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An insider’s guide to sleep aids

Does this sound familiar? You exercise regularly, avoid caffeine, and ease into bed with a soothing shower and a good book, yet you still spend half the night counting sheep. If that sounds like a regular bedtime routine for you, chances are you’ve considered taking an over-the-counter sleep aid. But before you browse the pharmacy aisles, get the lowdown on which over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aid does what (and which you should skip) with this guide.

Melatonin: Your sleep/wake cycle is partly controlled by a hormone called melatonin, which is available in supplement form. Taking melatonin may help you fall asleep and can be used to recover from jet lag. This OTC sleep aid works for many, but side effects can include feeling dizzy, sleepy, and headache-y during the following day.

Benadryl: This popular OTC allergy and anti-itch medication is also frequently taken to help with sleep. That’s because it and other antihistamines have a sedating effect. While Benadryl may help you nod off, it could also cause memory problems, dry mouth, and even lead to sleep walking. And many people develop a tolerance to the drug, meaning that you’ll likely lose the sleep-inducing side effect if you use it too often.

Tylenol PM: This pain-reliever contains acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), as well as an antihistamine, so it will give you the same drowsy effect of Benadryl. However, high doses of acetaminophen can lead to liver problems, especially if taken with alcohol. And since acetaminophen is also found in cold and flu medications and headache drugs, it can be easier than you may think to overdose. If you don’t have pain, skip this sleep aid in favor of something without acetaminophen.

ZZZquil or Tylenol’s Simply Sleep: These are antihistamine-based drugs that may help you nod off. Unlike Tylenol PM, these medications don’t contain acetaminophen, making them safer to use.

Valerian: This plant-based supplement has been used to ease insomnia for centuries, but scientists still aren’t sure exactly how it works (the thinking is that it may increase the amount of a certain chemical in the brain that has a calming effect on anxiety). While there’s no definitive proof that it works, valerian may help you fall asleep fast, as well as improve the quality of your slumber.

Remember, just because a medication is available over-the-counter doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe to take—especially in excess amounts or for long durations of time. Generally, you should avoid using OTC sleep aids for longer than two weeks, and if possible, it’s best to get your doctor’s approval before you start, as some of them may interact dangerously with other drugs you’re taking.