Insomnia can play havoc with your physical and mental health, your work life and your relationships. So, if you can find the best sleeping pills for you, they really can transform your life. And after the year or two many of us have had – with weird work patterns, claustrophobic home lives and constant stress – more of us than ever need a little extra help falling asleep and staying asleep.
Many of the best sleep aids are available without a prescription (they’re “over the counter”, or OTC medicines). The most powerful OTC sleeping pills contain non-drowsy antihistamines, such as promethazine (the main ingredient in Sominex) and diphenhydramine (Nytol). They’re brilliant for breaking the cycle of insomnia or helping you through a tough week, but your body develops a tolerance after a few days. So for this article, we’ve also reviewed herbal sedatives, such as Kalms, which use natural ingredients and tend to be safer and more effective over the long term.
Skip down the page to discover our recommended sleeping pills and herbal sleep aids, and to read our mini-reviews. Or for expert advice on choosing the best sleeping medication for you, read on.
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How to choose the best sleeping pills for you
What ingredients do sleeping pills contain?
Most over-the-counter sleeping pills are based on sedating antihistamines (the “drowsy” type of antihistamine), usually either promethazine (for example, Sominex) or diphenhydramine (for example, Nytol One-A-Night). As well as making you drowsy and helping you sleep, these types of sleeping pill may also soothe your allergies.
The downside of sedating antihistamines is that your body develops a tolerance to them over a few days, and they effectively stop working after a week or so. So they’re for short-term use only.
Herbal sleeping pills and natural sleep aids can be extremely effective. Here are some of the ingredients they contain:
- Valerian root has been used as a natural sleep aid for thousands of years. The plant grows all over Europe, and acts as a sedative on the brain and nervous system. Tests have shown that 450mg per night helps people fall asleep faster. (A double dose helped too, but made them more tired the next day.)
- Chamomile and lavender are two of the most commonly used herbs in natural sleep aids. They’ve been used for millennia in herbal teas, herb-stuffed pillows and other sleep remedies.
- 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a by-product of L-tryptophan, a protein derived commercially from griffonia seed. The body converts it to serotonin, so it’s used in herbal remedies for depression, anxiety and insomnia.
- Magnesium is a vital nutrient for relaxing the body and preparing your muscles and nervous system for sleep. Vitamin B12 also appears regularly in natural sleep aids.
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Which type of sleeping pill is best for me?
Experts recommend sedating antihistamines to get you through a period of stress-related insomnia, and herbal/natural sleep aids to sort out disrupted sleep patterns (after travelling, for example) and for longer-term use.
“Sleep deprivation can be caused by a whole range of things, from hormone imbalances to stress and anxiety,” says Hussain Abdeh, superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct. “If you’ve been struggling with stress, I’d say an OTC medication with a calming effect is your best option. Nytol, for example, would be a good choice.
“But if you’re struggling to sleep due to disruptions to your body clock, I’d recommend valerian root. It actively promotes sleep and may be best suited to regulate your body clock. Valerian root is found in a number of popular sleep aids, such as Kalms.”
What about benzodiazepines or melatonin?
These are prescription-only in the UK. Tranquillisers and benzodiazepines can be pretty problematic meds, too. They have a much higher risk of dependency, withdrawal and side effects than OTC sleeping pills such as Nytol.
Melatonin is a hormone that occurs naturally in your body to regulate sleeping patterns. Melatonin supplements fly off the shelves in the US, but in the UK you need a prescription. The NHS has more info here.
One of our recommendations, Neuro Night Complex from UK company Nu U Nutrition, contains a plant-based “natural melatonin” derived from cherries. It may be worth a try, says pharmacist Hussain Abdeh. “If your insomnia or a lack of sleep is caused by a disruption to your normal sleeping patterns (circadian rhythms), then a sleep aid that mimics the body’s natural hormones such as melatonin should help.”
The best sleeping pills you can buy in 2021
1. Nytol One-A-Night 50: The best sleeping pill you can buy without a prescription
Price: £6.19 | Buy now from Lloyds Pharmacy
Nytol One-A-Night is the closest you’ll get to a magic sleep bullet without having to go begging to your GP. The tablets are small and easy to swallow (important when you’re over-tired and dry-mouthed), and each one’s 50mg dose of diphenhydramine is powerful enough to make you feel drowsy within 20 minutes, then send you to sleep about five minutes after that. For the first few nights, anyway.
Those timings vary from person to person, of course, but it seems to be the average experience of Nytol One-A-Night users, including me. When I tried it, Nytol sent me quickly to sleep for nine hours (a very rare treat), and then I woke with a slight headache. That’s the same experience I’d had with a prescription tranquilliser. The headache wore off in a couple of hours, leaving me feeling right as rain for the rest of the day.
It really works, but not for long. Some users report that their bodies developed a tolerance after just two nights. So this is not a long-term solution to insomnia (the official maximum use is two weeks), but it’s perfect for short-term sleep problems, such as the week from hell or Bonfire Night (which some may say is the same thing).
Key features – Size: x20 (one a night); Format: Tablets; Active ingredient: Diphenhydramine 50mg
Buy now from Lloyds Pharmacy
2. Sominex: Best OTC sleeping pill for a fresh head in the morning
Price: £4.59 | Buy now from Chemist DirectGo to Source