Ambien Is Effective, But Is It Safe?

Insomnia is a symptom rather than a disease or a stand-alone diagnosis, and it affects up to 50 percent of the population. The Sleep Management Institute points out that women are affected by insomnia more often than men, partly due to the often-excessive responsibilities of home, family and work.

Counting sheep to no avail is a serious problem in the U.S., which is why at least 8.6 million Americans take prescription sleeping pills on a regular basis, according to a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics. More women rely on sleep aids than men, the study found, with five percent of the female population using them on a regular basis, compared to just over three percent of men.

What is Ambien?

Ambien is a popular prescription sleeping medication. A non-benzodiazepine sleep aid, Ambien is a brand name for the generic drug zolpidem, which produces a short-duration hypnotic effect that onsets quickly. According to an article in CNS Drug Reviews, zolpidem binds to the same receptors in the brain as benzodiazepines, but it produces hypnotic effects without the high risk of seizures and dependence that characterize benzodiazepines.

The Effects of Ambien

While Ambien is generally considered a safer and less addictive alternative to benzodiazepines, this medication isn't without its fair share of serious side effects. These include a significantly increased risk of dying over a seven-year period, according to a large study published in The BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, emergency department visits stemming from adverse reactions to Ambien increased 220 percent between 2005 and 2010, with women accounting for 68 percent of those visits. Common adverse reactions to Ambien include hallucinations, dizziness and behavioral changes, including bizarre behaviors and agitation.

Perhaps the most alarming side effects of Ambien are the sleepwalking, sleep sex and sleep driving behaviors that have occurred with enough frequency that the FDA has required that the dosage of drugs containing zolpidem be cut in half when prescribing them to women, and the same was recommended, although not required, when prescribing them to men.

Taking Ambien with other central nervous system depressants, including benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications, opiate painkillers, and alcohol, can dangerously increase the sedative effects of Ambien.

Is Ambien Addictive?

Ambien is liberally prescribed partly because of its low risk of dependence. According to Mayo Clinic it's unlikely that someone taking Ambien will become dependent on it, largely because it is designed for short-term use.

Additionally, an article published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology reports that Ambien is well-tolerated, clinically effective, and thought to be safer than benzodiazepines, since initial clinical trials reported no evidence of the potential for abuse or dependence. However, the article points out that the World Health Organization considers zolpidem to have a frequency of abuse and dependence similar to benzodiazepines, and numerous cases of Ambien abuse and dependence have been reported in Europe and the U.S.

The Bottom Line for Ambien

Those who abuse or misuse Ambien or take it for long-term relief of insomnia appear to be at risk of developing a dependence on this medication, and those who frequently use sleeping aids like Ambien may be at a higher risk than the general population of dying over a seven-year period. The short-term effects of Ambien, which include lingering daytime drowsiness that can affect the ability to drive and perform other tasks, make Ambien a less-than-ideal solution for insomnia.

If you depend on Ambien to get a good night's sleep, talk to your physician about participating in a sleep study to find out what's behind your insomnia, or consider cognitive-behavioral therapy to help you work through issues related to your insomnia, which may include stress or intrusive thoughts.

If you abuse Ambien or believe you may have developed an addiction to it, consider a holistic drug treatment program that will help you stop using it as well as identify the underlying issues behind your inability to get a good night's sleep without it.

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