The Main Ingredients in Sleep Aids

Million of sleepless people turn to sleep pills or sleep aids for insomnia. In the 1960s, when barbiturates fell out of favor due to addiction issues, pharmaceutical companies began the race for the best modern sleeping pill. Today, the main ingredients in sleep aids are largely determined by the availability as over-the-counter or by prescription only.


The chemical family benzodiazepine comprises the first generation of non-barbituate prescription sleep aids. Although today they are more frequently passed over today in favor of newer alternatives, benzodiazepines, which include lorazepam and diazepam, are still prescribed for anxiety disorders and insomnia-related anxiety. Unfortunately, people can become addicted to benzodiazepines, warns the National Institutes of Health, and they can also reduce the overall quality of your sleep over time.

Non-benzodiazepine sleep aids

Since the 1990s, physicians have endorsed the so-called “non-benzodiazepine” sleep aids such as zolpidem and zaleplon. Actually, this class of drugs also act on benzodiazepine receptors, but they more accurately target the the brain, reducing side-effects. Despite popular opinion, a 2007 article published in the journal “Physiology and Behavior” found that this popular class of sleep pills does not help with insomnia due to shift-work or jet-lag.


Most over-the-counter sleeping aids are comprised of antihistamines, the same class of drug used to treat allergies. Sleeping pills with doxylamine and diphenhydramine may not be as effective as prescription sleeping pills, but they have similar problems. Taking this class of sedatives at night can help with insomnia in the short-term, but long-term use can actually make insomnia worse. Taking antihistamine-based sleeping pills also affects daytime alertness levels, causing dizziness and impaired judgment. In 2008, an international team of sleep physicians associated with the journal “Prescrire International” recommended avoiding over-the-counter sleeping pills if at all possible until more research is completely about their long-term effects. On the other hand, limited use of antihistamine-based sleep aids are safe for treating the occasional bout of insomnia.


The human body produces melatonin to modify the sleep-wake cycle. Taking a derivative of this non-scheduled sleep aid may help with getting to sleep at night, although not necessarily with staying asleep due to the short lifespan of the compound in the brain. A 2008 drug review published in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine suggests melatonin can be useful with overcoming jetlag or shiftwork-caused sleep disorders, precisely the kind of insomnia with which prescription sleep aids cannot help. Melatonin is not approved by the FDA, and is not recommended for long-term use.

About this Author

Ryan Hurd is a writer and consciousness studies researcher living in California. His dream expertise has been featured in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Hurd has a MA in Consciousness Studies, and is the author of “Enhance your dream life.”