Sleeping Pills: Supplements, Prescriptions & Herbs

Updated in November 2022

There are many treatment options available for sleep disturbances, like herbs (valerian, passionflower and chamomile) and natural supplements (like melatonin or tryptophan). Moderate to severe sleep disturbances can be treated with a prescription medication for hypnotics or sedatives as a last resort, when other methods have not been effective. 

To improve your sleep, you should prioritize healthy lifestyle habits, like maintaining a healthy diet, regular physical exercise and taking time to relax. 

You should consult your doctor when your frequently experience insomnia, if poor sleep is interfering with your quality of life, or if you experience other symptoms, like changes to mood or depression. The doctor will assess your symptoms to determine an underlying cause and start appropriate treatment as necessary. 

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Natural supplements 

Some sleep agents purchased at the pharmacy do not require a prescription. Nonetheless, it is important to consult your doctor before taking them.

1. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body. It serves to regulate circadian rhythm and is controlled by the body’s exposure to light and darkness. Melatonin production is usually stimulated at nighttime, and inhibited during the day. 

Taking melatonin as a supplement can help to improve sleep disturbances and changes to circadian rhythm. This can occur following jet lag, working shift work, or with other mental disorders. It has a hypnotic and sedative effect that can promote drowsiness and keep you asleep. 

Because it is a sold as a dietary supplement in the USA and Canada, it is not regulated by the FDA or Health Canada. Dosing will vary with age, weight and sensitivity, but recommendations generally state to start with the lowest possible dose for your age and to gradually increase over time until the desired effect is achieved. It is best to speak to a doctor or pharmacist about initial dosing and how to titrate up. In the UK, melatonin is only available for purchase with a prescription. 

Learn more about melatonin dosing and how it is used. 

2. L-Tryptofan 

L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is found in food sources. It is indicated for sleep disturbances like insomnia and even to complement the treatment of depression or anxiety. 

When taken, L-tryptophan is metabolized into serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is important for the regulation of mood, appetite and sleep.

Like melatonin, L-tryptophan for medicinal purposes is not regulated in USA because it is regarded as a dietary supplement. In Canada and the UK, it can be found as an additive to food products in low doses, but a prescription is required for doses over 220 mg per day. 

Prescription medication

The most commonly prescribed medications for sleep disturbances fall into the hypnotic and sedative classes. They are generally recommended for immediate relief of insomnia, when sleep compromises quality of life or persists even after treating the underlying cause of it. 

These medications are usually recommended when other treatment approaches, like healthy sleep habits or natural supplements, have not been effective. 

These medications can be obtained at the pharmacy with a prescription and should be used for a short-term period. Long-term use can cause side effects like dizziness, drowsiness and dependence. 

1. Benzodiazepines

The most commonly-prescribed benzodiazepines for insomnia are alprazolam, triazolam, estazolam, flurazepan and flunitrazepam. They act by decreasing functions within the brain, causing drowsiness and a tranquilizing effect.

Benzodiazepines increase the time it takes to fall asleep and keep you asleep, which can increase overall sleep quality.

Dosing for benzos depends on the type of medication selected and the severity of the insomnia. They should be taken exactly as directed by the prescribing doctor. 

2. Sedative-hypnotics

Sedative-hypnotics are more recent medications with less side effects than benzos. However, they can cause memory problems and should be used cautiously under a doctor’s supervision. 

The most commonly-prescribed sedative-hypnotics include zalelon, zopiclone and zolpidem

3. Melatonin receptor agonists

Ramelteon is a common melatonin receptor agonist that is indicated for short-term treatment of insomnia. It connects to melatonin receptors in the brain to imitate this hormone’s effect, and helps with falling asleep and maintaing good sleep quality throughout the night. 

The recommended dose is one 8 mg pill, about 30 minutes before going to bed. 

4. Antidepressants 

Some antidepressants may be prescribed for the treatment of insomnia, like amitryptaline, trazodone or mirtazapine. They contain sedative properties that inhibit acetylcholine, norepinephrine and serotonin reuptake in the nervous system. This decreases the time it takes to fall sleep, and increase total sleep time.

Generally, these medications are indicated for the treatment of simultaneous depression and insomnia. Dosing varies depending on the medication selected and severity of symptoms.

Natural herbs

Natural herbs should always be the first choice for sleep aids. Some natural options for sleep include: 

1. Valerian

Valerian roots have a tranquilizing action that reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. 

Valerian is a very common plant that can be found in supplement form. The recommended dose varies between 45 to 450 mg, taken 30 minutes before bed. 

2. Chamomile 

Chamomile is a plant that helps to soothe, relax and decrease stress and anxiety, which are factors that contribute to insomnia. 

To benefit from these effects, you should take chamomile as a tea before going to bed. Learn more about the health benefits that chamomile tea can offer. 

3. Lavender

Lavender is a purple flower plant that is easy to find and provides many health benefits. To help improve sleep quality, you can inhale a few drops of lavender essential oil 30 minutes before going to bed.

You can also apply lavender essential oil to your pillow case to help you sleep. 

4. Passionflower

Passionflower is a plant that is commonly used to treat insomnia, anxiety and other central nervous system disturbances. It is rich in flavanoids and alkaloids, which reduce motor activity and also have a sedative, anxiolytic and antispasmodic effect that help to prolong sleep. 

Passionflower can be found as a supplement on its own or in combination with other medicinal herbs. It can also be taken as a tea. The recommended dose is about 100 to 200 mg, taken before bed. 

5. Lemon balm

Lemon balm is a plant with soothing properties that can improve sleep quality. To reap this benefit, you can prepare it as a tea using lemon balm leaves. 

Read more about the health benefits of lemon balm and how to take it. 

Safety considerations

When taking medications, herbs or supplements for sleep, you should avoid consuming alcohol or any other sedative medications. Ensure at least 8 hours of sleep to avoid drowsiness the next day. Avoid taking an extra dose of your sleep agent in the middle of the night.

Treatment should always start off with the lowest possible dose. You should try to use these agents sparingly and only when necessary. You should avoid operating heavy machinery after use of these medications. 

Check out other tips for falling asleep fast that can help improve your sleep quality.