According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 50 million to 70 million adults age 18 and older in the United States have insomnia and other sleep-related disorders, and an estimated 10 million rely on prescription sleep aids to treat their symptoms.
Ambien, the brand name for the prescription drug zolpidem, is meant to be a short-term treatment for the symptoms of insomnia and is one of the most widely used nonbenzodiazepine sedatives or “Z-drugs” in the country.
Z-drugs like Ambien are sedatives that have effects similar to benzodiazepines, but instead of creating broad feelings of sedation, sedatives specifically target areas in the brain and central nervous system (CNS) that are meant to induce sleep.
Ambien has a different chemical structure to benzos like Valium, which is meant to make it a safer and less addictive sleep aid alternative to benzodiazepines, which were themselves initially a safer alternative to barbiturates.
However, much like benzos, Ambien and other Z-drugs have been found to possess not only multiple adverse and dangerous side effects but also the potential for abuse and addiction. Ambien is viewed by doctors and patients alike as a safer, more effective substitute for benzodiazepines, but recent studies have proven this is not the case.
It is possible to become chemically dependent on and addicted to Ambien. There are options available to people looking for relief but not wanting to risk addiction to Ambien.
Why Is Ambien Dangerous?
As previously mentioned, Ambien doesn’t have the same adverse associations as other drugs, even prescription benzos like Xanax or Ativan. However, while Ambien does not rank in the same category as opioids or illicit substances when it comes to the level of danger involved in abusing it, it is still by no means safe to do so.
Even people who take Ambien as directed by their doctor often experience side effects that can put them in potentially hazardous situations. One of the most common of these side effects, as outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is sleepwalking, along with more worrying unconscious activities, including:
Generally, Ambien users will have no memory of having done these things upon waking, and while talking in your sleep may be harmless enough, the dangers of driving in your sleep should be obvious.
One of the ways people abuse Ambien is by using it longer than prescribed, as it is strictly meant to be a short-term treatment for insomnia. Long-term abuse of Ambien, along with other Z-drugs, was found to increase someone’s likelihood of dying during the night by at least 15 percent.
How Can You Become Addicted to Ambien?
People will misuse and abuse Ambien by taking it outside of the prescribed dosage because they build up a tolerance to it so quickly, becoming dependent and requiring more and more of the drug to achieve the same effects, which can rapidly escalate to addiction. According to the FDA, more than 20 million people in the U.S. have misused or abused Ambien and other Z-drugs at least once.
Signs of Ambien addiction include:
- Short-term memory issues
- Difficulty concentrating
- Chronic drowsiness
- Coordination problems
- Frequent blackouts
Ambien addiction is also characterized by an increased tolerance to its effects, withdrawal symptoms when not using Ambien, and a lack of control over Ambien usage.
Once someone is addicted to Ambien and can’t get the same “buzz” from it as they used to, they will often engage in what’s known as polysubstance abuse, combining Ambien with other more powerful depressant drugs for a stronger sedative effect. This includes opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, all of which greatly increase the likelihood of a quick and potentially fatal overdose when used with Ambien, the symptoms of which include:
- Intense drowsiness
- Impaired reflexes
- Suddenly passing out
- Dangerously slow and shallow breathing
- Drifting in and out of consciousness
Do Sleep Aids Like Ambien Even Work?
The short answer is no, not really. Multiple studies have found that Z-drugs are largely inefficient when it comes to treating the symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disorders. Even in the short-term, Ambien’s ability to induce sleep has been proven through medical research to be only marginally more effective than a placebo.
This means that for people searching for relief from their sleep disorders, taking Ambien could best be described as all risk and little to no reward, as there is a high risk that they will become tolerant to whatever positive effects it manages to provide in just a couple of weeks.
What Are Safer Ways to Treat Sleeping Disorders?
Luckily, there are many alternative treatments for sleep disorders that don’t carry the same risk of addiction as Ambien. One method is the use of non-addictive over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements.
One form of OTC medication frequently used by people with insomnia are antihistamines like Benadryl and Unisom. However, while these medications are not habit-forming and typically carry less potential side effects, they are not any more effective at inducing sleep, and often even reduce the quality of someone’s sleep, as well as causing residual drowsiness the next day.
Many herbal and dietary supplements claim to naturally treat insomnia and induce sleep, including melatonin, valerian root, glutamine, niacin, St. John’s wort, and lavender. But apart from valerian root and melatonin, these all lack sufficient evidence to prove their effectiveness.
However, while melatonin is also one of the few herbal supplements to be approved by the FDA for treating certain circadian rhythm-based sleep disorders, it is also unregulated, which means there is a significant amount of variation in the strength of different versions of it.
For the safest treatment of sleep disorders, it is often best to completely avoid medication, if possible. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be successful in treating insomnia by helping to change unhealthy beliefs and anxieties related to sleep that amplify someone’s sleep issues. CBT can also instill helpful coping responses for situations where someone is struggling to sleep and use mindfulness and meditation to train someone to balance anxious thoughts caused by being unable to fall asleep.
Another benefit to CBT is that it can be used to address potential underlying issues at the root of someone’s insomnia, including situational stresses, which could involve work, relationships, finances, or academic-based stress and anxiety. Other possible contributors include mental health disorders and substance abuse.
Other nonpharmacological treatments for insomnia and other sleep problems include regular moderate exercise, creating a consistent sleeping schedule with minimal daytime napping, and stimulus control therapy.
Stimulus control therapy involves the elimination of any stimulus that could be contributing to someone’s lack of sleep, including environmental stimuli like bright lights, loud noises, or extreme temperatures, as well as eating large meals before bed and any nighttime use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.