Sleep is critical to good health, but it can be difficult to get a restful night when you have insomnia. Many people turn to over-the-counter (OTC) sleep supplements for help. These medications are generally considered safe for most adults when used occasionally to help you fall asleep or stay asleep during the night. However, little is known about the long-term effects of most OTC sleep supplements, so it’s important to consult a doctor if you have chronic problems with sleeping.
Standard OTC sleep medications use antihistamines as their primary active ingredient to promote drowsiness. These include diphenhydramine (found in OTC sleep aids Nytol, Sominex and Tylenol PM) and doxylamine (found in OTC sleep aids Unisom SleepTabs, Sleepinal and ZzzQuil). Some OTC sleep products also combine these antihistamines with pain relief (like acetaminophen) or other active ingredients to offer additional benefits. These drugs can cause sedation that lasts into the next day, which is why sleep experts discourage regular use of them. They can also cause a hangover effect, and they often lose their effectiveness over time.
A 2015 Consumer Reports national survey found that nearly 20 percent of adults who reported sleep difficulties took OTC medicines to help them get to sleep or stay asleep at night. These medicines are usually meant for occasional sleep disturbances, such as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep due to a temporary problem like stress, jet lag, illness or aging. But they can be dangerous if taken regularly. Especially for older adults, who are more likely to suffer from long-term insomnia than younger adults, these drugs can cause serious harm.
Most people are familiar with melatonin, an OTC sleep supplement that is a synthetic form of the natural hormone produced in your body to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Studies show that melatonin can be helpful for some kinds of sleep problems, such as being a night owl or having difficulty with jet lag. However, it’s not as effective for addressing general insomnia.
Other OTC sleep supplements include valerian root, chamomile and kava. They are available in capsule, tablet or liquid form. CBD is a newer ingredient that may be useful as a sleep aid, but it’s not well-understood. It’s a chemical derived from the cannabis sativa plant, but it doesn’t have the psychoactive properties of THC, the substance that gives marijuana its “high” feeling. Early research shows that it can be helpful for some kinds of sleep problems, but further study is needed.