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Ambien Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 22, 2019

Ambien is the brand name of the prescription sleep-aid, zolpidem. When taken as prescribed, it can help people struggling with insomnia. When abused, Ambien can be dangerous and addictive, for a number of reasons.

What is Ambien?

Zolpidem is sold under the brand name Ambien, and is available by prescription only. This medication is intended for short-term use (up to six weeks) to treat sleeping issues, like insomnia. Insomnia is defined as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.

Ambien (zolpidem) is commonly referred to as a z-drug, and is grouped with other sedative-hypnotic medications, like barbiturates and benzodiazepines. Other z-drugs are zopiclone, eszopiclone, and zaleplon. These medications increase GABA in the brain, using the same receptors that benzodiazepines attach to, but they were thought to have less potential for addiction than benzos.

While Ambien has been incredibly helpful to those struggling with sleep, it also has a dark side. Ambien has achieved an almost infamous status due to its side effects, and high possibility of addiction. Ambien is known on the streets as zombie pills, tic-tacs, no-goes, and A-minus.

Is Ambien Safe?

Ambien is usually safe when taken as prescribed, within the recommended prescribed limit. However, there have been documented side effects of behavioral changes and abnormal thinking, such as agitation, aggression, disinhibition, feeling disconnected from self, and hallucinations.

When a person stays awake after taking Ambien, they may engage in behaviors and activities with no recollection of doing it. These behaviors are complex and should not be attempted while under the influence of Ambien, and they include:

  • leaving the house
  • driving
  • sex
  • cooking
  • eating
  • using the telephone

The clinical name for these engaging in these activities while sleeping, is parasomnia, however the common name is an Ambien blackout. The potential for these parasomnic activities increases when a person abuses Ambien, which can be extremely dangerous.

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Engaging in these activities can have serious consequences, like pregnancy, car accidents, sexually transmitted infections, injuries, and interpersonal conflicts.

Side Effects Of Ambien

Z-drugs are considered a safer alternative that is less addictive and lower overdose potential than other sedative-hypnotics, like barbiturates and benzodiazepines. While this is true, it does not mean that Ambien is safe altogether.

Side effects of Ambien can last into the next day and include:

  • drowsiness
  • lightheaded
  • balance and coordination issues
  • muscle pain
  • cognitive impairments
  • shakiness
  • strange dreams
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • headache

People have also reported depression and increase in thoughts of suicide when taking Ambien. It is important to report all pre-existing conditions and medications to the doctor prescribing Ambien.

Ambien Case Studies

There have been numerous cases of Ambien use resulting in bizarre, and sometimes shocking outcomes. These are a few:

  • A young man became depressed and attempted suicide after taking Ambien
  • Several cases of different people sleep-eating without any recollection. These people prepared and ate meals, ate raw or uncooked foods (eggs, uncooked rice), and in some cases even ate non-food items (cigarette butts)
  • One woman ate raw food, entire loaves of bread, multiple cans of food, and entire bags of snack foods. She claimed to have developed an ulcer and gained excessive amounts of weight as a result
  • A man drove to a nursing home and killing eight people while taking Ambien

Why Abuse Ambien?

With all the potential side effects of Ambien, it may seem surprising that a person would abuse Ambien on purpose. Especially when the side effects can intensify when Ambien abused.

Abusing Ambien is described by taking Ambien in a way that is not prescribed (higher than prescribed doses, crushing and snorting, taking it hours before bedtime, or purposely staying awake after taking), without a prescription, or combining Ambien with other drugs or alcohol.

Some people report abusing Ambien to achieve intense euphoria and a high that occurs when they stay awake after taking the drug, while others simply believe they will sleep better if they take more Ambien.

Ambien Abuse Signs

When a person is abusing Ambien, they are likely to experience intense side effects of the drug, as well as:

  • shifting eyes
  • extremely uncoordinated
  • slurred speech
  • significantly impaired memory
  • attention problems

Ambien intoxication has symptoms that are very similar to alcohol intoxication, and if a person is displaying these signs, it is probable that they are abusing Ambien.

Is Ambien Addictive?

Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic, and like most other sedative medications, has the potential for addiction. Over time, a person taking Ambien will develop tolerance for the drug. This means they will need more of Ambien to feel the same effects as previous, lower doses. Increasing dosage at this point can lead to dependence (the body needs the drug to feel normal).

In addition to physical dependence to Ambien, a person can also develop a psychological addiction to the medication, believing that they have to have Ambien to sleep, to function, or to continue to escape everyday life by misusing it and ‘zoning-out’.

Ambien addiction is absolutely possible, but luckily there are substance abuse treatment programs able to help rehabilitate a person struggling with Ambien addiction.

Ambien Addiction Symptoms

Being able to recognize when a person is dealing with an Ambien addiction can be difficult, especially if the person has a prescription and need for the medication. That said, there are signs that can help decipher if a person may be dealing with an addiction:

  • taking other people’s Ambien
  • lying about symptoms to get more Ambien
  • having several doctors that prescribe Ambien
  • changing how Ambien is ingested
  • cravings to use Ambien
  • taking Ambien in higher doses than intended
  • mixing Ambien with other drugs or alcohol to increase ‘high’
  • avoiding situations where the person cannot use Ambien
  • unable to fulfill responsibilities due to Ambien use
  • isolation from family and friends
  • cannot stop taking Ambien without withdrawal symptoms

Individuals addicted to Ambien are at high risk for overdose. The longer a person takes Ambien, the higher the potential for overdose.

Ambien Overdose

Taking Ambien in high doses, or with other depressants can result in overdose. When a person takes too much of a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, it can cause body functions to slow and stop. When a person stops breathing, or their heart stops beating, it can result in brain damage, coma, seizures, or even death.

Permanent negative side effects can occur with Ambien doses around 400 mg. According to professionals, it would take a dose of about 2,000 mg of Ambien to be fatal. However, mixing Ambien with other depressants, or changing the method of use can lower than amount significantly.

Some warning signs of an Ambien overdose to be aware of include:

  • extreme drowsiness
  • abnormal breathing
  • bluish tint to fingertips or lips
  • confusion
  • irrational thoughts
  • drop in heart rate or blood pressure

If a person is suspected to be dealing with an Ambien overdose, it is important to seek emergency medical services immediately. They can administer flumazenil, which serves as an antidote to the sedative properties of Ambien. If a person has taken extremely high doses of Ambien, hospital personnel may elect to remove stomach contents in an attempt to prevent more Ambien from entering the bloodstream.

Ambien Withdrawal

A person with Ambien addiction or dependence will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking Ambien, and usually appear within 48 hours of the last dose. These symptoms of withdrawal can include:

  • irritability
  • seizures
  • crying
  • abdominal pain
  • sweating
  • fatigue
  • panic attacks
  • delirium
  • anxiety
  • cravings
  • mood swings
  • depression
  • rebound insomnia
  • suicidal thoughts

It is not recommended that people struggling with Ambien addiction attempt to stop taking Ambien on their own. The seizures that can occur as a result of Ambien withdrawal can be unmanageable without supervision.

Substance abuse treatment options that include medically supervised detoxification programs are strongly encouraged for anyone with an Ambien addiction.

Ambien Abuse Treatment Options

Medically supervised detox programs at the beginning of treatment for Ambien addiction allow for the person to be monitored and prescribed medications (like quetiapine) to ease the withdrawal symptoms associated with Ambien. The detox process lasts an average of 5-14 days, although some cases have taken longer.

The substance abuse facility will take the time to work with the person and develop a treatment plan that will address their individual needs, and make every attempt to help the person obtain sobriety.

Using evidence and outcome based substance abuse treatment, facilities will address topics like anger management, coping skills development, addiction therapy, and in some cases, medications may be used to help the person move forward without Ambien.

Our caring, professional team is waiting to help you find a substance abuse rehabilitation location that will meet the needs of you or your loved one. Contact us today.

MedlinePlus - Zolpidem

Food and Drug Administration - Ambien Prescription Label

American Journal of Addiction - Quetiapine Treatment of Zolpidem Dependence

National Institutes of Health - Prescription Sedative Misuse and Abuse

Wisconsin Law Journal - Ambien users wake up, smell the lawsuits

DARU Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences - Zolpidem-induced suicide attempt: a case report

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine - Zolpidem-Induced Sleepwalking, Sleep Related Eating Disorder, and Sleep-Driving

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