Most Used Over the Counter Sleep Aids in 2021

Studies report that nearly one-third of Americans have trouble getting adequate sleep. This is often due to a number of factors such as school, work, or various sleep disorders. Sleep is essential to our overall physical and mental health, which can make a lack of sleep detrimental to our wellbeing. Fortunately, there is a variety of over-the-counter sleep aids that can help promote more consistent, higher quality sleep. Over-the-counter sleep aids are non-prescribed supplements that can be taken to help you both fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. They can be used to treat insomnia or help with sleep anxiety, in addition to other sleep issues. Keep reading to learn more about some of the most popular OTC sleep aids.


Melatonin is a natural hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain to help regulate your circadian rhythm. When the receptors in our eyes perceive that nighttime is falling, the pineal gland receives signals to release melatonin. It is this release of melatonin that makes us feel tired and ready for sleep. However, certain factors such as overexposure to light or circadian rhythm sleep disorders may decrease the production of melatonin. If you struggle with similar conditions, melatonin supplements can help boost low melatonin levels to promote regulation of your sleep cycle. These supplements are available in a wide variety of dosages and are typically made from microorganisms or synthetic components.

Potential Side Effects Include:

Depression, dizziness, bedwetting, excessive daytime sleepiness, headache, and nausea


Other common OTC sleep aids often contain antihistamines such as diphenhydramine and doxylamine as active ingredients. Antihistamines essentially work as sleep aids by disturbing histamine, a chemical in the brain that alerts,  prompting those who take it to feel drowsy.


Diphenhydramine, most commonly marketed as Benadryl, is an FDA-approved antihistamine. However, diphenhydramine is also found in a range of OTC pain-relieving or fever-reducing medications such as Tylenol PM or ZzzQuil. OTC supplements containing diphenhydramine are not recommended for use as long-term sleep aids. An overuse of diphenhydramine may actually lead to reduced wakefulness during the day. Diphenhydramine should be taken with discretion and should not be used to combat insomnia.  Additionally, higher than the recommended dosage can lead to more serious health problems.

Potential Side Effects Include:

Dizziness, disturbed coordination, epigastric pain, and thickening of bronchial secretions


Doxylamine is another antihistamine that can produce sedative effects, and is found in common sleep aid brands such as Unisom SleepTabs and Good Sense Sleep Aid. Like diphenhydramine, doxylamine is an active ingredient in pain-relief medications and can be used to help alleviate cold symptoms. Unlike diphenhydramine, doxylamine can be used as a method to treat insomnia for a short length of time. If you suffer from insomnia and find that your symptoms linger for more than two weeks after treating with doxylamine, you should consult with your doctor for other treatment options.

Potential Side Effects Include:

Dizziness, drowsiness, thickening of mucus in nose or throat, and dry mouth, throat, and nose


Unlike some of the other OTC sleep aids we have listed, valerian is actually marketed and sold as a dietary supplement. Valerian is also found in mild sedatives used to treat insomnia and anxiety. While experts cannot pinpoint exactly how valerian functions, this herbal supplement does have the most research supporting its sleep-inducing effects. Studies suggest that it may interact with GABA, serotonin, and adenosine receptors by making our brain less active to promote sleep. Since this OTC sleep aid is not subject to the same evaluation by the FDA as an antihistamine, it is best to use with caution.

Potential Side Effects Include:

Headache, upset stomach, cognitive dysfunction, dry mouth, feelings of excitement or unease, strange dreams, and daytime drowsiness

If you struggle to get good quality sleep, you have likely heard of over-the-counter sleep aids. While this blog is for informational purposes only, we think it is important to note that OTC sleep aids do work for some people.  If you are thinking about trying an OTC sleep aid, please  proceed with caution and consult with a medical professional to make sure it is the best solution for you.