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Herbal Alternatives - Sleep Aids

Updated on March 8, 2010

The Pharmaceutical Company's role in Sleep Aid Dependency

It's no secret that we live in stressful times and because of that, many people are finding it harder and harder to get a restful night of sleep. Everyday worries get tucked into bed with us so between careers, family and simply trying to survive in these economic times, it's become virtually impossible to get the recommended amount of healthy sleep every night. Many people are turning to prescription medicines and over the counter sleep aids, but these medications can become addictive, have harmful side effects and can even affect our overall health.

Unfortunately, many pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the situation and producing newer sleep aids at an alarming rate - each one with it's own lion's share of side effects and dependency profiles. Yet, more and more people are using them simply to get by. Not just that, but there are some terrifying correlations to consider about all these new sleep medications flooding the market.

  1. Many sleep aids are SSRI's - Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRI's work by limiting the amount of serotonin that can be reabsorbed into the presynaptic cell which increases the amount available to be absorbed by the postsynaptic receptors. In plain English, SSRI's alter how the brain absorbs and processes serotonin (the body's "feel-good" hormone). In the short-term, this elevated level of serotonin lowers the GABA or Gamma - AminoButyric Acid (the hormone responsible for anxiety) that can be absorbed by the body leaving the patient feeling euphoric and relaxed enough to want to sleep. Extended use however, alters the brain's ability to naturally produce healthy levels of these hormones that leave the patient dependent upon the SSRI sleep aid and can ultimately lead to depression, anxiety disorders and suicide.
  2. New medicines may be linked to high autism rates - In the last decade, childhood autism has increased at an alarming rate and certain studies have shown that improperly disposed-of prescription medicines may be to blame. For years, people have flushed expired medications down the toilet or thrown them out with the trash, but now certain laboratory-developed chemicals and compounds are finding their way into the water table and poisoning our future generations. During the last century, we didn't see these problems because many medications were organic in nature, and their chemical make-ups were able to degrade before they threatened to contaminate our environment. These newer, more potent chemical compounds have been found in the water supplies of demographic regions exhibiting high autism rates and this is a correlation that should not be ignored.
  3. Western medicine is altering our ability to stay healthy - The very medicines we rely on to lead healthy lives are only increasing the chances that we will develop other health problems that will eventually require other medications. Many chemical sleep aids alter the way our bodies process toxins, nutrients and minerals. For example, if a patient is dependent on sleep aids, their body loses its ability to fully cleanse itself of toxins acquired through the environment, food and stress. This added build-up of toxins can lead to other health problems ranging from digestive problems, heart disease and high blood pressure and even cancer. Not just that, but the build-up of toxins lowers our immune system's ability to fight off infections and diseases.

A Quick Note on Healthy Sleep

There is a huge difference between healthy sleep and simply being unconscious, but many people don't realize just how important the difference is. Most prescription sleep aids will put the patient into an unconscious state but will deny the brain the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep it needs to flush the bodily systems of toxins acquired from day to day living. We pick up these toxins in the food we eat, the air we breathe and from the various bacteria thriving in our bodies. Part of what triggers sleepiness is an increase in CO2 due to a build-up of these toxins, and only when our mind and bodies are in advanced delta sleep can we rid ourselves of these toxins effectively. In order to reach the delta phase of sleep, we need to go through REM sleep first, and most prescription sleep aids do not allow us to even reach REM sleep.

Are all chemical sleep aids bad?

Used in moderation under a responsible physician's care, sleep aids can be beneficial in treating certain sleep disorders or used during extremely traumatic situations. That said, it is not a good idea to rely on certain chemical sleep aids for any extended period of time unless directed by a physician, and all other avenues of treatment should be considered before using prescription sleep aids. Other avenues of treatment can include cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation and meditation techniques, sleep studies and assessment and herbal remedies.

There are many herbal supplements that are beneficial to healthy sleep. Like chemical sleep aids, they should be used in moderation and preferably under a physician's care and pregnant women should avoid using any unnecessary medications (chemical or herbal) unless directed by their physician.

As an opinion, I believe that chemical sleep aids are being prescribed too frequently and many of the newer ones haven't been fully evaluated yet. It seems that the large pharmaceutical companies are more interested in staying ahead of their competition and increasing their stock's value than they are in the public's health. Simply turn on the television and chances are you'll see one of the many law groups advertising class action lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies regarding chronic conditions brought on by prematurely-released medications. Also, some people believe that the larger pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs with the intent of creating or aggrevating other symptoms that will require more medicines to be used. This is a conspiracy theory, but it does make you think.

Herbal Alternatives to Chemical Sleep Aids

Before you consider using a prescription sleep aid, consider that there are many safe and effective alternative herbal supplements available that are non-addictive and will not produce nearly as many harmful side effects as chemical sleep aids will. Herbal sleep aids are available without a prescription and some may even be growing in your backyard. Here is a list of some of the more popular herbal sleep aids available.

  • Chamomile - This petite white flower is used in calming teas and has mild sedative propeties that induce muscle relaxation, slow down heart-rate and create an overall calm feeling that allows the patient to quickly go into REM sleep. The medicinal properties of chamomile are also beneficial to respiratory problems and cardiovascular circulation but do to its potential to stimulate the uterus, it should not be used by pregnant women. Chamomile is available in tea-form at most health food and vitamin stores or can be purchased as a whole plant from most nurseries. If growing your own chamomile plants for medicinal use, only use the petals of the flower because the stems contain enzymes that may bother the stomache lining.
  • Kava Kava - The roots of the kava kava plant contain an active ingredient called kavalactone that has moderate sedative properties and is a natural pain-killer. Kava kava also contains topical numbing properties, and it's one of the main ingredients in chloroseptic throat spray and many throat losanges. Even though kava kava induces a sleepy euphoric feeling, it's technically considered a psychotropic plant. For this reason, users of kava kava have reported having extremely vivid dreams but usually wake up feeling refreshed. It is important to note that kava kava does have the potential for abuse so the patient should be careful about dosage and frequency of use. Used properly though, kava kava is considered one of the most effective herbal sleep aids. Kava kava is available in standardized pill form at most pharmacies and vitamin shops or can be obtained in pure root form through online distributors.
  • Melatonin - Technically not a plant but rather a hormone, melatonin is one of the safest, most effective natural sleep aids available without a prescription. Melatonin is naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain but stress, disrupted circadian rhythms and accumulation of environmental toxins can affect the productivity of the pineal gland resulting in insomnia and a weakened immune system. Travelers experiencing "jet lag" can benefit from the use of melatonin to help acclimate their circadian rhythms to the local clock, and insomnia sufferers can benefit from an increased ability to fall asleep and stay asleep naturally. Melatonin does not affect REM sleep so the user wakes up feeling refreshed and alert. Melatonin works off of the body's vitamin D levels so it's best to use melatonin away from any light source, natural or electric. For this reason, melatonin is often referred to as "The Prince of Darkness".
  • Valerian - Valerian root extract is another safe alternative to using prescription sleep aids and is used in the treatment of chronic insomnia, intestinal and gastric disorders and to help patients detox from benzodiazepines and opiates. Users of valerian root have reported a significant increase in REM sleep and seem to have fewer health problems related to sleep deprivation. Valerian root extract is available in either pill or liquid form from most vitamin shops and pharmacies or can be purchased in bulk from certain online distributers. In some controlled studies, valerian has been found to both calm an agitated personality and stimulate a lethargic personality so there is speculation that it acts as a "balancing" agent for certain chronic psychological disorders. One adverse effect that users have reported is the musky smell associated with the valerian root. Most people associate the smell of the herb with feet and may give certain sensitive patients nausea.

Use Herbal Sleep Aids Responsibly

When using any form of mind-altering substance, whether chemical or herbal, use common sense and follow proper dosing directions. Even though herbal supplements are safer to use than prescription medications, there does exist the potential of accidental overdose, stomach and liver damage, damage to the reproductive system, developing a tolerance and birth defects or miscarriage.

Sleep aids, both herbal and pharmaceutical, should not be used indefinitely and at the first signs of dependence, you should consult your physician. If you experience any negative side effects such as shortness of breath, stomach cramping, headaches, inability to perform daily duties, nausea, chills/sweats, tinnitus, sexual side effects or confusion, stop using the sleep aid immediately.

For more safe alternatives on how to get a good night's sleep, click here


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    • profile image

      Andy Johnston 

      8 years ago

      Interesting article. I've heard great things about melatonin to fall asleep. When it comes to waking up, it's about the alarm clock. Moshi Voice controlled alarm clocks take a lot of the pain out of waking up in the morning.

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for commenting Money Glitch. Valerian's always left me feeling refreshed the next day but you're not the first person I've talked to who's reported being a bit drowsy the next day. Everyone has different metabolisms...

    • Money Glitch profile image

      Money Glitch 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Great hub, I have at used all the above herbs except for the Kava Kava, while pursuing my graduate degree. For me the valerian worked the best, however it would continue to make me sleepy the next day. But, all three work well for temporary sleeping problems. Thanks for sharing, congrats, and on being selected for this week's contest. :)

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Missi! Pretty much everyone I've talked to about melatonin (with the exception of sandyspider (above post) has had great results. Anything that can help a person get natural sleep is okay in my book. People just don't get enough sleep these days and I strongly believe that's why we have so many health problems. I also feel that the pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of this situation and flooding the market with unnecessary and harmful prescription medications. I'm certainly not condemning the pharmaceutical industry; I'm simply pointing out that there are healthier alternatives... Thanks again for commenting!

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      Great hub! Very informative, nicely laid out. I'm a believer in Melatonin, works wonders. Great info in your comments as well. Good luck in the contest.

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      The thing about melatonin is that you need to block out any light when you want to benefit from it's effect. The naturally-produced hormone, melatonin, is activated by the body's vitamin D levels. The body will absorb and store vitamin D during exposure to light (why we call tanning getting some vitamin D), but the body won't release it until there is an absence of light. Try taking a vitamin D supplement before the next time you use melatonin and also make sure to turn off any lights and pull the shades tight. Hopefully that will work for you next time Sandy. If not, try valerian. It's never let me down.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      I tried Melatonin before. It didn't seem to work. I should try it again.

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for commenting Richard. I've used melatonin as well (though I do prefer valerian for sleep), and it never left me with any sort of grogginess or hangover. Regarding western medicine I can only say this - Sure we're living longer but we are having to rely on medicines at an earlier age just to get through the day. Not only that but the older we get, the more medicines we have to take that leave us feeling numbed, disconnected and reliant on others. My Great-Grandfather was pruning his fruit trees at 100 years old having grown up with only aspirin and vitamins, yet our generation develops debilitating conditions at an alarmingly early age. I believe there is a time and place for certain beneficial medications, but I also think that the medical industry is a bit "trigger-happy" when treating minor inconveniences and ills (such as sleeping). That said, I'm not against the medical industry - I just think that alternative herbal, holistic and cognative-therapuetical techniques need to be recognized more.

    • Richard Armen profile image

      Richard Armen 

      8 years ago

      The only thing I take is a melatonin every once and a while. I too believe that we have messed our own bodies up with everything that we take.

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for commenting SimeyC. Chamomile's a favorite of mine as well and it's amazing how warm milk can make you sleepy!

    • SimeyC profile image

      Simon Cook 

      8 years ago from NJ, USA

      Great information - I tend to have sleeping problems in winter when my old bones hurt - I however do not like sleeping pills and often drink some hot milk, or chamomile tea. This hub is really informative - I'm open to try anything, but will probably keep up with the tea until things get really bad! Luckily spring is coming so I'll be tired out tending my garden...

      Thanks for the warning at the bottom - a lot of people assume that herbs are entirely safe and often overdose on them, with often dire consequences - moderation is the key, as is professional advice!

    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Somewhat true Dave. The difference between "natural" and "pharmaceutical" is how the chemical compounds have been altered. Natural herbs are designed to break down easier in both our bodily systems and our environment whereas most laboratory-produced medications contain alkaloids that do not break down. These alkaloids are responsible for damage to our bodies on a cellular level, contaminate our drinking water and contribute to dependency. Sometimes alkaloids occur in nature (cocaine, opium, hallucinogens, etc...) but for the most part, many herbal remedies are much safer for both the user and the environment.

    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 

      8 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      Delaney Herbs drugs what is the difference both come from plants.


    • Delaney Boling profile imageAUTHOR

      Delaney Boling 

      8 years ago

      Thanks BFP! I used to suffer from boughts of insomnia (a nasty little side effect from an anxiety disorder)and had to take some SSRI's for awhile. I never liked how they left me feeling "disconnected" so I eased off them and starting researching alternative treatments. I personally found that valerian worked the best for me and unlike the SSRI's, I felt normal and refreshed when I woke up in the morning. I still use some valerian to help get sleep when I'm stressed out but for the most part, I've found that meditation and relaxation techniques work just fine. I strongly think that most physicians are in the pharmaceutical companies' pockets and are too quick to prescribe medications without fully weighing the patient's health or well-being.

    • breakfastpop profile image


      8 years ago

      Terrific smart and informative hub. Half the people I know who take prescription drugs for sleep end up in the kitchen in the middle of the night slugging down potato chips with no memory of the event later!


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