With the proliferation of new sleep-related products—special pillows, bespoked mattresses, and sheets “guaranteed” to provide us with the “best night’s sleep of our lives,” it is clear that achieving a better quality of sleep is definitely in vogue. That is just smart business, recognizing the fact that America evidently has serious issues with sleep disturbance. In fact, more than 40 million prescriptions were written for the sleep-inducing drug, Ambien, in 2011, a 20% increase since 2006. Add another 20 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines for treating insomnia and it is clear that sleep is a major issue these days.
While Ambien is thought to be a safer alternative to the highly addictive benzo class of sedatives, it, too, has proven to carry its own set of risks. Among those risks is the danger involved in drinking alcohol and taking Ambien with the alcohol. Whether this is done to enhance the sleep-inducing effects of Ambien, or as a form of recreational substance abuse, there are real health risks involved when the two substances are used together.
Both alcohol and Ambien are central nervous system depressants, acting as messengers sent through the nervous system to slow down certain bodily functions. When both substances are used together there is the potential for overdose, as respiratory rates can become dangerously suppressed. Understanding the risks involved in drinking alcohol and taking Ambien is important information for avoiding an accidental, possibly fatal, overdose.
Zolpidem, sold under the brand name Ambien, is a hypnotic sedative used primarily as a sleep aid. Ambien is not intended for long-term use, as it can become addictive in as few as 2-4 weeks of continual use. A sign of addiction is when individuals begin to anticipate a potential problem falling asleep and reach for the Ambien as a proactive measure, even before experiencing the problem.
Ambien has a history of odd effects. Reports of sleepwalking, cooking and eating, driving, or engaging in sexual behaviors while on the drug may not be remembered at all the next morning. In 2013 the dosage limits for women, who are more sensitive to the drug’s effects, were cut in half following reports of unusual behavior while under the influence of Ambien.
Why People Use Ambien and Alcohol Together
Individuals who struggle with sleep-related issues may attempt to increase the effects of the Ambien by chasing the medication with an alcoholic beverage or two. Combining alcohol and Ambien can result in potent effects, such as:
- Lack of motor control
- Gaps in memory
- Mood swings
- Slowed heart rate
- Lack of balance
- Breathing problems
- Impairments in decision-making and judgment
- Visual hallucinations
- Mental fog
- Loss of consciousness
Dangers of Drinking Alcohol and Taking Ambien
The much publicized single vehicle crash involving Tiger Woods in 2009 was attributed directly to the Ambien that he had taken that night. Although he had no alcohol in his system, this event created new awareness of the odd effects of Ambien. In fact, any activity that requires a clear, alert mind should be avoided if taking Ambien, as accidents can and do happen.
When alcohol is combined with Ambien the risks only escalate. In addition to the disturbing sleepwalking or cooking behaviors reported, adding alcohol can make these even riskier by increasing the potential for slips and falls, burns, and serious accidents.
Individuals who decide to abuse Ambien as a recreational drug may crush the medication and snort it in order to achieve an enhanced high. Adding alcohol to this routine adds a more intense effect, which can be very risky with the inhaled Ambien. Side effects of this recreational use of Ambien and alcohol may include chest pain, memory loss, blurred vision, hallucinations, vomiting, and significantly slowed heart rate and breathing. According to the DAWN report, more than 42,000 emergency room visits were attributed to Ambien in 2010, double the number from 2006.
Getting Treatment for Poly-Drug Use
Addressing the habit involving drinking alcohol and taking Ambien will depend on the level of severity of the problem. If the polydrug use is caught fairly early on, it can usually be successfully treated through an outpatient rehab program. For someone with a longer history of abusing alcohol and Ambien, a residential program is the more appropriate treatment setting.
The recovery continuum will begin with detoxification, during which the body will eliminate the residual toxins related to both the alcohol and the Ambien. Medically managed detox services help to assure safety as the individual processes through the withdrawal symptoms.
The next step on the recovery continuum is the active treatment phase. This is an extended program of intensive therapy, including individual psychotherapy, group therapy, family therapy when applicable, medication management, addiction education, life skills and recovery skills training, 12-step or similar programming, relapse prevention strategizing, and holistic therapies.
Continuing care is the final, and ongoing, step of recovery, encompassing various services and actions that help to sustain recovery from alcohol and Ambien abuse. Ongoing support through outpatient therapy and classes and participation in a recovery community is protective against relapse.
Incorporating activities that promote relaxation, reduce stress, and enhance sleep quality is a healthy way to avoid the need for sedatives at bedtime. These might include deep breathing exercises, guided meditation apps or podcasts, mindfulness training, yoga, and massage therapy. Adhering to a regular sleep schedule, and limiting caffeine, are also helpful for getting a good night’s sleep.
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