According to data collected by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 4 percent of the population over the age of 19 in the United States took a prescription sleep aid within 30 days of the national survey being conducted.
As sedative-hypnotic drug, Ambien contains zolpidem, which enhances the action and amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is one of the brain’s chemical messengers that helps to reduce stress and anxiety levels by lowering body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate and slowing down some of the nerve firings in the brain.
Zolpidem is often classified as a “z-drug,” a class of medications that are very similar in mechanism and action to benzodiazepines. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that Ambien should not be combined with alcohol or other sedative medications, which also lower some of the central nervous system’s life-sustaining functions, as this may lead to a buildup of toxins in the body and create potentially disastrous consequences. Ambien and alcohol are also both mind-altering substances that can cause emotional alterations. These can lead to unpredictable and erratic behaviors that may have many negative personal and social ramifications.
Risk of Death
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that in 2011 over a half-million people sought medical attention at an emergency department (ED) for a negative reaction from taking sedatives, anxiolytic, and hypnotic medications and alcohol. In 2010, the DAWN Report found that nearly 20,000 people needed ED treatment for an adverse reaction to zolpidem specifically, 10 percent of which had combined the drug with alcohol.
Both alcohol and Ambien depress the central nervous system. When mixed, these substances can cause these functions to become dangerously slow or stop altogether. Shallow or difficulties breathing, lightheaded feelings, dizziness, fainting, seizures, extreme drowsiness or loss of consciousness, confusion and an altered mental state, chest pain, or coma may result from an overdose. An overdose can lead to a lack of oxygen in the brain, causing long-term damage, and it can also be fatal.
Hypotension or low blood pressure, weak pulse and slow heart rate, nausea, vomiting, slowed reflexes, impaired motor coordination and muscle control, slurred speech, blurred vision, short-term memory loss, headache, and trouble thinking clearly and making good decisions are side effects of too much alcohol combined with Ambien. Next-day impairment, or sleepwalking, is a serious side effect of Ambien use about which the FDA warns potential users. When combined with alcohol, these effects may be compounded.
Individuals may drive, have sex, talk on the phone, make and eat food, or carry out a wide range of activities while under the influence of these substances and have no knowledge of doing so the next day. This can be especially dangerous if someone attempts to drive or operate machinery while impaired. In 2014, the CDC reports that almost one-third of all traffic-related fatalities were caused by alcohol-impaired drivers, and 16 percent of motor vehicle crashes involved drugs of some sort. When drugs and alcohol are combined, the risk factors for being involved in a motor vehicle fatality are exponentially increased. Both Ambien and alcohol alter a person’s mental state, making them more prone to engaging in potentially hazardous or risky behaviors that may lead to accidents or injuries.
Mood and Behavior Alterations
Alcohol can make a person feel more social, less inhibited, and a heightened sense of pleasure. It increases levels of dopamine in the brain, which elevates moods. Alcohol acts on regions of the brain responsible for helping to regulate emotions and also regions involved in short-term memory functions, impulse control, and decision-making abilities.
- Alcohol intoxication, as published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), may cause:
- Increased libido
- Inability to think clearly
- Depressive thoughts
- Enhanced suicidal ideations or actions
- Hostility, aggression, and/or violence
- Short-term memory lapses
- Loss of focus and ability to concentrate or divide attention
Ambien is meant to be taken as a short-term sleep aid, helping individuals to fall and stay asleep. The FDA warns that Ambien can cause behaviors that may be out of character or abnormal, including:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Memory loss
When alcohol and Ambien are combined, all of these potential side effects of both substances (many of which are the same or similar) may be exacerbated. Individuals may also then be more likely to then fall victim to sexual assault, violence, or crime.
Ambien is meant to increase a person’s quality of sleep, but it has an interesting effect on consciousness, and alcohol may actually disrupt healthy sleep, making these two a poor combination for quality sleep, Psychology Today warns.
Individuals may wake up the next day feeling much less rested and with no recollection of the previous night’s activities.
Threat of Addiction
Mixing two substances that act on similar parts of the brain can increase the risk for becoming physically dependent on them and developing an addiction involving alcohol and/or Ambien. When someone takes Ambien or drinks alcohol regularly, the brain gets used to the effects the substance has on its chemical makeup and circuitry. As these changes become more fixed over time, individuals become dependent on the substances, requiring them in order to feel balanced. After dependence sets in, withdrawal symptoms, which can be uncomfortable and even possibly dangerous, may occur when the substances wear off.
Both alcohol and Ambien work on similar parts of the brain, and in so doing, they may speed up the timeline it takes for dependence to form. Cravings and a desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms may encourage people to keep taking Ambien and/or drinking alcohol, which can facilitate addiction to one or both of these substances. Addiction involving alcohol or Ambien, or both, may then be a possible side effect of mixing these two substances.