Sleep hygiene.
- National Sleep Foundation. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia.
Ryan Hurd is a writer and consciousness studies researcher living in California. His dream expertise has been featured in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Hurd has an M.A. in consciousness studies, and is the author of "Enhance your dream life."