What Is Ambien? — Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects
If you’re having trouble sleeping, you may have received a prescription for the sedative Ambien. It’s no surprise that this drug is increasing in popularity. Our list of daily priorities often includes work, family, errands, social obligations, and chores. But it seems as if sleep has gotten pushed to the bottom of the list, becoming more of a luxury than a necessity.
However, sleep shouldn't be viewed as an indulgence. It's as integral to our physical wellness, mental health, and overall wellbeing as water and food.
Besides making you feel good, getting sufficient sleep releases the hormones in our bodies that support our memory and immune systems. It also lowers the risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. When the body doesn't get enough sleep, this can impair one's ability to focus, react, think clearly, or control emotions.
The amount of sleep needed typically depends on age:
Ages 6 - 13
9 to 11 hours
Ages 14 - 17
8 to 10 hours
Ages 18 - 64
7 to 9 hours
7 to 8 hours
In the United States, between 50 and 70 million adults experience a sleep disorder or sleep deprivation, with 38 million of these individuals using prescription Zolpidem (Ambien) to achieve better sleep.
What Is a Sleep Disorder?
Quality of sleep is as essential as the quantity of sleep. But a sleep disorder is a condition that can prevent an individual from sleeping well on a regular basis. There are many common sleep disorders, including:
- Insomnia: A condition where individuals will have trouble falling asleep, remaining asleep, or both.
- Sleep Apnea: A sleep disturbance that happens when the airway gets blocked while sleeping, causing individuals to wake up to catch their breath.
- Restless Leg Syndrome: An irresistible urge or need to be moving one's legs constantly, even when sleeping.
- Parasomnia: Abnormal behaviors or movements during sleep, such as nightmares and sleepwalking.
- Narcolepsy: A condition that involves suddenly feeling very sleepy or falling asleep without warning during usual waking hours.
Many individuals with sleep disorders can sleep for an adequate amount of time but don't reach the critical stages of the sleep cycle to feel refreshed and well-rested.
What Is the Proper Sleep Cycle?
To reap the full benefits of rest, most people need to follow a typical sleep cycle,which includes two main styles of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep.
When you initially fall asleep, you enter non-REM sleep. Your body moves through different stages until it enters stage five, also known as REM sleep, approximately 90 minutes after initially dozing off. This is the stage where dreaming takes place. Your eyes will quickly move from side to side, and your heart rate will reach a near-normal rate.
With each sleep cycle, the REM stage gets longer and can last up to an hour. On average, an adult will experience 5 to 6 REM stages per night. All stages of sleep are vital, but deep sleep and REM are where the most important restorative functions take place — making REM-preventing sleep disruptions precarious obstacles to ongoing health and wellbeing.
What Is Ambien Used For and What Are the Benefits?
Ambien is a sedative used to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders, also referred to as a hypnotic. Typically, Ambien is temporarily prescribed to balance chemicals in the brain in people with sleep problems. It produces a calming effect, helping you fall asleep faster and get a better night's rest.
There are two forms of Ambien that your doctor may consider, depending on your sleep issues. One is an immediate-release tablet used to help one fall asleep when first going to bed. The other is Ambien CR, an extended-release form with one layer that dissolves quickly to help you fall asleep and a second layer that dissolves slowly to help you stay asleep. It is recommended only to take this medicine if you have a full 7 to 8 hours to dedicate to sleep.
What Are the Side Effects of Ambien?
This medication may be habit-forming and can cause addiction, overdose, or death, which is why it is recommended for short-term use only — usually just a week or two. It is also recommended not to stop using Ambien suddenly after long-term use, or you could experience undesirable and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
This medication may cause an allergic reaction, so if you have hives, difficulty breathing, or swelling of your lips, throat, face, or tongue, seek emergency medical help immediately. Other reasons to stop taking Ambien and to call your doctor is if you experience chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, or feeling like you might pass out.
Report any new or worsening symptoms, including anxiety, depression, confusion, hallucinations, risk-taking behavior, decreased inhibitions, no fear of danger, or thoughts of suicide.
When using Ambien, some people have engaged in activities such as eating, walking, making phone calls, driving, or having sex, and later have zero memory of these events. Should this happen to you, stop taking the medication immediately and talk to your health care provider about an alternative treatment for your sleep disorder.
What Is the Ambien Walrus?
Ambien has become notorious in some circles for its odd and outlandish behavioral side effects — such as the aforementioned mix of hallucinations, hypnosis, and amnesia. From these strange occurrences arose an internet meme called the Ambien Walrus. Originally appearing in the online comic Toothpaste For Dinner, the walrus pops up whenever the protagonist takes an Ambien and urges him to make weird and wacky decisions.
While obviously a humorous take on Ambien’s effects, the Ambien Walrus gets some of its best ideas from the true-life stories about the drug:
- "I drove to the store while I was sleeping and bought whipped cream."
- "I bought a $2000 guitar amp online."
- "I was lying on my bed, and then the next thing I knew, I had risen above my bed and was floating around the room. This went on for hours."
- "I have a key to my neighbor's home for when they are out of town. More than once, they have found me in their kitchen, eating ice cream, in the middle of the night. I don't even like ice cream."
- "I woke up after a long, restful night of sleep to find all my laundry neatly folded at the foot of my bed."
Unfortunately, Ambien’s addictive nature and unusual side effects have also made it a prime candidate for drug abuse. Some users inadvertently become reliant on the drug during a normal course of treatment for sleep issues, and may struggle against withdrawal when trying to wean off their prescription.
In other cases, recreational drug users may acquire Ambien specifically to experience its mind-altering or hallucinatory effects. But as with any other prescription medication, users should not take Ambien for any non-prescribed reason.
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