America’s Addiction to Ambien
It can begin as innocently as needing to get a restful night’s sleep on a flight or before an important day at work. Desperate to recharge and feel rejuvenated for the next day’s tasks, people will first try drinking warm tea or hot milk or taking a hot shower to knock themselves out. Unfortunately, sleep still eludes them. For insomniacs, the choice is pretty clear – either figure out a way to sleep at least six hours a night or run the risk of losing a job, failing in school or getting sick. For these tired Americans, Ambien can be seen, at least at the beginning, like the answer to their prayers.
Zolpidem is the generic name for Ambien, a prescription-only sleep aid that is used to combat insomnia but is intended to be taken for no more than a few days to a couple of weeks. The drug is categorized as a nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic that is fast acting (i.e., can put you to sleep within 15 minutes) and typically lasts about four to six hours. Ambien does work much like a benzodiazepine, however, which is a type of drug used to treat anxiety and relax muscles or as a sedative, hypnotic, and anticonvulsant. The drug mimics GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, by binding to the GABA receptors much like benzodiazepines. Although Ambien does not do a great job of keeping you asleep, it does do a great job of getting you there.
Although Ambien is meant to help the body get back on a regular sleep cycle, prolonged use of the drug can increase a patient’s tolerance, necessitating increasing amounts of Ambien to effectuate sleep. Further, drinking alcohol along with Ambien can multiply the drug’s effects. Those who are under the influence of Ambien may take more of the drug than is warranted because they do not remember that they have already had a dose.
When a patient is first prescribed Ambien, he may exhibit symptoms that resemble a drug-induced psychosis. This psychotic behavior may continue until his body becomes acclimated to the drug. If the symptoms are strong enough, antipsychotics may need to be prescribed in order to counter-act the psychotic behavior and effectuate sleep. However, because both Ambien and anti-psychotics can have hypnotic effects, doctors may prefer to prescribe a light sedative, such as an anti-depressant, to balance out the Ambien.
Patients who have taken Ambien also have reported walking, binge eating, driving, and performing routine daily tasks in their sleep, as though they were awake. Although sleep talking (incoherent babbling) is a common side effect, family members report that some Ambien users can hold full-blown conversations even though they are asleep. Because sleeping Ambien users can appear to be completely conscious and in control of their actions, safety issues abound. For instance, some Ambien users have gotten in their cars and driven while sleepwalking.
In addition to causing dependence and dangerous side effects in those patients who are using it get some sleep, Ambien has also become a very popular recreational drug. Recreational users report getting “high” from the very act of trying to fight off the effects of the drug (i.e., fighting the natural tendency to fall asleep). This self-imposed sleep deprivation can cause visual hallucinations, decreased anxiety, changes in perception, as well as euphoric feelings.
Once an Ambien abuser has successfully fought off the sleep-inducing effects of a particular dose of Ambien, he will eventually need to increase the amount he ingests in order to achieve the same “high.” The more Ambien that is needed, however, the more likely the patient will be to use other delivery mechanisms, such as snorting it or injecting it, for a quicker effect. This is true even though Ambien tablets are coated with a substance that is intended to thwart attempts to change the mode of delivery for the drug.
Although recreational drug users welcome some of the more serious side effects associated with Ambien, patients who take the drug as directed can also fall victim. Ambien’s most-common side effects include hallucinations (both auditory and visual), delusions, euphoria, dysphoria, impaired judgment, uninhibited social interactions, impulsivity, reduction in balance and libido, and an increase in appetite. Some users will even experience memory loss for things that happened immediately after a traumatic experience.
Treatment for Ambien Addiction
Prolonged use of Ambien can result in tolerance (needing more and more of the drug to get the same effect), dependence, rebound insomnia, and negative effects on the central nervous system. However, “cold-turkey” cessation of taking Ambien can also result in panic, nausea and vomiting, thoughts of suicide, and seizures. Someone seeking help for Ambien addiction should consider a medically supervised detoxification process, by which the frequency and dosages will be gradually reduced in order to avoid unpleasant, and potentially life-threatening, side effects.