The Best Sleep Aids
How We Found the Best Sleep Aids
196 sleep aids considered
4 active ingredients evaluated
3 top picks
The Best Sleep Aids
After talking with doctors and examining clinical studies, we learned that the research surrounding common remedies for restless nights, like melatonin and valerian, is often contradictory. To find the best sleep aid, it’s important to look for an active ingredient that suits your particular sleep problems — and to pay close attention to your dosage and timing.
How We Chose the Best Sleep Aids
To start, we collected a list of 200 products widely available at drugstores and supplement shops, from Walgreens and CVS to Vitacost and Amazon. We limited the list to products marketed for adults and available without a prescription. We also made sure to include both natural and synthetic options — the common active ingredients in each work a little differently.
- Melatonin: Supplement that mimics the hormone produced in the pineal gland and may help you fall asleep. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that it "may help some people with certain sleep disorders," though studies have had mixed results.
- Valerian: Herb that’s been used for hundreds of years as a remedy for ailments including headaches and nervousness and is now thought to improve the restfulness of sleep. The NIH notes that “the evidence on whether valerian is helpful for sleep problems is inconsistent.”
- Diphenhydramine: Antihistamine that definitely causes drowsiness but comes with a “hangover effect” that can leave you sleepy well into the following day and make you feel dehydrated.
- Doxylamine: Antihistamine, similar to diphenhydramine, commonly found in Unisom medications. Like diphenhydramine, it can leave you feeling dehydrated.
Unless you’re in pain, your sleep aid doesn’t need to include painkillers. Products like Advil PM, which combine antihistamines with painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, have name recognition. But Dr. Gary Zammit, the executive director of the Sleep Disorders Institute, suggested following this rule when it comes to medications: Treat the problem that you have.
Extra scrutiny for natural supplements
Synthetic products like antihistamines are classified as drugs and fall under the regulation of the FDA. But natural supplements aren’t as tightly regulated, so a few additional restrictions apply.
First, we required our natural supplements to be verified by a third party like LabDoor, ConsumerLab, or the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). These independent organizations analyze off-the-shelf supplements, verifying that the claims on a product’s label match what’s in the bottle. This ensures accurate dosage and that there are no contaminants or unlisted ingredients in your supplement.
Second, we capped melatonin supplements’ per-pill dosage of melatonin at 1.5 mg. While any average melatonin supplement likely contains up to 10 mg of melatonin, Dr. Michael Breus (a clinical psychologist who runs the website thesleepdoctor.com) says that’s far too much for the average person. “The data suggests that the average adult needs between 0.5 and 1.5 mg,” he says.
Easy to take
Finally, we checked our remaining contenders for any deal breakers. Was the bottle impossible to open? Were the pills too big or too oddly shaped to swallow? Most of our finalists passed these tests with flying colors, but several natural options fell short on one critical metric — smell. A pill that smells unappetizing is a turn-off, and most of our valerian supplements had an old-sock odor that might discourage us from ever opening the bottle.
The 3 Best Sleep Aids
- Source Naturals Sleep Science Melatonin 1mg -
Best for Falling Asleep
- Gaia Herbs Valerian Root, Vegan Liquid Capsules -
Best for Staying Asleep
- GoodSense Sleep Aid Doxylamine Succinate Tablets -
Best for a Long, Deep Sleep
Why we chose it
Helps you fall asleep
If falling asleep is your problem, Dr. Serena Goldstein, a naturopathic doctor, told us that melatonin seems to have an edge over options like valerian. Research suggests that this supplement may be beneficial if, say, you’re battling jet lag — or if you’re sometimes up until 2 a.m. struggling to drift off.
If you do opt for melatonin, it’s important to take dosage into consideration. Dr. Goldstein stressed that melatonin is a hormone — and an imbalance could have far-reaching effects on your body.
“In adults, melatonin can decrease body temperature and overproduce prolactin (a hormone that increases lactation), which can cause a variety of hormonal-related issues, from irregular periods to low libido,” she told us.
Source Naturals was one of our only finalists not to exceed Dr. Breus’s recommended 0.5 mg to 1.5 mg range. Most of the products we looked at offered 3 mg per pill — with some clocking in at a whopping 10 mg.
These small time-release lozenges are meant to dissolve under your tongue, which means that your body will absorb them faster.
“Usually products that you put under your tongue are absorbed quicker because that area of your mouth is very viscous,” explained Dr. Breus, “as opposed to pill that you swallow that has to be broken down in your stomach, where you stomach acid will eat up half of it.” This gives it an edge over chewable tablets or gummies, which both have to be chewed and swallowed.
LabDoor gave Source Naturals’ melatonin high marks for label accuracy, with a score of 82.3 out of 100. Note that this score is for Source Naturals Melatonin 1 mg Orange Flavor, which offers a very strong burst of citrus (though no medicinal taste at all). If you’re not a fan of citrus, we’d suggest Source Naturals’ unflavored melatonin instead — or you can try the peppermint formula. At $0.06 per serving, any one of these flavors represents an affordable option.
Points to consider
Not for long-term use
Dr. Goldstein told us that “long-term use [of melatonin supplements] can also hinder our ability to produce melatonin.” So think of this supplement as more of a once-in-a-while, in-case-of-emergency tool than an everyday standby.
Research is unclear
It’s important to note that, while studies suggest that melatonin may help you sleep, experts are still calling for more thorough research. In other words, melatonin is likely to help you sleep, but the jury’s still out on exactly how much it will help.
May interact with daily medications
If you take a daily medication of any kind, we’d suggest talking with your doctor before incorporating melatonin into your routine. The Mayo Clinic notes that melatonin can interact with a number of common medications, from blood thinners to birth control.
Why we chose it
Helps you sleep
For desperate times, an antihistamine-based medication might be your best bet. Antihistamines work — no one disputes their ability to cause drowsiness.
At $0.12 per serving, GoodSense is much cheaper than our valerian option and cheaper than the other antihistamine options we looked into, too. Other brands retail for up to $0.50 per serving for the exact same active ingredient.
Points to consider
These tablets aren’t built to last for six or eight hours — they’re built to last for 12. That’s too long for anyone who needs to be productive the following day, although it could be just right for someone looking to sleep through a long-haul flight or who’s desperately in need of sleep after a long week.
Dr. Goldstein warned, however, that the sleep you get from an antihistamine isn’t going to be as restorative as unmedicated sleep. “It’s like alcohol,” she told us. “You’ll get sleep, but you’re not going to wake up with mounds of energy.” Dr. Zammit explains, “When you take a sedating antihistamine, REM sleep may be suppressed at the beginning of the night. But then it rebounds at the end of the night, and this can lead to vivid, intense, and sometimes disturbing dreams.”
Guide to Sleep Aids
How to find the right sleep aid for you
Figure out your sleep issue
The sleep aid that will be helpful to you depends on what issue you’re experiencing. Do you just want something to give you the extra nudge on a long flight? Or is it that you’re struggling to fall asleep each night? Different active ingredients are meant for different issues, so it’s important to know which one you’re trying to target.
Talk to your doctor
Sleep issues can often be traced back to an underlying issue. When we asked Dr. Breus for his first choice in treating sleep issues, he told us, “It’s never a pill. I would want to know the root cause. There could be an anxiety component where cognitive behavioral therapy could be helpful.” If you face sleeplessness regularly, it’s well worth speaking to your doctor about underlying causes.
“Magnesium is my go-to recommendation for patients experiencing trouble sleeping,” says Dr. Goldstein. “It’s nature’s relaxer.” Magnesium plays an important role in helping to balance blood sugar and hormones; an imbalance in either could be affecting your sleep. By supplementing magnesium, “you’re replenishing a mineral that basically everyone needs, as well as helping to literally relax the body.” Before reaching for a traditional sleep aid, try starting off with magnesium to see if it makes a difference.