Using sleeping pills or supplements for the first time can seem like a scary prospect—especially when you’re in an airplane cabin, closely surrounded by strangers who’ll witness your every sleep-induced move. But using the right ones can make you a more confident achiever of plane sleep: Over-the-counter or natural (read: non-prescription) options are unlikely to cause you a Bridesmaids moment of sleeping pill-induced panic that sends the flight into a tizzy.
Over-the-counter sleeping pills have only a few distinctive active ingredients—some of which you might prefer over others depending on your health needs and preferences. Here’s what to know about the best over-the-counter sleep aids out there, so you can ask your doctor about the kind you think you’d prefer.
Editor’s Note: This story includes both natural sleep aids and over-the-counter sleeping pills. All should be cleared for personal use by a doctor who’s familiar with your unique health conditions and medical history.
Diphenhydramine Sleeping Pills
If you’ve ever taken common sleep or allergy medicines like ZzzQuil, Benadryl, Aleve PM, or Tylenol PM, you’ve taken diphenhydramine. The active ingredient is an antihistamine that quells allergic reactions, with the added side effect of sleepiness that makes it common in sleeping pills.
As someone who’s used antihistamines for both unexpected allergic reactions (thank you, sensitive skin) and for sleep, I’ve been told by doctors that diphenhydramine is generally safe but shouldn’t be overused by those who need it for anti-allergy purposes. Overuse can lead to a higher tolerance to the active ingredient, which would mean needing to take more and more for it to continue working. My rule of thumb is to only use diphenhydramine-based medicines when I really need them: when I’m having an allergic reaction, or on a plane when it’s all I have and I really need some sleep. At home, and whenever else I can, I use something a little more natural (more on that next).
About as natural a sleep aid as you can get, melatonin is the hormone your brain naturally releases when it’s tired, to trigger sleepiness. It also happens to be available in pill form, so you can introduce the sleep-triggering chemical when it’s not naturally occurring, like on a cramped plane or for fighting jetlag. Like most sleeping pills, it can have some negative side effects if used long-term, but it’s generally the lightest sleep aid you can take, and will usually do the trick for sleeping pill newbies.
Unisom and Nyquil
If you’ve tried the natural stuff and found that you need something stronger to get to sleep on the plane, another antihistamine called doxylamine is a common active ingredient in stronger sleeping pills like Unisom sleep tablets and NyQuil cold medicine. The same antihistamine qualms apply, but if you’re not allergy-prone and not using antihistamines often, then sleep tabs like Unisom will offer a stronger effect. NyQuil has the added benefit of a pain reliever, fever reducer, and cough suppressant if you’re feeling sick and need some rest.
My personal solution to sleeping on the plane isn’t quite a sleeping pill, but I’ve found it to be about as strong as one. Valerian root is a potent herbal supplement that causes surprisingly strong sedation and calms anxiety. Even the coated, pill version of this supplement usually has a strong smell that’s reminiscent of funky cheese—but it’s worth it.
Called “nature’s Xanax” or “nature’s Valium” by some doctors, valerian root can instill sleepiness and relaxation within about 30 minutes, and it doesn’t have the same after effect of drowsiness that I’ve experienced hours after taking other sleeping pills.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Sleep on the Plane: A Guide to Sleep Aids
- 10 Tiny Gadgets That Will Help You Sleep on the Plane
- This Is Why You Can’t Sleep on the Plane
SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon for more.
We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.