Ambien, which contains the active ingredient zolpidem, is a sleeping pill used to treat insomnia. IMS Health found that over 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills, including Ambien, were dispensed in 2012. This high number is echoed by rising rates of Ambien abuse – the number of Ambien-related emergency room visits involving negative reactions to the drug rose from 6,111 visits in 2005 to 19,487 visits in 2010, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Ambien and the Brain
Ambien acts by binding to special sites in the brain called GABA receptors. The brain uses GABA to slow down or inhibit other brain regions, so GABA-binding drugs like Ambien cause sedating effects. For people looking to treat insomnia, this is the intended purpose. Most people who use Ambien are able to do so without experiencing negative consequences.
But consequences can occur if someone takes Ambien for too long or at too high a dosage level. The barrage of zolpidem overstimulates the brain’s nerve cells and, over time, they become less sensitive in an attempt to defend themselves. This loss of sensitivity means that the brain’s own GABA is no longer sufficient to properly regulate other areas of the brain, causing imbalance unless Ambien is present. This condition is called dependence.
Symptoms of Ambien Withdrawal
When the body becomes dependent upon Ambien due to excessive use, quitting abruptly can cause withdrawal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that less than 1 percent of people will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms typically appear within 48 hours of ceasing using Ambien, the FDA adds, and can include:
- Depressed mood
- Uncontrolled crying
- Panic attack
- Stomach pain or cramps
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle cramps
How Your Doctor Can Help With Ambien Withdrawal
Although rare, the possible complications of Ambien withdrawal can be life-threatening, so quitting should only be attempted under a doctor’s supervision.
- You may be able to work with your doctor to gradually reduce your dosage of Ambien over the course of a few weeks in a process called tapering. This gives your body time to slowly adjust to lower and lower doses without triggering withdrawal.
- For more severe dependence, or if your doctor has concerns about your ability to taper on your own, it may be necessary for you to enter into inpatient detoxification. Your doctor may switch you to another drug, often a benzodiazepine, to replace the Ambien and stave off withdrawal symptoms. From there, you and your doctor can work together to taper off the benzodiazepine.
- Depending on your reasons for using Ambien excessively, it may also be appropriate to seek psychotherapy for insomnia or addiction.
If you, or a loved one, are dependent upon Ambien and want to quit, there is help. To learn more about what treatment options are best for you and how to get started, call the number above. We’re here 24/7 to take your call and answer any questions you may have.