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 can transform your days as well as your nights. 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.
READ NEXT: The most effective treatments for hay fever symptoms
Best sleeping pills: At a glance
- Best for fast sleep: Nytol One-A-Night | Buy now
- Best herbal option: Kalms Night | Buy now
- Best melatonin-style option: Nutrienne 5HTP+ Sleep Capsules | Buy now
- Best homeopathic option: Rescue Night Liquid Melts | Buy now
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.
READ NEXT: These are the best magnesium supplements to buy right now
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 2022
1. Nytol One-A-Night 50: The best sleeping pill you can buy without a prescription
Price: £6.19 | Buy now from Chemist Direct
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 Chemist Direct
2. Sominex: Best OTC sleeping pill for a fresh head in the morning
Price: £4.59 | Buy now from Chemist Direct
Sominex is based on promethazine rather than diphenhydramine, but other than that its usage and effects are very similar to Nytol One-A-Night. I found Sominex worked less well for me, but that may not be your experience. Luckily, these medications are affordable enough to try both (not on the same night!) to see which one hits your sleep spot.
While Sominex failed to knock me out quite as comprehensively as Nytol, it didn’t give me a headache at all. That seems to be the case for other buyers, too. “Very helpful in getting to sleep, no wakeup hangover, good refreshed sleep,” wrote one. “Excellent product to help with holiday sleep disruptions,” wrote another. Some also found Sominex more effective for sending them to sleep than Nytol, so it really is a matter of trial and error.
Sominex has an official maximum usage of seven days, compared with two weeks for Nytol One-A-Night.
Key features – Size: x16 (one a night); Format: Tablets; Active ingredient: Promethazine 20mg
Buy now from Chemist Direct
3. Kalms Night One-A-Night Sleeping Tablets: Best herbal sleeping pills
Price: £5.19 | Buy now from Amazon
Sedative antihistamines don’t work for everyone, and not everyone wants to take a drug every night. So Kalms Night, which contains the optimum daily dose of valerian root in one tablet, is an attractive alternative. The main downside, judging by hundreds of positive buyers’ reviews, is that it doesn’t knock you out like Nytol or Sominex. Instead, it takes a few days to fully kick in.
“I initially doubted they would help but was pleasantly surprised,” writes one buyer. “After taking these for five days I’m happily drifting off to sleep.” Another says: “I didn’t find any immediate noticeable effects, but as the days went on they did start helping me relax at night until I now go to sleep with no problem.”
You can take Kalms for longer than Nytol or Sominex without suffering ill effects or dependency. The small print says consult your doctor after four weeks, in case your insomnia has a medical cause. But valerian root is not addictive, and there are users who happily admit to taking Kalms for “months” without them stopping working.
Key features – Size: x21 (one a night); Format: Tablets; Active ingredient: Valerian root extract
4. Nutrienne 5HTP+ Sleep Capsules: Best melatonin-style sleeping pill to regulate your body clock
Price: £17 | Buy now from Amazon
Supplements containing melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep patterns, do a roaring trade with insomniacs in the US. But in the UK, you can only get melatonin on prescription. This herbal sleeping tablet from UK company Nutrienne gets as close as possible, with its plant-based melatonin equivalent derived from Montmorency cherry. Also in the blend are various nutritional supplements found to aid sleep, including 5-HTP, Griffonia seed and magnesium, plus relaxing herbs chamomile and lavender.
You only need one of these easy-to-swallow capsules per night. It won’t knock you out, but it also won’t leave you hungover the next day, and you’re likely to see an improvement in your sleep over a few nights of taking them. Feedback from buyers is superb, particularly those who’ve also struggled with daytime stress and anxiety.
Key features – Size: x60 (one a night); Format: Capsules; Active ingredients: 5-HTP 50mg, Montmorency cherry (for plant-based melatonin), magnesium, Griffonia seed
5. Rescue Night Liquid Melts: Best homeopathic sleeping pill
Price: £6 | Buy now from Amazon
The list of active ingredients in Rescue Night Liquid Melts reads like a herb gardener’s wildest dreams. Aesculus hippocastanum (white chestnut, for “relief from repetitive thoughts”), Helianthemum nummularium (rose rock, for “courage and presence of mind”) and Ornithogalum umbellatum (star of Bethlehem, to “soften impact of shock”) flower essences, among others, go into each capsule, made by the people behind Bach Rescue Remedy. Pop one or two jelly-like dissolving blobs on your tongue before bed, and your mind will get a little extra help switching off.
Like all Rescue products, Rescue Night attracts a mix of reviews from homeopathy sceptics and delighted fans. Most buyers’ reviews are very positive. One UK buyer writes: “They seem to do the trick, which is quite surprising considering how small each tablet is – there must be something pretty powerful in there!”
Key features – Size: x28; Format: Liquid-filled capsules; Active ingredients: White chestnut (main Rescue Remedy ingredient) and other flower essences (full list here)
6. Microbz Bio-Live Sleep: Best probiotic sleeping aid
Price: £20 | Buy now from Holland & Barrett
A few of the big names do liquid formulas (Nytol Herbal, for example), but we’ve plumped for this one because it’s designed to settle your tummy as well as relax you and support healthy circadian rhythms. Describing itself as “the UK’s first liquid sleep supplement”, Bio-Live Sleep is a probiotic drink and sleeping aid in one bottle. As well as sleep-inducing ingredients Valerian root, chamomile and oat straw, it also contains 15 families of fermented live cultures, designed to rebalance the microbes in your gut. A great choice for better sleeping patterns and gut health long-term.
Key features – Size: 475ml; Format: Liquid; Active ingredients: Valerian root, chamomile, oat straw, live probiotic cultures
Buy now from Holland & Barrett