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The Different Types Of Sleep Aids

A third of people reportedly take some form of sleep supplement or something else to help provide them with a peaceful night’s rest.1

Sleeping pills, sleep aids, sleep supplements, call them what you will, but whatever the brand, product or type, they all have the same goal: to help you fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.

If you struggle with your sleep health and are considering using a sleep aid, it can be a relatively intimidating prospect. With so many options available to you, you may find yourself tossing and turning in bed and pondering ‘what can I take to sleep every night?’

Let’s explore your options…


Your body produces melatonin – an aid in regulating your sleeping habits – naturally as a hormone.2 A synthetic melatonin supplement, however, is available on the NHS for short-term sleep issues.2 Take it and you will, hopefully, go to sleep more quickly and be less likely to wake up during the night as a result.3

Only those with a prescription signed off by a doctor can obtain melatonin.3 Those prescribed it will either be given it in pill form or via a liquid to drink.3

Over the course of the night, the medication gradually releases melatonin into your bloodstream.3 It’s often used by people for only a few weeks in order to treat temporary sleep issues, including insomnia (although, in severe cases, courses of melatonin can be prescribed for up to three months).3

Other Prescription Sleep Aids

What is an alternative to melatonin? Well, there are a few other options for anyone who either doesn’t fancy taking the hormone via prescription or has tried it and found that it wasn’t particularly effective for them.

Your GP may well prescribe you a different course of medication. Other sleep supplements only available via prescription in the UK include:

  • Benzodiazepines – Sedatives that slow the body and brain down, hopefully easing you into sleep.4
  • ‘The Z drugs’ – These medications are usually prescribed with brand names beginning with the letter ‘Z’.5
  • Barbiturates – Another form of sedative, the use of barbiturates is extremely uncommon now in the UK.6
  • Antidepressants – Sometimes, depression can be found to be the underlying cause of long-term insomnia and doctors will try a course of SSRIs to treat the low mood and hopefully, in turn, the sleep problems.7

Over-The-Counter Sleep Aids

Most sleeping pills that a pharmacist will sell you without prescription will be antihistamines. Their ability to invoke the sleepiness you need comes as a side effect.8 Allergy sufferers will know about antihistamines for their ability to combat the symptoms of allergic reactions. They may also know of the ‘drowsiness’ that can come along with it.

Diphenhydramine is arguably the most common form of over the counter (OTC) antihistamine. Top brands will tend to sell them in 25 and 50 mg tablets, one of which is to be swallowed shortly before bedtime.9

Natural Sleep Aids

If you’re only just starting to suffer with your sleep, you may wish to try something a little more natural first.

Generally, most natural sleep aids will be considered safer than their over-the-counter or prescription-based counterparts – primarily because they’ve shown to have less in the way of side effects.10 That said, it’s generally the case that there is less scientific evidence as to their efficacy.10

There is an answer for anyone asking themselves the question ‘what can I take naturally for insomnia?’ And that answer is ‘herbal sleep aids’. Of which there are a few to choose from…

  • Glycine – Research suggests that the amino acid glycine could enhance sleep.10 It functions in part by decreasing body temperature before bed to indicate that it is time to sleep.11
  • Lavender – Numerous studies have suggested that moderate insomniacs may be helped by inhaling lavender oil just before bed.12
  • Valerian – Valerian is a herb with a root that is commonly used as a natural treatment for symptoms of anxiety, depression, menopause and sleeplessness.13
  • Magnesium – Magnesium is a mineral that is known to relax muscles and may aid in calming and helping people fall asleep. According to studies, its capacity to control melatonin synthesis may be the cause of its calming effects.14

Electronic Sleep Aids

Options aren’t just limited to the medicinal. There are lots of different technological advancements out there on the market that claim to be able to assist people in getting a better night’s sleep.

Some of the sleep gadgets may take a leap of faith, but many are actually scientifically-backed medical devices. They often use tech to cleverly and subtly tap into the body’s circadian rhythm.

Others help monitor your sleep habits; some control temperature. A few track air quality, while others offer soothing music tailored to your sleep. Then there are noise-cancelling in-ear headphones, meditation apps and even sensory sleep aids for those that find the physical ‘touch’ part of sleeping under a duvet difficult to deal with.

A Different Approach

As a good deal of sleep problems are behavioural, most medical professionals will explore your lifestyle and approach to sleep before prescribing you anything.

The first step should be an informal chat about your overall sleep hygiene, nocturnal habits and general lifestyle. They will then likely offer up any number of tips for better sleep.

A stronger non-medicinal route comes in the shape of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A treatment that aims to alter how individuals approach, think about and behave, it is a form of talking therapy that has been proven to help people manage their problems.15

So, then. What supplements are best for sleep? Well, it depends on you and your situation. Hopefully some of the options we’ve delved into here can provide you with ways to improve your sleep hygiene and help you get a better night’s sleep.


1, 1 in 3 older adults take something to help them sleep – but many aren’t talking to their doctors – University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation
2, Melatonin: What You Need To Know – National Institute of Health
3, Melatonin for sleep problems – NHS
4, Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers – Mind
5, The Z-Drugs Zolpidem, Zaleplon, and Eszopiclone Have Varying Actions on Human GABAA Receptors Containing γ1, γ2, and γ3 Subunits – Frontiers in Neuroscience, Grant Richter, at al
6, Everything you need to know about barbiturates – Medical News Today
7, Drugs to Treat Insomnia – WebMD
8, Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers – Mind
9, Nytol One-A-Night – Nytol
10, 9 Natural Sleep Aids That May Help You Get Some Shut-Eye in 2022 – Healthline
11, The Sleep-Promoting and Hypothermic Effects of Glycine are Mediated by NMDA Receptors in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus – Neuropsychopharmacology, Nobuhiro Kawai, et al
12, Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomised Controlled Trial – Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Angela Smith Lillehei PhD, et al
13, Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine, Noriko Shinjyo, et al
14, The Role of Magnesium in Sleep Health: a Systematic Review of Available Literature – Biological Trace Element Research, Arman Arab, et al
15, Overview – Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – NHS