Ambien is a brand-name prescription sleep aid that falls into the category of central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Its chemical/generic name is zolpidem tartrate. Other brand names for this drug are:
- Ambien CR
Ambien first appeared on the market in Europe in the late 1980s before making its debut in the U.S. in 1993. It was introduced as a mild sedative to help those suffering with insomnia or other sleep disorders such as those suffering from chronic pain, respiratory issues or those with irregular sleep cycles (such as on-call medical personnel and other night shift workers). Since its introduction it has become one of the most popularly used and regularly prescribed sleep medications in the world. Unfortunately, it is this popularity which has also made it such a strong target for abuse.
The effects of Ambien produce a calming sense of relaxation and euphoria, as do most sedatives. Additionally, it works with the central nervous system to effectively “quiet the mind” and allow users freedom from wakeful thoughts. It is for this reason that Ambien is also considered a hypnotic drug. Regardless of its many classifications and distinctions, the most important aspect of Ambien’s composition is that it works directly with the central nervous system, which is why it is so easily habit forming and potentially addictive.
Methods of Ambien Use
Ambien is a tablet that comes in 5mg and 10 mg dosages. Patients are instructed to swallow one tablet whole approximately 30 minutes prior to desired sleep time. It is a fast-acting pill that usually produces the desired drowsy effect within 15 to 20 minutes after administration. The effects last between 4 and 7 hours, which is intended to help the patient fall asleep and/or stay asleep for the duration of a healthy, therapeutic sleep cycle.
Those who abuse Ambien include those with valid prescriptions who have now formed an unhealthy tolerance or dependency on the drug as well as those without sleep disorders seeking to use the drug for the euphoric feeling it elicits. When abused, users take more than the prescribed dose and/or seek way to speed the onset of effects. Beyond “stacking” dosages, abusers of Ambien may engage in crushing pills for oral ingestion, crushing and then snorting the dust for rapid delivery, or even dissolving pills in water and then micro-boiling (or “cooking”) the slurry for intravenous injection.
Ambien Addiction Symptoms
Like many prescription drugs, Ambien addiction most often evolves from regular prescribed use. Patients grow overly accustomed to “assisted” sleep and become unable to sleep without the help of the drug. In some cases, patients and abusers alike find that Ambien can help relieve anxiety, tension, stress, and can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of mild depression. Self medicating for these off-label uses can quickly become habit forming as the central nervous system adapts to the medication.
Ambien joins a host of prescription drugs that, nationwide, are contributing to a major health and law enforcement problem. Over 800,000 people were admitted to emergency rooms in 2006 for abuse of prescription drugs. Sedatives and hypnotics like Ambien accounted for 32% of those visits. And while over 17% of people over age 60 knowingly or unknowingly abuse prescription drugs, young people are also at risk.
Symptoms of addiction vary from person to person, but may include:
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Indifference towards friends, family, work, home
- Extended use of the drug (recommended time period of 10 days or less)
- Deliberate overuse of the drug (taking larger than prescribed dosages)
- Preoccupation or fascination with the drug
- Obsessive behavior towards acquiring the drug
- Inability to sleep or function without the drug
- Engaging in destructive behavior in pursuit of the drug
Ambien Addiction Health Risks and Side Effects
Ambien works by interrupting the normal cycle of a brain chemical called GABA. This naturally occurring neurotransmitter is the same chemical the brain releases as a signal to the body that it is time to rest or relax. In those with insomnia or sleep disorders, the body does not release enough GABA to overcome a state of wakefulness. Ambien increases the output of GABA, dampening the activity in the brain and producing a sleepy sensation. Because each individual’s brain chemistry is different, Ambien effects different people in different ways.
Mild side effects include daytime drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, difficulty with coordination, tolerance, dependence, and changes in thinking and/or behavior. However, abusers of Ambien may become excessively drowsy, notice an increase in suicidal thoughts or tendencies or even slip into a light coma. In the most extreme cases, overdose can lead to death, as can all central nervous system depressants.
Generally, Ambien produces few withdrawal effects under normal, prescribed use. Patients are usually encouraged to either slowly reduce their dosage, begin taking pills every other or every 2 or 3 days, or switching to a less-powerful sleep aid. All of these procedures are done under the supervision of a medical professional. Those abusing the drug, of course, do not have the benefit of medical intervention and so withdrawal is likely to occur if the drug is stopped suddenly. Typical symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle cramps
- Panic attacks
None of these symptoms are life threatening, but they can be quite uncomfortable for those suffering with addiction. The cravings to cease the discomforts of withdrawal and return to the pleasant, detached state of using the drug can be difficult or impossible to ignore. Usually the symptoms of Ambien withdrawal are not life-threatening but are generally so unpleasant that it is difficult not to give in to the cravings to make them stop.
Although Ambien works to alter chemical reactions within the brain, ambien does not create work with the brain’s reward pathways to create physical manifestations of addiction. Addicts of ambien have become addicted to a mental routine. As such, detoxing from Ambien typically takes only as long as is necessary for the drug to leave the body (approximately two weeks from ceasing to take the drug). This period can be longer in heavy abuse cases, but usually not more than 3 to 4 weeks.
Detox for Ambien can be undertaken by an individual without medical supervision as the withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant, but not inherently dangerous. Inpatient detox centers can also assist with this process, and may be a more effective option for long-term abusers or those with a history of overdose or relapse.
Ambien Addiction Treatment
All addiction treatments vary depending on the degree, severity and duration of an individual’s addiction. The substance being abused also plays a large part in determining course of treatment. In the case of Ambien, the recommended standard of care is either outpatient detox and sobriety under the care of a physician or drug treatment professional, followed by counseling to uncover the underlying causes of addiction and how to prevent them in the future.
It is rare that treatment for Ambien addiction will require inpatient care. In such cases, addiction is not limited to Ambien. In fact, Ambien addiction may be a side effect of an addiction to narcotic stimulants, for which the user began taking Ambien to control stimulant effects and attempt to sleep. Likewise, Ambien does not require any pharmaceutical therapy to ease addiction.