Benzodiazepines, often called benzos, are a class of medications that are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic disorders, muscle tension, insomnia, and seizure disorders. Common benzodiazepines include Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam). They are sedative-hypnotic medications that work by suppressing some of the body’s stress response.
Benzos act on neurotransmitters in the brain that send signals to the body. Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is one of these chemical messengers that the brain uses to send signals throughout the central nervous system. It acts as a kind of natural tranquilizer in the body, lowering anxiety and calming the fight-or-flight response. Benzos increase the presence of GABA in the brain and act as central nervous system depressants. Body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration are all lowered by the action of benzodiazepine medications in the body.
As prescription medications, benzodiazepines are classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as Schedule IV controlled substances. They have the potential for abuse, drug dependence, and addiction. Most benzos are designed for short-term relief of symptoms and are not meant to be taken long term, as indicated by the prescribing information for Xanax. There are some over-the-counter alternatives to benzodiazepine medications that may have variable side effects and different methods of action.
Benzodiazepines are dispensed to treat a range of symptoms, and different ones work for different concerns. For example, Valium is often prescribed to help people relax and to reduce muscle tension, while Xanax is dispensed to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Restoril (temazepam) is more of a sleep aid prescribed for anxiety.
Detailed below are some of the over-the-counter products that have similar effects to some benzodiazepines and what they may be helpful in treating.
The antihistamine allergy medication Benadryl can also act as a sedative-hypnotic. It may, therefore, work as a sleep aid in place of a benzodiazepine insomnia drug.
This herbal substance is commonly prepared as a drink or in tea. Valerian root has mild tranquilizing action and can be used as a natural sleep aid with calming and relaxing side effects
This herbal supplement works to balance out levels of the stress hormone cortisol to level out anxiety.
This can be drunk as herbal tea or taken as a supplement. It has calming and relaxing effects, helping to minimize stress and anxiety and promote feelings of calm.
This is a hormone that the brain produces. It plays a role in managing sleep functions and helps you to stay asleep. It can be taken as a supplement to combat insomnia.
This herbal supplement comes from a daisy-like flowering plant. It is often brewed in tea and consumed in beverage form. Chamomile can induce feelings of calm and relaxation, and it is commonly used to help a person fall asleep.
This plant has calming and relaxing effects. It can be found in lotions, bath salts, candles, aromatherapy, and essential oils that may help to enhance feelings of calm and, therefore, help people to fall asleep more naturally.
This is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain and body. Taking B1 supplements in pill form can help with emotional processing and potentially aid in reducing anxiety.
This is produced naturally in the body and depleted by high levels of adrenaline, caused by heightened stress. Taking it as a supplement can level out this deficiency, which can then restore sleep functions.
This is a natural product that serves to balance hormone levels in the brain. It specifically helps to increase serotonin while lowering cortisol. It can, therefore, act as an antidepressant and aid in managing high levels of chronic stress.
This herb is often prepared in a tea, but it can also be taken in pill form. Kava kava can have calming effects that help to minimize anxiety.
This herbal supplement reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in the brain, which can help lower levels of anxiety.
Marketed in the United States in several forms, synthetic versions of the naturally occurring brain chemical with sedative-like properties can help to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and enhance sleep functions.
Most of these over-the-counter benzodiazepine substitutes and supplements are considered to be safe, but they may not be overly effective. Some can have difficult side effects that may even be dangerous as well.
Benadryl, for example, can cause daytime sleepiness, blurred vision, and sluggishness. The National Capital Poison Center warns that while kava kava may have calming effects, using the supplement may cause liver damage. GABA is a particularly large molecule when manufactured as a synthetic product in a lab, and it can be difficult for the body to absorb enough of it to be effective.
According to Harvard Health, both kava kava and valerian have been shown through research studies to be no more effective than placebos for the management of anxiety and as alternatives to a benzodiazepine drug. That being said, every person is different, and what works for one person may not be as effective for another. Any of these over-the-counter, herbal, or natural supplements can be worth trying as a method for managing stress and anxiety and helping to obtain restful sleep, but the guidance of a medical professional should be sought first.
Anxiety, high stress, and sleep difficulties can often be helped by natural non-drug techniques as well. For instance, eating healthy, balanced, and nutritious meals, sticking to a set sleeping and waking schedule, physical exercise and exertion, yoga, mindfulness meditation, massage therapy, and creative expression can all help to manage stress and anxiety naturally. The body can easily become deficient in vitamins and minerals, which can contribute to stress and sleep issues, and taking supplements to balance things out can help.
Benzodiazepines are considered to be safe when taken under the direction of a medical professional and for medicinal purposes; however, they are also habit-forming. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that in 2016, more than 2.5 million Americans misused a prescription tranquilizer or sedative medication.
Benzos are generally used as part of a comprehensive treatment program, which should also include therapeutic and supportive measures to manage anxiety, stress, insomnia, and tension. Natural and over-the-counter supplements and medications can be helpful tools, but they should also be used as part of a complete treatment program that addresses underlying causes of stress and works to alleviate them.
Drug Scheduling. Drug Enforcement Administration. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling
(September 2016). Xanax. Pfizer. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2016/018276s052lbl.pdf
Kava Kava. National Capital Poison Center. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.poison.org/articles/2016-jun/kava
(March 2014). Benzodiazepines (and the Alternatives). Harvard Health. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Benzodiazepines_and_the_alternatives
(September 2017). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved December 2018 from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm