Ambien is the widely recognized brand name for zolpidem, a drug in the sedative-hypnotic class, which is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant prescribed to treat insomnia.

The drug acts on the brain to slow down activity, leading to a sense of relaxation and sleepiness. It does not, however, force the body to go to sleep. It has effects on the brain like those of barbiturates and benzodiazepines, two classes of medications that were once prescribed to treat insomnia. But because of their high risk of physical dependence and addiction, those medicines have fallen out of favor as methods for treating insomnia.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA) approved Ambien for prescription use in 1992. The generic version, zolpidem, became available for prescription in 2007.

Z-class drugs like zolpidem, or Ambien, are the current best prescription medicines to treat insomnia; however, they are not without risk of physical dependence and abuse. Even when Ambien is taken as prescribed, you can struggle with a dependence on the drug after just a few weeks; you may have to work with a physician to slowly taper off this substance. Quitting suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Abusing Ambien is much more likely to cause physical dependence and eventually addiction.

What is Ambien Abuse?

Taking a lot of Ambien—either because your doctor prescribed a large dose to treat your insomnia or because you struggle with Ambien abuse—puts you at risk of developing withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the medication suddenly. Since the drug has similar sedative effects as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and even alcohol, it can become a drug of abuse for some people. Ambien is still considered less addictive than most other sedatives, but it can lead to compulsive behaviors.

Woman strugglig to fid the right sleep medication

Although Ambien is supposed to be less addictive than benzodiazepines, this medication does affect the gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, as benzodiazepines do. Ambien acts on these receptors to control how much of the GABA neurotransmitter is available to the brain for a much shorter period than many benzodiazepine drugs. However, the action on these receptors has been linked to euphoria in some people because the relaxing and sleep-inducing effects of more available GABA neurotransmitter can trigger the brain’s reward system, releasing mood-lifting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

When these neurotransmitters are associated with a chemical like zolpidem, you may develop compulsive behaviors around taking this drug and begin to feel like you need the drug to balance your brain chemistry.

Generally, a physician will prescribe the lowest possible dose—about 3.5 mg for men and 1.75 mg for women, on average—and adjust the dose if that amount of Ambien is not sufficient. If you take Ambien and adjust the dose yourself, this is prescription drug misuse. If you adjust the dose because you feel like you need Ambien to feel normal or because you like the high associated with taking it, it is drug dependence and abuse. This risk has been recognized with Ambien since 2004 when the FDA began requiring the manufacturer to place warning labels on the medication.


Most sedative-hypnotics, including Z-class drugs like Ambien, produce withdrawal symptoms after physical dependence occurs.

It takes up to two days for Ambien to fully process out of the body, so withdrawal symptoms may not start for 48 hours after the last dose taken. After that, there are general withdrawal symptoms to expect.

A person in Ambien withdrawal may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • General abdominal discomfort
  • Skin or face flushing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Uncontrolled crying
  • Panic attack
  • Nervousness

Because Ambien is designed for short-term treatment of insomnia and does not work well for chronic insomnia, it should be noted that the sedative qualities can lead to rebound insomnia symptoms once the brain relies on the presence of zolpidem to lead to relaxation and sleep. You may also develop anxiety symptoms and panic attacks because of the lack of the relaxing drug acting on your brain’s receptors. These symptoms may last longer than physical symptoms such as discomfort or stomach upset because they are psychological.

Other Serious Withdrawal Symptoms may Occur, Such As:

  • Delirium
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Intense cravings
  • Heart palpitations
  • Psychosis
  • Seizures

Among people who follow the prescription instructions given by their doctor when taking Ambien, the FDA reports that less than 1 percent experience adverse effects like withdrawal symptoms. However, the recommended dose of Ambien has been dramatically lowered since the medication was released to the market because the substance can lead to physical dependence very quickly. Because there is a risk of seizures, it is extremely important to work with a medical professional—either the prescribing physician or an addiction specialist—to safely detox off this substance.

Factors in Withdrawing from Ambien

Several factors influence the experience of withdrawal from Ambien. They include:


Women are typically prescribed smaller doses of Ambien than men because differences in physiology can affect how the drug works in the brain and how quickly it moves through the body. This is true of other drugs that act on the GABA receptors, especially alcohol.

Pre-Existing Addiction

Women are typically prescribed smaller doses of Ambien than men because differences in physiology can affect how the drug works in the brain and how quickly it moves through the body. This is true of other drugs that act on the GABA receptors, especially alcohol.


Personal details like your current physical health, general physiology, childhood and current environment, and genetics will all play into whether you are at risk of developing a dependence on, addiction to, and withdrawal symptoms from Ambien. Many of these factors affect whether you’re at risk of insomnia in the first place.

Length of Time Taking Ambien

This drug is intended for two to six weeks of use because taking it longer can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms because of dependence. However, many people take Ambien for much longer than a few weeks; sometimes, they even take the drug for years.

Size of Dose

Doses of Ambien range from 0.1 mg to 10 mg in a day, usually taken at night; in very rare cases, a smaller dose of Ambien can be taken as needed if insomnia is so bad that you wake up in the middle of the night even after taking your prescription dose for the evening. Anyone who takes more than 5 mg, however, is at risk of quickly developing physical dependence. If your doctor prescribes more than 5 mg of Ambien, ask about the tapering plan, how long your prescription will be, and how withdrawal symptoms can be managed when your insomnia has been treated.

Controlled Release (CR) Vs Immediate Release (IR)

Even if the dose is larger, people who take Ambien IR instead of CR are less likely to develop a dependence on the drug.

Ambien Withdrawal Requires Help

Because there are so many factors to consider when thinking about how long Ambien withdrawal will last, it is hard to pinpoint the exact day that these symptoms will begin and end. On average, Ambien’s half-life is about 2.5 hours for both the 5 mg and 10 mg tablets. This means that, in the average healthy adult, Ambien will be metabolized out of the body within five to seven hours. This is reflected in doctors’ recommendations to take Ambien only when seven to eight hours of sleep or rest can be set aside and not operate heavy machinery, such as a car, after taking the drug.

Typically, withdrawal symptoms are gone within 10 days or less. However, some people may develop a post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). This is more likely to develop in people who abuse Ambien without a prescription, take a lot of the drug, and abuse it for a long time. Their bodies cannot regulate neurotransmitters without help, and quitting Ambien rapidly changes their body chemistry in a way that takes a long time to recover from.

Working with addiction specialists to safely detox from Ambien reduces the risk of relapse, helps prevent overdose, and allows for the monitoring of potential signs of protracted withdrawal, or PAWS. Since those who take Ambien as prescribed need help with tapering off the medication, someone who struggles with Ambien addiction needs the same kind of help.

Once detox has been completed, it is crucial to enter a rehabilitation program. For people who have chronic insomnia, there may be an underlying mental health condition that requires diagnosis and treatment. Many rehabilitation programs are equipped to refer people struggling with co-occurring disorders to the right kind of behavioral therapy. Managing both insomnia and substance abuse at the same time improves treatment outcomes because the person learns how to manage their conditions together to make better choices and reduce overall stress.

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