Over-the-counter Sleep Medications

OTC Sleep medications mental health

Insomnia is a complex phenomenon. It can be the result of excessive stress, work schedule problems, eating late, medications, or a myriad of medical illnesses. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on over the counter remedies for sleep. Sleep disorders are a common problem in the US and many over the counter (OTC) products are available. But do they work?

OTC products can be helpful for the occasional sleepless night, but there can be drawbacks. Chronic overuse of these meds can markedly reduce their effectiveness. Let us look at a few options:

  • Antihistamines – These include diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Unisom SleepGels, etc.) and doxylamine succinate (Unisom Sleep Tabs). Side effects can include daytime drowsiness, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation and urinary retention.

  • Melatonin – This is a hormone in the body involved in helping people fall asleep. No one really knows what the effective dose of the medication is (anywhere from 0.4 to 10 mg at bedtime). It can cause daytime drowsiness as well as headache, irritability and depression.

  • Valerian or valerian root – A plant extract often combined with other sedating herbs, such as hops, lemon balm, and chamomile. It is thought to be generally safe but is not recommended for pregnant women.

  • Kava kava – also a plant extract with anti-anxiety effects. Has been associated with liver damage.

  • Magnesium – A natural element associated with muscle relaxation and contraction. The citrate form is thought to be better absorbed than the oxide. Can cause diarrhea and stomach upset.

These meds can be helpful in the short term. If your insomnia persists for more than four weeks, contact your health care provider to discuss identifying the cause of your sleeplessness and finding effective methods of treatment. Read more about these meds on the University of Maryland and Mayo Clinic websites.