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Ambien is the brand name of zolpidem, a drug primarily used for the treatment of sleep disorders. Although safe and effective as prescribed, Ambien can become addictive when misused. Because of this risk, physicians no longer prescribe the drug to clients under the age of 18. Moreover, federal prescribing guidelines recommend that doctors only prescribe the drug when other treatment, such as counseling, has not been effective.

How Ambien Works

Ambien works by enhancing the brain’s gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, or the “chemical messenger” that calms overactive neurons. By regulating overactivity, Ambien reduces the typical time elapsed until onset of sleep. The drug is intended only for short-term treatment of sleep disorders. Larger doses can also help individuals stay asleep longer, but they may also cause drowsiness and impaired judgement into the next morning.

Ambien Side-Effects

Side effects include daytime sleepiness, nausea, memory problems, sleep walking, diarrhea, headaches, and sometimes even hallucinations. Ambien may also decrease mental alertness throughout the next day. Clients should therefore not take the drug unless they can reliably get 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and they should also avoid driving in the morning. In some users, Ambien can cause memory loss and sleepwalking behaviors.  

Ambien Abuse

As a highly addictive drug, Ambien is not recommended for clients with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. People with mental health disorders are also susceptible to addiction and should be particularly cautious about using the drug. Ambien might medically treat sleep-related symptoms related to mental illness, but it can indeed worsen mental health issues if misuse develops. Those who use Ambien long-term may develop a tolerance, which can lead to overuse. 

Beyond misuse, Ambien is also susceptible to recreational abuse. Users describe the “high” as similar to that of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, or alcohol. In larger doses or on an empty stomach, it can cause feelings of euphoria. Staying awake after taking the drug can produce psychedelic qualities. Some users describe vivid movements in their vision, phantom sounds or pounding sensations, and a sudden need to express affection. The drug takes effect quickly, often within fifteen minutes. 

Ambien and Women

New research shows that women eliminate zolpidem more slowly from their bodies than men, which can cause the drug to linger at higher-than-intended levels into the next morning. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently required manufacturers of zolpidem-based drugs to effectively cut the recommended dose in half. The recommended dose of immediate release products, which includes Ambien, has been lowered for women from 10 mg to 5 mg. For extended-release products, which includes Ambien CR, the dose has been lowered from 12.5 mg to 6.25 mg.      

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Dangers of Ambien

Ambien can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Users who develop a high tolerance to the drug may increase their dosage to a point at which their heart rate slows or even stops. Those who sleepwalk may engage in risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or driving while impaired. Users may also remain drowsy into the day following use, which can lead to trips and falls or other accidents. Long-term addiction to the drug can lead to chronic fatigue, digestive problems and muscle pain. The biggest risks, however, come with recreational uses. Mixing Ambien with other drugs or alcohol, a common recreational practice, can cause blackouts, total inebriation and even death. 

Ambien Withdrawal

Withdrawal is dangerous if not managed properly. Those struggling from addiction to Ambien should seek the supervision of an experienced medical professional. Withdrawal symptoms typically set in around 24-48 hours after the initial high. Serious side-effects include seizures, tremors, delirium, rapid breathing and increased heart rate. Ambien may also cause stomach cramps, hysteria, mood swings, intense cravings and panic attacks. Potentially fatal problems, including dangerously slow heart rate, may also develop.

Those suffering from addiction need comprehensive and personalized treatment from experienced, trusted clinicians. A professional treatment center has the resources to help clients safely detox, then develop strategies and coping mechanisms to rebuild a happy, healthy life in recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with Ambien use, contact us to speak with someone who can help you today.  

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.