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The Search for Sleep -- and the Benefits and Hazards of Ambien

July 28, 2022

Insomnia can be brutal, but what about Ambien?

If you can’t get to sleep, you can’t recharge. And if you can’t recharge, you can’t function well during the day. And if you can’t function well during the day, everything can start to unravel. You become ineffective at work, school, and/or home. You forget important obligations. You can barely drag yourself from activity to activity.

And then when you fall into bed, you still can’t sleep. So the cycle repeats and worsens. Then it repeats and worsens again.

Studies suggest that as many as 1 in 4—or 25 percent—of Americans battle insomnia each year. That is a whole lot of folks walking around in a sleep-deprived daze.

If you are among them, you may well be desperate for a solution. A visit to your doctor may result in a prescription for Ambien (generic name: zolpidem). The drug is well known for its effectiveness as a sleep aid, helping individuals fall asleep and stay asleep so that they can get the rest they need so badly. For some, a prescription for Ambien can change life for the better in dramatic ways.

That’s all to the good, of course. But in some cases, a different reality can come to the fore, leading to a new but significant problem:

Addiction to Ambien can be brutal.

Limited Use, Lingering Worries, Extreme Measures, and Lack of Sleep

no sleep insomnia ambien

Ambien is not intended for long-term use, so it is not necessarily the final solution for your insomnia. When your doctor prescribes the medication, they are hoping to address an immediate problem—you need to get some rest right away. Your physician will likely write a prescription for a small dose of the drug to be taken for a short period of time.

While you might be relieved to have the drug and the chance to get some sleep at long last, you may also feel a lingering sense of worry. What is going to happen when your supply of Ambien is gone? Will your insomnia return? Will your doctor be willing to prescribe more?

For some, that sense of worry becomes overwhelming. And so they start looking for ways to maintain a supply of the drug. Maybe they make appointments with multiple physicians—or even attempt to forge prescriptions. Maybe they check medicine cabinets in other people’s homes to see if they can find some Ambien they can pocket. Maybe they look for an illicit source for the drug, buying it “on the street” in the parlance of drug users.

If they manage to build a supply, they may very well be tempted to up their dosage. After all, if the drug works well at the prescribed dosage, might it not work even better if they took a little (or a lot) more? Then they could enjoy the restful, hypnotic high the drug can supply more intensely or for longer periods of time—or at least so the thinking goes.

But what is actually happening is far darker. A person who misuses Ambien can quickly find themselves trading chronic insomnia for a substance use disorder.

It Isn’t So Easy to Eliminate Ambien

Given what we’ve described, you may be thinking the solution is simple: a person who finds themselves taking too much Ambien for too long should simply stop.

Unfortunately, stopping isn’t simple at all.

That’s because the body and brain become used to the Ambien, and any attempt to stop taking the drug can result in quite serious withdrawal symptoms including intense cravings for the drug, mood shifts, panic attacks, an increase in heart and breathing rates, sweating and flushing, stomach issues of various kinds, and—in severe cases—seizures or convulsions. Ironically, the withdrawal symptoms also often include insomnia, the very problem that the Ambien was supposed to address in the first place.

The ideal approach to getting off Ambien is to slowly taper off of the drug. The process is sometimes best accomplished in residential treatment where medically supervised detoxification is available followed by a robust rehabilitation program that can help you learn strategies and gather resources for staying off of Ambien for good.

But What About the Original Insomnia?

You may be wondering if people go through the process of getting off Ambien only to find themselves back where they started: suffering from chronic insomnia.

That can happen, but fortunately, there are options for working through the problem. First, it is important to address any mental health disorders that may be contributing to the ongoing sleeplessness. In addition, there are plenty of strategies that can help an individual struggling to sleep develop a routine that gives them the best chance of overcoming their insomnia. Once that routine is well established, sleeping may switch from being a persistent problem to being a restorative pleasure.

Wide Awake and Ready to Help

At the Farley Center, we know how quickly a drug meant to help can become harmful—and we are here to help. We will see you through detox and rehab with a personalized treatment plan grounded in expertise, experience, and compassion. And we can help address any co-occurring mental health difficulties that may be contributing to your substance use disorder. Don’t sleep on the opportunity to get the help you need. We are ready when you are.