Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) is a prescription sedative/hypnotic medication designed to provide insomnia relief without other drugs’ side effects once commonly prescribed to help with sleeping difficulties.
Physical Side Effects
When taken as directed, Ambien calms activity in the nerves and brain, making it easier for the user to fall asleep. However, Ambien can have significant side effects on the cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, and sensory systems. Some potential reactions include the following:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain and diarrhea
- Appetite loss
- Double vision
- Muscle cramps
- Skin rashes
- Abnormal body movements
- Respiratory depression
Some users have also experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction to zolpidem, which may include symptoms such as hives, shortness of breath, and edema (swelling) of the face, lips, mouth, or tongue.
Ambien is a non-benzodiazepine (benzo) hypnotic medication. Its chemical structure was designed to simulate the effects of barbiturates or benzos on the CNS (central nervous system) with less potential for abuse or addiction. Like benzos, Ambien acts on brain receptors that bind with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurochemical that can induce drowsiness and sleep as well as other calming neurological activities. Some users have experienced adverse cognitive or psychological side effects with the use of Ambien, such as the following:
- Memory loss
- Impaired concentration
- Loss of emotional affect
- Loss of pleasure in life
- Suicidal ideations
- Sleep disturbances
Although Ambien was initially designed to produce fewer side effects than other sleep medications, recent studies have found that the drug can remain active in a person’s system the morning after being used at higher doses. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a warning regarding the possibility of “next-morning” impairment after taking Ambien. The administration found that in some users, blood tests revealed that there was sufficient Ambien in the system to cause impairment at specific tasks that require alertness and coordination, such as driving.
To mitigate the risk of this side effect, the FDA recommends that health providers limit the dose Ambien, especially among women.
Ambien Abuse Effects
Individuals use this drug for recreation or nonmedical reasons are at risk of experiencing an intensification of side effects, including the following:
- Excessive sedation
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired motor coordination
- Slowed response times
- Delayed reflex reactions
Although Ambien is a sedative, it can provide the user with a rush of energy and euphoria when used at high doses. However, abusing this drug can lead to extreme drowsiness, confusion, and clumsiness, all of which increase the risk of falls and other accidental injuries. The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) reports that persons who use Ambien to the point of intoxication may experience sedation for as long as 16 hours after its use.
Also, using Ambien with other drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol, benzos, or opioids, intensifies the sedative effects of all substances and increases the risk of overdose or injury.
After using Ambien before going to sleep, many individuals have experienced sleepwalking events and other unconscious behaviors. These activities include driving, having sex, eating, and holding conversations with others—actions technically referred to as parasomnias. In these cases, the individuals were reportedly unaware of their engagement in the activities when they were occurring.
Some patients reported having complete conversations, leaving their homes to go for a walk, or even waking up during or after operating a motor vehicle having no memory of the action. For some users, these potentially dangerous sleep behaviors (also referred to as “blackouts”) can be corrected by reducing Ambien’s dose. Still, in extreme cases, the drug may have to be discontinued to prevent the behavior.
There are have also been numerous reports of people sleepwalking, sleep-eating, and sleep-driving that do not involve Ambien or other prescription sleep aids. However, troublingly, the use of Ambien appears to have the potential to induce or exacerbate these behaviors in those who are vulnerable to experiencing them.
Ambien has been known to incite complex behaviors during sleep, the most problematic of these being sleep-driving. This activity has led to severe accidents and legal issues for those who take Ambien either by prescription or illicitly.
The FDA states that alcohol and other CNS depressants, such as opioids, increase the risk of parasomnias occurring, especially those that are dangerous, such as sleep-driving. During one of these episodes, the person will get out of bed without being awake and begin driving as usual. They will not recall the event and may only be made aware of it if they get in an accident or are pulled over by police or arrested for driving while intoxicated.
The NHTSA reports that a person during the first 4-5 hours after using Ambien will experience some cognitive and motor coordination impairment, regardless of whether he or she is sleeping or not.
Sleep eating is another parasomnia activity that people may engage in while blacked out on Ambien. Without remembering, an individual may eat food or drink fluids. This behavior could be harmful to those trying to lose weight or have a restricted/regulated diet for other health reasons. Sleep eating may also be dangerous because the person may attempt to prepare food on a stove or in an oven, and as a result, hurt themselves and/or cause damage to their surroundings in the process.
Engaging in sex during an Ambien blackout may lead to the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases (STDS) and blood-borne infections such as HIV/AIDS. While people with romantic partners/spouses are more likely to experience this form of parasomnia, it is possible that an individual may use Ambien, sleepwalk, and initiate sexual contact with a stranger or acquaintance.
Abuse, Addiction, and Withdrawal
Ambien was developed to provide an effective alternative to other sleep medications with much less potential for abuse or addiction. However, research has shown that Ambien can cause tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal—all signs of a potentially addictive drug. One of the most severe side effects of using Ambien is becoming physically dependent on the medication or needing the medication to function normally.
If Ambien is used according to a doctor’s orders and on a short-term basis, chemical dependence and addiction are not likely to develop. Persons at risk of addiction include those who use Ambien for longer than a few weeks, those who take amounts above the recommended dose, and users who abuse the drug for nonmedical or recreational purposes.
Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Muscle cramps
Getting Treatment for Addiction
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