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Dangers of Ambien

Bottle of purple ambien pills with a few on the table  

Ambien is a very commonly prescribed sleep aid, with nearly 20 million prescriptions being written in 2016. Ambien is one brand name of the generic drug zolpidem which, along with eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata), is in the “z-drug” family. Ambien prescribing information indicates that Ambien should only be used short-term in order to prevent the development of tolerance, dependence and addiction.

Z-drugs (including Ambien) are very similar to benzodiazepines, and both are associated with a high risk for abuse and addiction. Z-drugs enhance the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA. Increased GABA signaling reduces brain excitability, leading to drowsiness and sedation, which is why z-drugs and benzodiazepines are called central nervous system (CNS) depressants.

Even short-term use of z-drugs leads to tolerance, meaning that the dose must be increased in order to achieve the desired effect. People who become severely dependent on z-drugs and benzodiazepines face unique risks when they try to quit. Withdrawal symptoms can be profoundly uncomfortable and even dangerous for people who attempt to quit “cold turkey.”

Chronic Ambien use causes substantial brain adaptations that are a consequence of prolonged CNS depression. If someone who has developed a physical dependence on Ambien quits abruptly, their brain will rapidly try to reestablish normal neurotransmitter levels and signaling mechanisms. In extreme cases, the sudden lack of Ambien in the brain may cause seizures.

Teen prescription drug abuse is associated with particular risks that can have immediate and lifelong negative consequences. Immediate consequences may range from engaging in risky behavior and arrest to serious medical complications, even death. Long-term consequences include significantly altered brain structure and function that can cause lifelong learning and memory impairments, as well as increased risk for future substance use disorders.

Dangers of Mixing Ambien and Alcohol

Teenage drinking is often associated with dangerous levels of alcohol even without adding additional drugs into the mix. Alcohol is a CNS depressant, like Ambien, and combining them can cause dangerous respiratory depression (shallow, irregular breathing) that can cause coma, even death. Ambien should never be combined with alcohol.

Taking Ambien even without other drugs or alcohol can be associated with “complex sleep behaviors” like sleep-walking, sleep-eating, even sleep-driving, and alcohol increases the risk. Serious injury and death as a result of complex sleep behaviors have been reported.

Recently, Ambien has been used as a date-rape drug because it reduces inhibition and causes profound blackouts.

Ambien-related overdoses in teens are nearly always associated with other drugs and/or alcohol, especially those that reduce normal brain activity. Alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines and even over the counter sleeping aids are CNS depressants that, when combined with Ambien, can lead to coma or death.

Teenage Ambien Blackout Risks

Blackouts as a result of Ambien use are alarmingly common and involve incredibly bizarre behavior that people have no recollection of participating in when they wake up.

Examples of bizarre behaviors that have occurred during Ambien blackouts include:

  • Consumption of unhealthy food and/or non-food items (for example, buttered cigarettes and raw eggs, shells and all)
  • Hit-and-run accidents, including bystander fatalities
  • Risky sexual activity (“sleep-sex”)
  • Violent behavior
  • Sleep-shopping
  • Death as a result of hypothermia, drowning or falls

Another commonly reported side effect of Ambien use is memory loss. Memory loss and blackouts are not necessarily the same thing; a blackout refers specifically to the time where Ambien was causing intoxication, while memory loss can include events that occurred when someone was not using Ambien. There are some reports that Ambien can affect both short- and long-term memory.

Ambien Used for Anxiety

As noted above, Ambien is pharmacologically very similar to the benzodiazepine family of drugs, which are the most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs in the US. Xanax, Ativan, Valium and Klonopin are commonly prescribed benzodiazepines, and they are all associated with a very serious risk of dependence and are frequently abused.

Ambien has not proven to be the best way for someone to manage anxiety. Even if z-drugs and benzodiazepines were not significantly associated with serious dependence and addiction issues, dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and profound complex sleep behaviors, many symptoms of anxiety are best addressed with behavioral therapy that can unravel the root causes of anxiety and identify appropriate coping strategies that offer long-term support and success in overcoming anxiety disorders without drugs.

Increased Dangers for Teens Taking Ambien Every Night

Teenagers frequently struggle with insomnia and Ambien and other prescription sleep aids are often prescribed to teens, many of who also take stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin. In spite of the fact that teenagers are routinely prescribed Ambien, the data is mixed on whether or not it actually improves sleep quantity and quality, especially among teenagers with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Despite constant and misleading reassurances from pharmaceutical companies, Ambien has proven to be a powerfully addictive drug. While data specific to Ambien misuse/abuse as a predictor of future substance use disorders remains very preliminary, it is well known that substance use disorders that develop in teenagers are predictive of lifelong addictive behaviors. As a general rule, Ambien and other sleeping aids should be used infrequently and at low doses, and this is especially true for teenagers.

If you are concerned that your teen is misusing Ambien, contact Next Generation Village. Our experts are dedicated to helping teens overcome substance use disorders using evidence-based therapeutic approaches. Call us today to learn how we can help you and your teen enjoy a brighter future.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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