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Are There Safer Alternatives to Using Ambien Sleeping Medication?

Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic that is indicated for the treatment of sleep problems, such as insomnia. Ambien is the brand name but the active generic drug in its formulation is zolpidem. The US Food and Drug Administration gave this drug the green light for public use in 1992. In the public eye, Ambien may be less known for its therapeutic effects than its sometimes bizarre side effects.

As The Fix discusses, there are numerous personal accounts of strange behavior while on this drug. Take for instance a car accident in 2006 involving Patrick Kennedy (of the political family). When police on the scene questioned Kennedy, during the middle of the night, he bizarrely stated that he was late for a vote. Later on, Kennedy advised that he had taken Ambien and could not recall the accident nor his strange behavior. This story gained national attention and a spotlight fell on Ambien, particularly its unexpected side effects, including odd behavior and blackouts.

Additional reports abound. In fact, criminal law attorneys have even developed an “Ambien defense” for their clients’ crimes. Essentially, the defense argues that the effects of Ambien can remove a person’s ability to form intent, such as intent to commit a crime. For this reason, as the argument goes, a client who commits a crime while on Ambien, such as homicide or vehicular manslaughter, should not be treated the same as individuals who were in full possession of their mental faculties at the time of the crime.

In view of the possible strange and even dangerous side effects associated with Ambien use (and abuse), it is no small wonder that some individuals with a sleep problem or disorder want to seek an alternative to this top-selling pharmaceutical. In some instances, a person may still want to take a prescription medication and will need to inquire with a doctor about available options. Individuals who are seeking non-pharmaceutically based help will find that there are different holistic options. A few of such options are discussed here.

Herbal Alternatives to Ambien

The following discussion should not be construed as an endorsement of any herbal products, but rather a source of information alone. The following herbs (available in different formats, such as teas and pills) may be helpful for people who experience sleep troubles:

  • Valerian root: Some studies have concluded that use of valerian root can help to induce and maintain sleep. Regarding insomnia, it appears that additional studies must be made in order to learn about the effectiveness of this drug in this context. If a person is taking a prescription medication, the best practice is to speak with a doctor before taking valerian root as this herb can have interactions with prescription drugs.
  • Melatonin: The human brain has the ability to produce melatonin. Research suggests that melatonin plays an essential part in the sleep-wake cycle as well as other circadian rhythms. According to research, melatonin may be helpful for people who have circadian rhythm disorders as well as those who are trying to recover from jet lag.
  • Chamomile: Per the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), chamomile is a safe herb to use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it can help people who are experiencing sleep trouble, but additional research should be conducted to determine how effective it can be to help insomnia. One caution, however, is that some people may have an allergic reaction to chamomile. This may be the case for individuals who have a sensitivity to chrysanthemums, ragweed, or other herbs in the compositae family.
  • Other herbs: The herbs that are thought to help with sleep problems include hops, lemon balm, and passionflower. However, research still needs to be performed to determine the safety and effectiveness of these herbs in the context of sleep problems.

Before using an herbal formula for sleep troubles, it is helpful to note some of the useful information that Mayo Clinic provides on this topic. Herbal supplements (includes teas) do not undergo the same level of scientific review as other medications, nor are they strictly regulated. Consumers mainly have to rely on information contained in the marketing of these products, though there may be some research available on any given herb. Manufacturers of herbal products do not have to obtain any sort of approval from the FDA before selling their formulations on the market. However, the FDA does regulate herbal products; they are characterized as dietary supplements. Essentially, these regulations relate to quality control issue and efforts to avoid any deception about the products. Again, a person always has the option to speak with a doctor about an herbal supplement before starting use.
Holistic Practices to Help with Sleep Problems
As discussed in an informative Huffington Post article, there a several holistic practices that are considered to be supportive of sleep. Per the National Institutes of Health, nearly 38 percent of American adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Typically, when American use CAM, it is in combination with a conventional form of medicine, such as visits with a medical specialist. The following is a list of some holistic practices that are used to help people improve their sleep health:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Muscle relaxation exercises
  • Imagery and visualization
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Naturopathy
  • Homeopathy
  • Chiropractic treatments
  • Osteopathic treatments

Even a quick review of the above practices should reveal that much can be done on one’s own. Relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and tai chi can also be done with little to no formal instruction, though having guidance is helpful, especially initially. There are numerous DVDs, CDs, and online videos available for streaming. Regarding treatments, private insurance plans may cover CAM. The best practice is to reach out to the insurance carrier and learn about coverage terms for CAM.

The reality is that individuals who experience sleep troubles often have to experiment with techniques and practices to learn which ones will work best for them. The good news is that holistic practices are generally considered safe, though it is always a good idea to speak with a knowledgeable doctor before engaging in any new physical activities or practices.

A study by the National Health Interview Survey is illuminating. The in-person study, conducted by the US Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control, looked at a wide range of health issues. According to the study, individuals with insomnia may be more apt to try CAM approaches. Among the study participants, 45 percent with insomnia engaged in some type of CAM in the past year as compared to 30.9 percent who did not have insomnia. It does appear from this study, however, that people with insomnia tend to engage in CAM more than people without this condition, but not specifically to treat the insomnia. Of the participants, 54 percent who had insomnia used CAM, but only 1.8 percent used CAM to expressly try and help the insomnia. According to sleep expert Michael J. Breus, PhD, many Americans are missing an opportunity to treat their insomnia through CAM and relaxation techniques.

Common Foods to Help with Sleep
Sleep science is quite complex; however, it does appear that small acts can have a significant impact on a person’s night sleep. Individuals who have a severe sleep disorder may find that they need to create a layered plan of action, which can involve using food to their benefit. For people who experience occasional sleep troubles, eating certain foods at certain times may be particularly helpful. The following are some foods that can support getting some good shuteye:

  • Low-protein and high-carbohydrate snack: Toast fits this category. Foods that have a high carbohydrate and low protein profile tend to be easy to digest and can help a person to transition from a waking state to sleep.
  • Cookie or sugary snack: Seldom are people told that it is a good idea to have a cookie or sugary snack before bed. However, eating a couple of cookies (or other sugary treat) about 30 minutes before bed can have a sedative effect. It is important, however, that the snack be light as too much sugar can keep a person awake.
  • Soaking in Epsom salts: Soaking in a hot bath, with one or two cups of Epsom salts, for about 15-20 minutes can help to relax muscles and de-stress the mind. Getting into a relaxed state is especially important for anyone who has trouble sleeping. It is important to talk to a doctor before using Epsom salts in the case of certain conditions, such as a muscle injury.
  • Tryptophan: This is a naturally occurring chemical that is found in different foods. It is known to calm the brain and ease a person into sleep. Foods containing tryptophan include but are not limited to cashews, cottage cheese, soybeans, tuna, turkey, and milk.

In addition, through regular dietary practices, individuals may be aware of foods that have a calming effect. The opposite is also truth, as knowing what keeps one awake is important. To that end, it is helpful to keep in mind that at least one study involving caffeine and sleep has found among occasional coffee drinkers, even decaffeinated coffee can increase a person’s blood pressure and disturb sleep.

The study found that regular coffee drinkers did not seem to experience any sleep disturbance after drinking decaffeinated coffee. This is likely because the regular coffee drinkers had developed a tolerance to caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. The study is a testament to the need for people who have sleep troubles to be vigilant about their diet and not to make too many assumptions.

As this discussion suggests, individuals who experience sleep problems often have to actively find different potential solutions. For some, a pharmaceutical medication, such as Ambien, can understandably be appealing. However, as noted, taking Ambien can lead one to experience strange side effects, and there is a risk of addiction. The risk of addiction is small provided a person takes Ambien in strict accordance with the prescribing doctor’s orders.


For those who do not want to take Ambien or any other prescription medications for a sleep disorder, taking herbal supplements, engaging in holistic practices, and consuming certain foods may be beneficial alternatives.


At the same time, it is always a good idea to speak with a doctor, sleep expert, mental health professional, or other qualified person about the sleep condition and available options.