The Most Effective OTC Sleep Aids

Updated November 21, 2016

Over-the-counter sleep aids can help temporarily solve insomnia or interrupted sleep. However, these sleep aids become ineffective over time, which is why prolonged use is not recommended. For consistent long-term sleeping issues, see a doctor before taking these sleep aids over an extended period of time. Occasionally, sleep disturbances can indicate a more serious health problem.


Supplements containing extract from the valerian plant can help treat temporary insomnia. It helps reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, and it can also help sustain restful sleep. In the past, valerian has been used as a mild sedative or tranquilliser, which explains its calming and restful effect. Valerian is recommended as an over-the-counter sleep aid because it has a low risk of side effects including morning-after grogginess. To take valerian as a sleep aid, take between 300 and 500 milligrams of a standardised valerian extract about one hour before bedtime. Do not take with caffeine, as it can neutralise the effects of the valerian. Also, avoid taking valerian with anti-anxiety drugs or alcohol. When taking valerian, be sure to stop it immediately if you develop a headache, excitability or heart disturbances.


Melatonin is thought to control the body's internal clock and is useful for jet lag or the effects of shift work. When choosing melatonin, find a quick-release melatonin instead of a sustained release formula, as it has been found to work better as a sleep aid. Take .5 to 50 milligrams of melatonin nightly before bedtime, beginning with a low dose and gradually adding up to no more than 50 milligrams in order to find the most effective dose. While melatonin is generally tolerated as a long-term sleeping aid, do not forget to seek medical advice before taking it on a regular basis.


Doxylamine is an antihistamine that can be used to help keep you asleep or sleeping soundly when you have difficulties going to sleep and staying asleep. Antihistamines can help with sleep because they work against a chemical in the central nervous system called histamine. When choosing a sleep aid containing doxylamine, be sure that the medicine does not contain other medications to treat other symptoms. Be aware that doxylamine can cause prolonged drowsiness. If the product is keeping you drowsy into the next day, discontinue the medicine immediately. Do not take doxylamine if you are breast-feeding or have asthma, glaucoma, bronchitis, enlarged prostate or peptic ulcer. To take doxylmaine, carefully read and follow the package directions. Do not take too much medication, and begin with the smallest dose recommended. Monitor your side effects and do not continue to take it if you feel excitability or nervousness.


Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine that is recommended for occasional insomnia. Diphenhydramine is found in a large selection of over-the-counter medicines, especially those used to treat colds and allergy symptoms. Take care when choosing a diphenhydramine product, and be sure that the medication is designed for sleep only. Do not take a product that contains other medications for other symptoms that don't need treatment. Check to be sure that there are no negative interactions with other medications you are taking by carefully reading the package instructions. If you suffer from depression, heart disease, glaucoma, Parkinson's disease, enlarged prostate or psychiatric conditions, do not take diphenhydramine. Also, do not take the drug if you are currently breastfeeding. Negative side effects can include dry mouth, excitability in some patients, dizziness or prolonged drowsy effects into the next day. Immediately stop taking the medication if you experience any of these symptoms.

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About the Author

Kendall Olsen has been writing for more than 20 years She is a University of Missouri-St. Louis Gateway Writing Project Fellow and has published instructional materials with the McDonald Publishing Company. Olsen holds an Ed.S. in educational technology, an M.Ed. in secondary English curriculum and instruction, a B.S. in elementary education and a B.A. in art history.