The sleep aid Ambien was introduced in Europe in 1988 and in the US in 1993. World-wide there are more than 20 different trade names. The generic formula is referred to as Zolpidem and is available from at least six different manufacturers.
The generics were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2007. A controlled release form designed for people that have trouble staying asleep was released a short while later. The patent holder in the US is a French pharmaceutical corporation; Sanofi-Aventis.
Zolpidem is a sedative drug similar to the benzodiazepines. Although it was originally marketed as a safer alternative to benzodiazepines, research indicates that there is little difference between them and the Ambien sleep aid. In other words, the researchers believe that the older drugs are just as safe and effective.
Zolpidem works by selectively binding to GABA receptors in the brain. This reduces the activity of the neurons and allows people to fall asleep. The effect is similar to that of alcohol and other sedatives.
The side effects of the sleep aid Ambien are numerous. One of the more dangerous ones is sleepwalking. Two deaths in Australia were blamed on sleepwalking that resulted from taking Zolpidem. Those deaths prompted the Australian government to require that a “Black Box Warning” be attached to the label.
Black box warnings are reserved for drugs that can cause serious adverse reactions. The warning is in addition to the list of side effects that accompanies the package insert. It is designed to draw a person’s attention to the more serious side effects.
In the US, there is no Black Box Warning for Zolpidem. In Australia, the warning states that the drug should be used for no more than four weeks and then only under close medical supervision. In addition to sleepwalking, there have been instances of sleep driving and other “bizarre behaviors”.
It should not be taken with alcohol or used recreationally. It is recommended only for short term use because it is an addictive drug. The brain builds up a tolerance to it, which means it becomes ineffective as time goes by, unless larger doses are taken.
At any dose, the side effects may include memory loss, increased appetite, poor judgment, poor reasoning skills, hallucinations, delusions and headaches. When you stop taking the sleep aid Ambien, insomnia may return or worsen.
It is particularly dangerous for elderly people, because it causes poor motor coordination and weak muscles. There have been instances of broken bones and fractures that occurred while elderly people were taking the drug.
Tolerance to Ambien can occur in a short period of time, possibly in less than four weeks. Severe withdrawal symptoms including delirium and seizures can occur if the drug is stopped abruptly. For that reason, practitioners recommend a gradual reduction in dosage for people that have been taking it for long periods of time.
Alcoholics, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers should not take Zolpidem, because there is an increased risk of physical dependence. It should not be prescribed to anyone that has a history of drug misuse.
Care should be used when operating motor vehicles the morning after. Some residual drowsiness may be present. A few traffic accidents have been blamed on the use of the Ambien he night before.
People with acid reflux or GERD should not take the drug, because it worsens symptoms and increases their duration. The increased exposure to gastric acid increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
Most doctors suggest other alternatives before prescribing the sleep aid Ambien or similar drugs. If you decide to try it, use it with caution.