Ambien is not a benzodiazepine; it is in a class of drugs known as sedatives/hypnotics. Ambien (zolpidem) is commonly used to treat insomnia, but is only intended for short-term use. The mechanism of action of Ambien involves the activation of the neurotransmitter, GABA, which slows down the brain and the central nervous system, resulting in its sedative effect. There are two forms of Ambien, a fast-release form that helps to initiate sleep and an extended-release form that helps to maintain sleep.
Benzodiazepines, on the other hand, are a drug class of central nervous system depressants that cause drowsiness. Benzodiazepines have also been known to treat insomnia as well as anxiety and panic disorders. Benzodiazepines or benzos are extremely habit-forming and easy to become addicted to, even if taken as prescribed. Prolonged use of the drug leads to increased tolerance, meaning that you will need higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effects. Generally, individuals who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse are more likely to develop an addiction to these drugs.
Ambien, the non-benzo sleep drug, was designed to have the same medical effect as benzodiazepines minus the dangerous and habit-forming properties those drugs are known for. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Ambien is a Schedule IV controlled substance, meaning it has a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Despite this, many individuals use Ambien recreationally for its potential euphoric effects. Individuals who take Ambien for a longer period of time than recommended or those who misuse the drug can quickly develop a dependency. In fact, it is now recognized that Ambien has a very similar potential for abuse and addiction as benzos.
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Ambien vs. Benzodiazepines
The main difference between Ambien and benzodiazepines is that Ambien is a sedative/hypnotic whereas Benzodiazepines are central nervous depressants. Though they have similar characteristics, they have some important differences also.
According to the DEA, both Ambien and benzodiazepines are considered to be Schedule IV controlled drugs. They are both used to treat insomnia by helping in initiating and maintaining sleep. Both Ambien and benzodiazepines are thought to enhance the effects of a specific neurotransmitter called GABA. They both have the potential to be addiction-forming, although it may take a longer time to form an addiction to Ambien. In addition, while both classes of drugs come with the potential of withdrawal symptoms, those of Ambien tend to be less severe and dangerous than that of the benzodiazepines.
Ambien and benzodiazepines have some overlapping side effects including:
- Impaired balance
- Dry mouth
Unlike Ambien that treats only insomnia, benzodiazepines are also commonly used in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders, nervousness, seizures, muscle spasms and alcohol withdrawal.
Side effects of benzodiazepines that are different from Ambien include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Memory impairment
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain
- Dry mouth
- Decreased libido
Side effects of Ambien that are different from benzodiazepines include:
- Weakness and dizziness
- Visual changes
Ambien reportedly induces parasomnia which refers to all the abnormal things that can happen to people while they are technically asleep, with no memory of having done so, such as sleepwalking, hallucinations, binge eating or cleaning the house.
Ambien Drug Interactions
In total there are 377 drugs that are known to interact with Ambien, of which 24 are major, 350 moderate and three minor. Drug interactions with Ambien are a concern, particularly because some interactions can lead to higher blood levels of these drugs which can raise the side effect risks. Ambien is broken down for elimination from the body via liver enzymes. If these enzymes are inhibited by other drugs, such as antibiotics, Ambien blood levels may rise. On the opposing end, drugs that increase the breakdown of this drug class may reduce their sleep effectiveness.
Ambien may also interact with other drugs or medications that cause drowsiness or slow your breathing. These include antidepressants, cold medications, pain medications and muscle relaxants. In addition, there are a number of prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins and herbal supplements that can interact with Ambien making it less effective or increasing its side effects.
Taking Ambien and benzodiazepines together is highly inadvisable as they both have similar effects of slowing the activity of the central nervous system, including respiration. By combining the two, the intoxicating effects of each drug are enhanced and you may be putting yourself at risk for severe respiratory depression and potential overdose. In addition, with both drugs having the risk of abuse and dependence, combining them may essentially increase this risk. Similarly is the case of combining Ambien with alcohol which is also a central nervous system depressant. This interaction also increases the risk of overdose as dangerous side effects are more likely to occur when alcohol is consumed with Ambien.
Always speak with your doctor or have your pharmacist run a drug interaction screen before taking Ambien or benzodiazepines with any other medications or supplements. If you or anyone you know is struggling with dependence or addiction to these drugs, The Recovery Village can help. Contact us for more information.
Drugs.com. “Ambien.” Updated December 16, 2018. Accessed November 7, 2019.
Heydari, M; Isfeedvajani, MS. “Zolpidem dependence, abuse and withdrawal: A case report.” Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, November 18, 2013. Accessed November 7, 2019.
I, Nagaki T.; Miyaoka, T.; Tsuji, S.; Inami, Y.; Nishida, A.; Horigucki, J. “Adverse reactions to zolpidem: Case reports and a review of the literature.” Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2010. Accessed November 7, 2019.
National Institutes of Health. “Ambien.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, Updated August 29, 2019. Accessed November 7, 2019.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration. “Drug Scheduling.” Accessed November 7, 2019.
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