The Dark Side of Sleep Medications

Sleep is one of your greatest healers, regenerating your brain along with every other part of your body. Research has shown that people who chronically experience a lack of sleep have reduced immunity, impaired work performance, and decreased memory; they don’t handle stress well, and they are more irritable and less happy than people who get enough sleep.

The statistics are alarming: one in four Americans takes some kind of sleep medication. According to the National Sleep Foundation, before Thomas Edison developed the light bulb people slept an average of ten hours a night. Now about 70 million Americans are affected by sleep problems.

The National Institutes of Health has declared chronic insomnia a major public health problem, yet despite the huge amount of money being spent on sleep drugs—around 2.5 million dollars annually—prescription medications don’t address the underlying causes of insomnia. What’s worse is that these drugs produce serious side effects, including physical and psychological addiction, memory loss, headaches, behavioral and cognitive changes, and sickening hangovers.

One of the most common sleep medications, Ambien, is a central nervous system depressant that slows down normal brain function; to get off of Ambien, I recommend that you slowly decrease the drug over a period of two to three weeks and then discontinue taking it completely. Ambien is addictive; sudden discontinuation could cause rebound effects that include an increase in brain activity resulting in symptoms of nervousness and anxiety.

People often end up on sleep medications because of a few bad nights of sleep; unfortunately, in many cases no one bothered to ask the all-important question of why they were having trouble sleeping in the first place. The good news is that natural medicine not only has solutions to help you get off of sleep medications such as Ambien, and to sleep well—it can also address the underlying conditions if you have chronic insomnia. These include unmanaged stress, hormonal changes (especially in women), and from a Chinese medicine perspective, imbalances in Qi. If you experience chronic insomnia, here are a few examples of my recommendations for how you can deal with the underlying causes:

  • To get regular sleep, make a plan for it. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid exercising at least five hours before bedtime.
  • Turn off the television at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, like taking a hot bath with aromatherapy oils such as lavender, melissa, and clary sage.
  • Get off of caffeine. Believe it or not, caffeine is a drug. It blocks the action of the brain chemical adenosine, which tells your brain to go to sleep.
  • Use coffea, a homeopathic medicine derived from coffee. It can help induce sleep by calming down the nervous system when the senses seem over-stimulated. The recommended dose of coffea is three pills, with a strength of 30c, taken under the tongue.
  • Take 5HTP, a compound derived from the amino acid L-tryptophan. This helps many people with insomnia by acting as a precursor to serotonin. The recommended dose is 100 milligrams one hour before bedtime.
  • Take valerian root as an herbal supplement. It relaxes and restores your nervous system, especially if your mind is racing. The herb has compounds that bind to GABA receptors in the brain, exerting a calming effect. The recommended dose is 300 to 500 milligrams taken one hour before bedtime. (I don’t recommend valerian root if you are already taking 5HTP.)
  • If you are a woman, have your progesterone and estrogen levels checked. When women are experiencing fluctuations in their hormones—for example, when they go through perimenopause—insomnia can be a sign of low progesterone, estrogen, or both. Supplemental bio-identical natural hormones can help those who suffer from insomnia due to lowered hormone levels; herbal medicines that have phytoestrogenic effects, such as black cohosh, and phytoprogesteronic effects, such as chaste tree berry, can also help.
  • Get your adrenals tested. If you are under significant stress for prolonged periods of time, your circadian rhythms can be thrown off. Testing your adrenals with an Adrenal Stress Index, a saliva test, can help determine what your stress hormone (cortisol) level is at different times. If your cortisol level is high at night, you won’t be able to fall asleep very well. Supplements that help regulate your sleep cycle through their actions on your adrenal glands include phosphatidylserine, a soy-based supplement that decreases cortisol at night, and Siberian ginseng, which increases your cortisol level in the morning when it should be high.
  • See a practitioner of Chinese medicine to assess why you may have insomnia from an Eastern point of view. If you are frequently frustrated, your insomnia may be due to what is called “liver Qi stagnation” in Chinese medicine. This means that your Qi, or vital force, isn’t flowing smoothly, which can lead to feelings of tension in your body. If you feel anxious and have heart palpitations associated with insomnia, you may have what is known as “deficient heart yin,” which means that your yin energy, the feminine aspect of your Qi, is depleted; this can cause too much “fire” (a term used in Chinese medicine for yang energy, or the masculine aspect of your Qi) to flare up, resulting in agitation, especially at night. Chinese herbal medicines and acupuncture can have profound effects in the treatment of intractable insomnia.

Sleep helps you to heal and restore your body and mind. To give yourself all the benefits of sound sleep, remember to create a plan for sleep every night, decrease your stress levels, and use natural medicines if you experience insomnia. If you’ve suffered from chronic insomnia, identify and treat the underlying causes so that you can bring your body back into balance and fully experience the wonderful gift of healthy sleep.

Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the Hawaii bestselling book Natural Choices for Women’s Health; How the Secrets of Natural and Chinese Medicine Can Create a Lifetime of Wellness (Three Rivers Press, 2005). You can reach her at