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. However, these medications do not have a proven track record with helping insomnia. (reference 1) Instead, the best over-the-counter sleeping pills, including antihistamines, hormones and herb, temporarily induce drowsiness and sleep.
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. These drugs should not be used in conjunction with alcohol or other sedatives.
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. 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.
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.