Ambien: Sleeping Pill FAQs


Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Insomnia, the inability to sleep, is all too common in our society. Many people have transient sleep disturbances and treat them with over-the-counter medications, while others turn to their healthcare provider for prescription medications - and there are plenty of choices for medications. Each has its benefits and risks, indications, and side effects, and these medications are not interchangeable. More importantly, they aren't safe to use together.

Regardless of the mechanism of action of sleeping pills, they are all "downers." They depress brain function, and if too many are taken or if they are mixed with alcohol or other drugs, the breathing centers of the brain can be depressed to the point that the body stops breathing, and the person dies.

One prescription sleep medication is zolpidem (Ambien). Ambien is a sedative drug that works quickly; but as with any sleeping pill, it needs to be used in a wise manner. It should be used in the smallest dose possible to get the intended effect (sleep), the person should be able to have 8 hours available for potential sleep when taking the drug, and until the effect of the drug is known on that individual person, the next day's activity should not include driving or using heavy machinery.

Ambien also has some potential side effects that are to say the least, "frightening." Sleep driving can occur, in which people get out of bed and drive their car while not awake. Sanofli Aventis, the company that makes Ambien, writes, "Other complex behaviors such as preparing and eating food, making phone calls, or having sex have been reported in people who are not fully awake after taking a sleep medicine. As with 'sleep driving,' people usually don't remember these events."

They also state, "This behavior is more likely to occur when Ambien is taken with alcohol or other drugs such as those for the treatment of depression or anxiety."

Ambien and other similar drugs have a reasonable safety profile, meaning that the amount of medication needed to get the therapeutic effect is unlikely to cause complications. Medications that are prescribed to affect brain function need to be carefully chosen by the care provider and need to be respected by the patient.

Reference: Ambien CR™ Patient Pamphlet; Sanofi-Aventis, April 2007 (

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