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Ambien is in a class of drugs known as Sedative-Hypnotics. Ambien works by activating the neurotransmitter GABA, which slows down the brain and the central nervous system (CNS). Ambien is used to treat insomnia but is only intended for short-term use. There are two forms of Ambien, a quick release form that is helpful for initiating sleep and an extended release form that is helpful for maintaining sleep. Use of either form can lead to Ambien addiction.
This non-Benzodiazepine “Z-Drug” was designed to have the same medical effectiveness as Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, without the same hazardous and habit-forming properties those drugs are known for. The makers of Ambien designed and marketed the drug as a less addictive alternative to Benzos for people with acute insomnia. However, while it generally takes users longer to develop an addiction to Ambien than to Benzos and withdrawal from Ambien is generally less severe and dangerous than Benzo withdrawal, Ambien is still an addictive substance. In fact, it is now recognized that Ambien has a similar abuse potential to Benzos.
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A physical dependence to Ambien can form in as little as two weeks, whether the user is following a prescription or abusing the drug. Ambien dependence is characterized by tolerance, whereby the user requires larger amounts of the substance to feel the same effect, and withdrawal symptoms which appear if the user stops taking the drug or reduces their dosage. Eventually, Ambien dependence may become a full-blown addiction; this is characterized by tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, impaired control over use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and cravings. Many people don’t know they have a problem until they stop taking the drug and realize they cannot sleep without it.
Signs of an Ambien addiction include:
Most Ambien addictions begin with a simple case of short-term insomnia. Some users underestimate the addictive potential of Ambien because it’s prescribed by a doctor and they only use it to help them sleep. Ambien becomes less and less effective after taking it for more than a couple of weeks. At that point, some users can’t stop taking the drug because their insomnia is even worse; they are now incapable of sleeping without Ambien.
Before long I needed to take a pill every night. If I tried to fall asleep naturally, I would have what’s called ‘rebound insomnia,’ meaning I would be up all night as a result of taking the drug the night before.
Ambien is a brand name of Zolpidem. Due to a pervasive advertising campaign, the drug’s properties as a sleep aid are widely known — and even notorious — in popular culture. It is primarily prescribed as a temporary treatment for insomnia. Ambien is taken by mouth as a small, oblong tablet or as an extended-release tablet. Some people may crush up the pills and snort them to get a stronger effect. Slang terms for Ambien include No-Gos, Zombie Pills, Sleepeasy, Tic-Tacs, and A-Minus.
Ambien produces a strong Sedative effect by binding to neuroreceptors that slow brain activity.
Ambien was primarily marketed as an alternative to Benzodiazepines, like Halcion, which were coming under public scrutiny for their addictive potential and other side effects. The makers of Ambien claimed their drug was safer and less addictive.
Ambien had the good fortune to reach the market just as the reputation of Halcion, which had been promoted as safer than Barbiturates, collapsed.
Despite the makers of Ambien touting the drug’s superiority over Benzos, medical professionals have said users are still at risk of developing an addiction. In 2015, addiction specialist Dr. Michael Weaver published a report on Sedative abuse in which he outlined the fact that many non-Benzodiazepine sleeping pills can be just as prone to abuse as Benzodiazepines.
Ambien is a Schedule IV controlled substance. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), this means people aren’t likely to use it recreationally. Despite this, many users have abused the drug for its euphoric and hallucinatory effects.
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Taking Ambien without a prescription or in any way not directed by a doctor is abuse. Even taking an extra pill for a little help sleeping is considered abuse. Once someone builds a tolerance to Ambien, they need larger doses to fall asleep. This strengthens their dependence on the drug to sleep and causes many users to escalate their doses without medical guidance.
Ambien is meant to be taken immediately before bed, but some people have been known to take the drug hours before going to sleep. This leads to a euphoria that washes away insecurity and self-conscious behavior.
But here’s the thing your doctor or the commercials don’t tell you about Ambien. From a practical standpoint, it works. From a recreational one, it can get you high as hell. I started to take my Ambien a little earlier each evening.
In some ways, Ambien is a safer alternative to Benzodiazepine Sedatives because there is less potential to overdose on the drug. It may be hard to detect an Ambien overdose because the signs of overdose are similar to the effects of the drug. As a potent CNS Depressant, Ambien, when taken in large doses, can slow a user’s breathing and/or heart rate to the point where respiratory failure occurs. The result could be a fatal overdose. Unusually slow breathing or heartbeat is a strong indication that the user is in trouble.
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One of the most common substances used with Ambien is alcohol. Oftentimes when someone’s tolerance to Ambien builds, they need higher doses of the drug to fall asleep. Some people with an Ambien tolerance take alcohol with their pill to amplify the Sedative effects of the drug. This is dangerous because both drugs depress the CNS.
Some people have also combined Ambien with Benzos, like Valium. This is especially dangerous because Ambien is very similar to Benzos, and they are both CNS Depressants. When the two are combined, the risks of respiratory failure and fatal overdose are dramatically increased. There is also a risk of damage to the heart, brain, and lungs.
The health risks of combining Benzos with Ambien are similar to those of combining alcohol, with the most dangerous being a fatal overdose.
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The number of Ambien-related emergency room visits increased by nearly 220% between 2005 and 2010, up to 19,487 visits in the latter year, according to a news report from the SAMHSA.
More than half a million people in the United States are currently abusing Ambien and other Sedatives, as estimated by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Approximately 38 million prescriptions for Zolpidem drugs were written between 2006 and 2011, according to IMS Health.
Recovering from Ambien addiction begins with a medically assisted detox. The detox process helps prevent relapse and issues caused by withdrawal symptoms. Many inpatient rehabs and outpatient clinics provide resources for detox as well as counseling to work out behaviors that lead to Ambien use. If you’re struggling with an Ambien addiction and ready to quit, contact a treatment provider to find out about your treatment options today.
Jeffrey Juergens earned his Bachelor’s and Juris Doctor from the University of Florida. Jeffrey’s desire to help others led him to focus on economic and social development and policy making. After graduation, he decided to pursue his passion of writing and editing. Jeffrey’s mission is to educate and inform the public on addiction issues and help those in need of treatment find the best option for them.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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