Which Sleep Aids Work and Which Should you Avoid?

Sleep aids are known to work, but should you take over the counter meds or natural pills? I've reviewed the most popular sleeping aids out there, so you don't have to.

Updated: May 31, 2020

Getting a good night’s sleep is super duper important.

No matter your age, gender, or other characteristics, we all need to sleep well to be our best every day.

But what happens when you can’t get good sleep?

Should you take a sleep aid to help you get some rest?

In some cases, that can be the right choice. But you also need to remember that some sleep aids can be addictive, and they can also be harmful if they’re taken incorrectly.

With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about sleep aids, so you can use them safely when needed and reduce your chance of side effects.

When should I use a sleeping aid?

Photo of sleeping pills.

Generally, sleeping aids should only be used sparing. If you get in the habit of using them every night, you’ll have a lot more trouble sleeping when you stop using them.

Some sleep aids also have addictive properties, meaning you’ll need to take larger doses of them over time to get the same effect.

That can lead to overuse of medications, and can also be harmful to your body. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a sleep aid, but use them with care and only as directed.

If you take medications or have health problems, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor before taking a sleep aid, too.

What is the best over the counter sleep aid?

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids are the most commonly used options. They’re easy to get, and they work well for mild, occasional sleep problems in most people. Here are the OTC sleeping aids used the most, and what you should know about them.

Photo of over the counter sleeping pills.
  • Diphenhydramine is normally used in a 50mg dosage, and can be purchased under a variety of generic and brand names. There are few risks with the standard dosage. You may experience daytime sleepiness or grogginess, but side effects are generally mild.
  • Doxylamine succinate offers another alternative to people who need OTC sleep aids. A low dosage is usually effective, and side effects are rare. Daytime grogginess is the most common side effect at the standard dosage.
  • Glycine offers another medication for sleeping better, and it’s an OTC option that’s been heavily researched. This popular choice is a non-essential amino acid, which promotes healthy sleep. It can reduce feelings of fatigue the next day, and may help provide clear-headedness, as well. Polysomnographic changes were also noted during a sleep study. Risks are low, as there are few sides effects from amino acids unless taken in large quantities.
  • Melatonin has been used for sleep for a number of years. It can be used to treat fatigue problems like jet lag. Additionally, studies have been done on the use of melatonin for primary sleep disorders. Melatonin has virtually no risks and can be used safely by most folks who need to improve sleep.
  • Tryptophan is found in turkey and other meats, and can also be purchased as a supplement. It promotes sleep and has also been shown to enhance and improve mood through its connection with serotonin. It can impair reaction time and performance, due to mild sedating effects.
  • 5-HTP offers help for wakefulness issues, but also promotes the non-REM sleep needed by humans and animals. It offers a safe and effective way to get sufficient sleep and feel more awake during the day, when taken in the proper dosage.
  • L-Theanine has been shown to reduce anticipatory anxiety. Because of that, it can also help people relax and help you sleep Some studies have shown it to improve ADHD symptoms, as well.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) provides the option of better sleep through a reduction in insomnia issues. It has few side effects and has been shown to be safe for most people in proper doses. By relaxing the body and brain, GABA can mean better sleep without feeling groggy in the morning.
  • Magnesium has been used for leg and muscle cramps, and also to help you sleep. The risks are mild or nonexistent, because magnesium is something the body needs. It’s not seen as a foreign substance, which helps the human body use it efficiently and effectively. Being deficient in magnesium can cause serious disturbances in sleep quality. Especially in the elderly, magnesium is a safe and effective way to improve sleep.

What is the most effective natural sleep aid?

If you want to take something for sleep but you’re looking for more natural remedies, there are plenty of options. Here are some of the most common natural sleeping aids used.

Photo of lavender.
  • Valerian Root has been used for sleep for years, and it has few side effects when taken as directed. Not only can this natural remedy help people get to sleep faster and stay asleep, but it can improve the quality of their sleep, as well.
  • Passion Flower is another option for a natural sleep remedy. Studies have shown that it is effective and that there are few side effects to it. This natural remedy can work as well as prescription medications when it comes to relaxing the body and helping promote good sleep quality.
  • Lavender calms the brain, and the scent of it is used in a number of products to reduce anxiety. Due to its relaxing properties, lavender oil can be used in products such as diffusers to spread the scent throughout a space. Putting lavender oil on the body can also promote natural sleep, as can ingesting some concoctions containing the plant.
  • Ginkgo biloba helps to promote REM sleep, which is the most restful type of restorative sleep in humans and animals. Without REM sleep, the body and brain often do not feel rested. By using this natural product, you can reduce depressive symptoms, improve their mood, and experience more restful sleep.
  • CBD Oil has recently come on the sleep aid scene, as it is used more frequently for pain and discomfort. It relaxes the body, and that promotes better sleep without the unexpected effects of many medications.
  • Kava is another natural remedy to promote good sleep. The relaxation properties of Kava may help reset the sleep-wake cycle. In turn, that makes it easier for a person to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling rested.
  • California Poppy also helps you relax and remain asleep. It provides calming properties that also promote a healthier mood and make it easier to handle anxiety-producing tasks. By affecting the body on a molecular level, this natural remedy helps get to the heart of the problem and increase overall relaxation.
  • Chamomile is typically used in tea, but there are other ways to ingest it, as well. It has calming properties that can relax the body and quiet the mind, allowing for good sleep. It also generally has no side effects in normal quantities, making it a safe option for nearly everyone.
  • Tart Cherry Juice has been used for sleep enhancement for some time. It increases the level of melatonin in the brain, which makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. As a treatment for insomnia, this juice can be very successful when consumed before bedtime on a regular basis.
  • Magnolia Bark promotes the quality and length of non-REM sleep, allowing people who typically take a long time to fall asleep to move toward REM sleep more easily.

Prescription sleep aids

Over-the-counter sleep pills and natural options just aren’t enough. That can lead them to prescription options, which can be more effective.

The most commonly used prescription sleeping pills work well and can be used safely in most people. But understanding how they work and what they offer is important.

  • Benzodiazepines reduce anxiety. They’re typically given to people with anxiety and panic disorders, but they can be effective for other problems, as well. Because of their calming properties, they can improve sleep. Increased anxiety can be a short-term side effect, so use this kind of sleeping tablet sparingly.
  • Sedatives/sleeping tablets are designed specifically to help people sleep. They may increase daytime sleepiness and make the operation of machinery dangerous. These medications can also become addictive, but they can be very effective when used properly.
  • Ramelteon is a melatonin receptor agonist, meaning it can help the body process melatonin. That promotes a better quality of sleep, and also makes it easier to fall asleep. Side effects and drug interactions are possible.

Best sleep aids overall

Some sleep aids are better than others. Here are our top three:

1. Sedatives/sleeping pills are the right choice if you need a prescription medication to fall asleep. Just make sure you take them as your doctor orders.

2. Melatonin can be a great option if you don’t want a prescription since it promotes sleep and can be safe and effective for almost everyone.

3. For light cases of insomnia, lavender’s calming scent and relaxing properties can go a long way without causing side effects and interactions.

Side effects of sleep aids

There are a number of side effects of sleeping pills, especially for prescription options. The main side effects include:

  • Drug dependence
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Drug interactions
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Masking of an underlying problem
  • Drug tolerance

What to avoid when using sleeping pills

Illustration of stimulants not to taken when on sleeping pills.

When you choose to use sleep aids, you need to be careful to avoid stimulants that could counteract their effects. As it gets close to time for sleep, make sure you do your best to avoid:

  • Caffeine
  • Late-night workouts
  • Electronics
  • Spicy or hard to digest food
  • Alcohol

Is it OK to take sleep aid every night?

You’d obviously need to consult with a medical health expert, but I’d say no. Unless you’re taking natural sleep aids which many people do in fact take regularly, then it’s fine.

But taking prescription based over-the-counter sleep aids every single night would be excessive and most likely dangerous over a long period of time.

The bottom line with sleep tablets/aids

The bottom line is that sleep aids can work very well, and be generally safe, for the majority of people when used correctly.

If you have health problems or take medications, ask your doctor before trying sleep aids, though, and that includes natural remedies.

In most folks, sleep disturbances will resolve themselves. If you do need sleep aids, taking them sparingly and only as directed can help them be effective while reducing side effects.