Ambien, which is the trade name for the medication zolpidem, is a short-acting sedative-hypnotic medication that is prescribed for insomnia. This medication is not appropriate for long-term use, and it is typically prescribed for a period no longer than 10 days.
Ambien has been linked to parasomnia, a disorder characterized by individuals sleepwalking or performing other tasks while asleep (such as eating, driving, or sex), and nightmares. One of Ambien’s most troubling side effects, however, is short-term memory loss. In a Taiwanese study, 13 out of 255 patients reported either parasomnia events or short-term memory loss as a result of zolpidem use.
How Ambien Affects Memory
Ambien is considered a sedative-hypnotic, meaning that it activates a certain neurotransmitter in the brain, slowing down the brain and central nervous system. Ambien works quickly, usually in approximately 20 minutes, but it is most effective in sustaining sleep in its controlled-release form.
Most people fall asleep shortly after taking Ambien. In some cases, however, individuals may find themselves in odd situations, such as taking a shower, and they have no recollection of how they got there. Ambien can be a risky medications for travelers, as individuals may take the drug to sleep on a flight but may wake up before the medication wears off. The National Center for Biotechnical Technology published a study that showed a dose of 20 milligrams of Ambien caused volunteers to experience impairment in certain psychomotor tests, such as word recall, six hours after taking the medication.
Ambien Memory Loss
There have been multiple cases of individuals who have been involved in automobile accidents under the influence of Ambien, with one noted individual waking while still in police custody. Celebrities have reported seeing interviews of themselves on television that they do not recall happening due to being under the influence of the drug. Some users have engaged in what has been called “Ambien sex,” and there have been reports of individuals using Ambien as a date-rape drug.
The FDA Prescribing Information states that memory problems can be avoided by taking Ambien only when users are able to get a full 7-8 hours of sleep.
In January 2013, the Food and Drug Administration required that the manufacturers of Ambien decrease the dosage given to female clients by half, as females break down the drug more slowly than men do, for an unknown reason. The FDA also suggested that male clients be given the decreased dose as well, though it was not required.
Ambien and Dementia
As with abuse of other central nervous system depressants, especially alcohol and benzodiazepines, Ambien abuse can cause amnesia. The brain becomes unable to store short-term memories in its long-term storage, so the person may not remember what happened to them while Ambien was in their body. Ambien also appears to damage short-term memories, preventing people from remembering things that happened even a few minutes before while they are on the drug. This is more likely to occur in people who abuse Ambien at high doses. Because of this damage to short-term memories, there is concern that Ambien may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Common Ambien Side Effects
What are the common side effects of Ambien use?
The most common side effects from taking Ambien include:
- Impairment upon waking up
- Nausea or vomiting
- Low physical energy
People who take Ambien are still likely to be impaired when they wake up, so no one should drive or operate heavy machinery while they take this prescription sleep aid.
What other adverse reactions (unexpected or dangerous) can occur due to Ambien use?
Some of the most dangerous side effects of sedative-hypnotics like Ambien involve parasomnias. This broad term covers night terrors, confused arousals, and sleepwalking or other sleep activities. Ambien is likely to cause people to perform actions while still asleep, such as walking, eating, driving, having sex, cooking, and talking on the phone. This puts the person taking Ambien at a high risk of physical danger from a car accident, falling, or sexually transmitted infections.
Mixing Ambien and Alcohol
What happens if you mix Ambien with drugs or alcohol?
Ambien is a potent prescription sleep aid, so it is likely to interact with a variety of prescription medicines and intoxicating substances.
- Anti-fungal medicines
- Anti-anxiety medicines, especially benzodiazepines
- Cold or allergy medicines
- Pain medication, especially opioid prescriptions
- Anti-seizure medicines
- Sedatives like barbiturates
- Other sleeping pills
Mixing Ambien with other CNS depressants – alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates especially – will make the side effects of Ambien worse. Drowsiness, memory loss, acting drunk, slowed breathing, and unusual thoughts, sensory perceptions, and behaviors are all very likely to occur if a person mixes Ambien with other prescription drugs or recreational drugs.
Mixing Ambien with stimulants, whether prescription drugs like Adderall or illicit drugs like cocaine, can cause serious problems with heartbeat, blood pressure, and sensory perception. The mixture of stimulants and Ambien can also lead to overdose and death. Unfortunately, people who abuse stimulant drugs are more likely to use “downers” like Ambien in an attempt to counteract negative side effects of stimulants.
Alternatives to Ambien
If an individual has experienced any parasomnia or memory loss caused by Ambien, the event should be reported to the prescribing physician immediately.
If the individual has developed a dependence on Ambien, the person should speak with the prescribing physician regarding treatment.
Different types of treatment, ranging from a tapered dosage under medical supervision to full medical detox and addiction treatment, may be appropriate depending on the individual circumstances.
Most individuals who stop taking Ambien need to seek out other means to help them fall asleep. Relaxation therapy, including progressive muscle relaxation, is sometimes used to treat insomnia. Sleep restriction therapy, based on the thinking that if a person is sleep deprived, it will drive the body to fall asleep, can also be used as a method to treat insomnia. Reconditioning, which involves instituting good sleep habits, such as using one’s bed for sleep and sex only, sticking to a set sleep schedule, and avoiding naps, can help to promote high-quality and consistent sleep over time.
Although Ambien is not a benzodiazepine, this medication (along with other sedative-hypnotics in the same class) acts on the same neurotransmitters as benzodiazepines: GABA receptors. By binding to these receptors in place of other neurotransmitters, Ambien prevents neurons from firing very rapidly. As with benzodiazepines, this helps to reduce anxiety, panic, and even seizures. It induces a sense of relaxation, which may feel euphoric if the dose of medication is too high. For people who suffer from insomnia, this relaxation should allow them to sleep. Some people abuse Ambien for its intoxicating effects at high doses, which can feel like being drunk.