Getting enough sleep is critical for good health — but, for many people, a good night's rest is hard to come by. Between 50 and 70 million Americans have ongoing sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea. As a result, the global sleep aids market was valued at $67 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow to $130 billion by 2032. But with so many sleep aid products on the market, it can be difficult to tell which ones can actually help you sleep better.
How do sleep aids work?
There are many different types of sleep aids, but most of them work the same way: They produce a sedative effect that makes you feel sleepy. These products work on your brain receptors to slow down the nervous system, which reduces your breathing and heart rate. Most sleep aids work within 30 minutes, although some may take up to an hour.
Sleep aids can be useful for occasional sleepless nights, but they're not meant to be taken long-term. They start to lose their effectiveness over time, and you can develop a dependence on them if you take them regularly.
The first time you take a sleep aid, allow yourself at least seven to eight hours to sleep. Make sure you don't have anything especially important to do the next day (e.g., a work presentation or long drive) since some sleep aids can cause grogginess. This "hangover effect" can affect your ability to drive or work for several hours after you wake up. This is especially true for over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine sleep aids, such as Benadryl.
Which sleep aid products can help you sleep better?
Some sleep aids require a prescription, while you can buy others over the counter at your local pharmacy. Note that some prescription sleep aids are meant to treat other, specific conditions but can also be used to induce sleepiness. This is known as "off-label" use.
If you only have occasional sleeplessness, OTC sleep aids may be helpful. Here are some options that may be able to help you get a good night's rest:
Melatonin is one of the most popular sleep aids, and it comes in several forms, including gummies, pills, powders and drinks. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced mainly by the pineal gland in response to darkness. It plays a major role in the body's circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin production increases in the evening as it gets darker, signaling that it's time to sleep.
Melatonin supplements can be beneficial for people with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, a condition that makes it difficult to fall asleep and wake up at conventional times. Melatonin can also be useful for people with jet lag, which occurs when you travel across multiple time zones.
Valerian root is an herbal supplement that can help promote sleep. Though it has become increasingly popular in recent years, the first recorded uses of valerian to treat insomnia date back to the Middle Ages. Like melatonin, it comes in various forms, including teas, capsules and tinctures.
Valerian is generally safe to use, and most people tolerate it well. Experts aren't sure exactly how valerian promotes sleep, but they believe it increases the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is one of the main neurotransmitters involved in sleep regulation, so increasing its production can have a sedative effect on the body.
Kava kava, or just kava, is a member of the pepper family. It has a mild euphoric effect and can help relieve anxiety and insomnia. Kava is traditionally served as a tea, but you can also buy it in tablets, capsules or liquid drops. The chemicals in kava, called kavalactones, also appear to activate GABA receptors to slow down the nervous system.
Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine, a class of drugs that treat allergies. However, one of the side effects is sleepiness, so it's often used as a short-term treatment for insomnia. Diphenhydramine is commonly sold under the brand name Benadryl. You can also find it in nighttime pain relief medications, such as Advil PM or Tylenol PM, and it's the main ingredient in ZzzQuil products. Diphenhydramine comes in several forms, including tablets, capsules, powders and liquids. While it's generally safe to use, diphenhydramine can have serious side effects if taken in larger-than-recommended doses.
Doxylamine is an antihistamine sold under the brand name Unisom. You can also find it in combination nighttime cold medicines like NyQuil, and it comes in liquid, capsule and tablet form. Similar to diphenhydramine, it can cause sleepiness, making it useful for short-term insomnia relief. Avoid taking doxylamine for chronic insomnia, as it can cause serious side effects if you don't take it as recommended.
Talk to your doctor first
These sleep aid products are effective for many people, and they're generally safe to use for short-term sleep problems as long as you take them as recommended. However, due to the risk of side effects — even with natural products such as melatonin and valerian — talk to your doctor first. They can help you weigh your options and make sure you understand how to take them safely so you can get the rest you need.