Ambien and Alcohol: A Deadly Combination

What Happens When You Combine Ambien and Alcohol?

When doctors prescribe Ambien and other sleep aids, they generally tell their patients to avoid drinking alcohol. There’s a good reason for this. These two substances interact in the body and can cause unpredictable and often dangerous effects. For many patients, combining alcohol and Ambien may seem like an obvious choice. After all, many people use alcohol to sedate themselves and get to sleep more easily. If Ambien also helps people sleep, why not combine it with alcohol to make it more effective? Another common reason people add alcohol to Ambien is because they have developed a tolerance to sleeping pills. They may hope that by combining alcohol and Ambien they will be able to combat their tolerance. In fact, mixing Ambien and alcohol is extremely dangerous.

Why is combining alcohol and Ambien dangerous? Both drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. The central nervous system, which coordinates and influences the activity of the brain and body, and it is responsible for managing the automatic life-sustaining processes we need to live, such as breathing. Taking Ambien as prescribed is unlikely to compromise the central nervous system. However, when an additional central nervous system depressant like alcohol is consumed, the effects on the central nervous system can be catastrophic, potentially slowing heart rate and damaging a person’s respiratory system. Combining alcohol and Ambien can lead to acute cognitive and physical impairment, harm a person’s liver, and in some cases it can lead to life threatening overdoses.

While Ambien and alcohol are both legal drugs, that does not mean that they are risk-free. Not only do people who combine them risk overdosing, but they are likely to develop a physical dependence on this dangerous cocktail of CNS depressants. If you or someone you love is addicted to Ambien, alcohol, or the combination of the two, it is essential that they seek help.

What is Ambien?

Ambien is actually the brand name for a drug called zolpidem. Zolpidem is sold under many brand names, including Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Dactive, Zolnox, Sanval, Semi-Nax, Flazinil, Belbien, and countless others. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the terms Ambien and zolpidem interchangeably, since Ambien is by far the most famous brand name representing this drug.

So what does Ambien actually do? Ambien is a sedative that is commonly prescribed to treat sleep problems, primarily insomnia. This hypnotic drug alters brain chemicals and calms the central nervous system. By inhibiting central nervous system activity, Ambien produces the ideal calm state of sleep. Studies show that it can speed up the onset of sleep by approximately 15 minutes, and larger doses can speed up sleep onset even more, as well as help people stay asleep without waking up in the middle of the night. With 10% to 30% of the world suffering from some degree of insomnia, it is no surprise than Ambien is a popular drug.

However, Ambien is not meant to be taken over a long period of time. This is because Ambien tablets, which are sometimes known as “zombie pills,” can lead to physical dependence after a short period of time, often as quickly as only two weeks of usage. Individuals who form a tolerance on Ambien will find their zolpidem tablets becoming gradually less effective. In order to obtain the effects they seek, it is necessary for them to increase their dosage. Even at low doses, Ambien tablets can dramatically impair a person’s ability to perform normal tasks, such as driving or holding a conversation. At higher doses, Ambien pills really do turn people into “zombies.” They risk severe psychological and physical harm, as well as the possibility of a life threatening overdose.

Using Alcohol to Get to Sleep

The vast majority of individuals who suffer from insomnia receive no treatment whatsoever. In fact, they are likely to find their own solutions to the problem. For many, alcohol is the most obvious form of self-medication. This legal and widely available drug is, like Ambien, a central nervous system depressant and can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. At first, alcohol might indeed work to help people sleep. However, it is important to note that this is an illusion. Alcohol use is actually linked to poor sleep quality and duration. While alcohol may help people fall asleep, people who drink alcohol to get to sleep are likely to wake up in the middle of the night — often with a hangover!

Like Ambien, alcohol also rapidly leads to physical dependence and tolerance. Once a person becomes accustomed to using alcohol to get to sleep, they will quickly find that they are unable to get to sleep at all without it. Moreover, growing tolerance will mean that they will require higher and higher doses of alcohol in order to fall asleep. Eventually, the side effects of alcohol abuse generally extend to other areas of life. Alcohol addiction can negatively impact work, school, relationships, finances, and even lead to dangerous accidents and health problems.

Side Effects of Mixing Ambien and Alcohol

Most people begin mixing Ambien and alcohol because their primary sleep aid, whether alcohol or Ambien, has begun to be less effective. They may add alcohol to their Ambien regimen or add Ambien to their drinking regimen because they believe that it will make the first drug more effective. In a way, they’re right: each drug amplifies the effects of the other one. However, such amplification is not safe. Combining alcohol and Ambien not only causes people to feel sleepy, it can make them uncoordinated and disoriented. This form of polysubstance abuse leads to a wide range of harmful physical and psychological consequences.

The side effects of mixing Ambien and alcohol include:

  • Dizziness and loss of physical coordination
  • Impaired judgment
  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss (sometimes known as “blackouts”)
  • Sleepwalking
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleep apnea (which makes sleep quality worse!)
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Hallucinations
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Delusions
  • Fainting
  • Collapse
  • Coma

Dangers of Mixing Ambien and Alcohol

Ambien and Alcohol are both addictive drugs. Suffering from an addiction to one or the other is dangerous enough on its own, but when a person develops a polysubstance addiction it is far more difficult to recover. Addiction can cause people to drop out of life, prioritizing their substance abuse far above other activities and important relationships. Before they know it, drugs are all they have left. For this reason, most doctors are reluctant to prescribe Ambien until a person has tried other solutions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Taking high doses of Ambien, especially when it is combined with alcohol, increases the likelihood of a phenomenon known as “parasomnia.” Parasomnia causes people to perform tasks while they are asleep. These tasks can be surprisingly complex, ranging from full conversations with other people to driving on the road. It should come as no surprise, however, that driving while asleep is likely to endanger not just the driver, but countless other people. Other parasomniac activities, such as sleep-eating, sleep-shopping, and sleep-emailing can end up harming a person as well, though in less dramatic ways than driving under the influence.

The greatest risk of combining alcohol and Ambien is the possibility of a drug overdose. While it is possible to overdose on alcohol or Ambien alone, mixing the two drugs increases the likelihood. The symptoms of an Ambien overdose include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to wake up
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Depressed, slowed, or stopped breathing
  • Coma
  • Death

People who develop addictions to Ambien and alcohol are also likely to abuse other drugs alongside them. Mixing these CNS depressants with other CNS depressants, including opioids like fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone, causes the risk of overdose to surge even more. Mixing Ambien and alcohol with CNS stimulants also poses unique dangers. Since stimulants like Adderall and cocaine put increased demands on the central nervous system and depressants inhibit its ability to meet these demands, individuals under the influence of these contradictory substances have a high likelihood of having their central nervous systems shut down entirely. The respiratory depression that results can be fatal.

Unfortunately, Ambien and alcohol overdoses are on the rise. In 2010 alone, there were 64,175 emergency room visits due to Ambien overdoses. Approximately one third of these overdoses were caused by a person taking a higher dose than prescribed. 57% of Ambien overdoses involved other substances combined with Ambien, predominantly alcohol. When alcohol was involved, the likelihood of being transferred to a critical or intensive care unit increased considerably. While it is possible to survive a life-threatening overdose, the vast majority end up returning to alcohol and Ambien abuse.

Recovery is Possible at Design for Recovery

If you or a loved one is suffering from an Ambien addiction or an alcohol use disorder, it is crucial to get outside help. Once an addiction has developed, individual will power is not enough to manage the problem. Some people manage to withdraw from these drugs, but without addressing the root causes and getting involved in a support system, most people end up relapsing and returning to their own ways.

Design for Recovery is a structured sober living home for men located in West Los Angeles. At Design for Recovery, young men can recover from their addictions in a safe, supportive environment. Residents connect with each other to develop strong sober social support systems. This kind of peer support helps people stay sober for years after graduating from their sober living home, according to a study on sober living homes. Residents not only work to develop new skills and coping tools, they also address underlying issues that may be driving them to addiction in the first place. We help residents who suffer from insomnia or other comorbid mental health conditions connect with the resources they need. At Design for Recovery, we believe that recovery is about more than just staying off drugs: it’s about living a new and better life.

You don’t have to struggle alone. If you are ready to get a better night’s sleep and lead a better life during the day as well, contact Design for Recovery today.

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