How does Ambien work?

Ambien works by slowing brain activity, allowing the user to sleep. Ambien effects begin 30 minutes after oral administration, and last for about 8 hours after you take it. More on exactly how Ambien works in the body and brain here.

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Ambien (zolpidem) is a non-benzodiazepine prescription sedative that’s given to treat insomnia. Because of the negative side effects of Ambien, doctors rarely prescribe Ambien for long periods of time or even more than 3-4 weeks. How long Ambien stays in system is a matter of hours, although Ambien can be detected in drug screens for a few days after use.

So how does Ambien affect the body and brain? Does it have the same effects for everyone? And can you improve the action time or effects of Ambien? We explore here and invite your questions about Ambien at the end.

How does Ambien work in the body?

Insomnia occurs when a person either has difficulty falling asleep, or wakes repeatedly during the night. Taking Ambien or a similar drug allows the brain and body to relax. And at its most basic level, Ambien works by slowing activity in the brain. The depressant qualities of Ambien result in:

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • lightheadedness
  • unsteady balance
  • unusual dreams

How does Ambien affect the brain and nervous system?

Ambien is a central nervous system depressant. This means it slows brain activity. Most central nervous system depressants affect the brain in the same way — they enhance the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally occurring chemical in the brain that sends messages between cells (neurotransmitter). GABA works by slowing down brain activity. Although different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, they ultimately increase GABA activity, which produces a drowsy or calming effect.

But Ambien can also have disturbing side effects. In some people, it causes memory problems, and can even cause people to act out everyday activities in their sleep, including driving, cooking, or having sex. Obviously, this is a very dangerous side effect and Ambien should be discontinued immediately if you suspect you’re engaging in any activities in your sleep. And Ambien should not be taken along with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or even antihistamines.  In fact, mixing alcohol and Ambien is never recommended and many doctors will ask that you avoid drinking while taking Ambien. Ambien can cause excessive drowsiness and become dangerous when mixed with other medications.

How fast does Ambien work

Ambien works incredibly fast. It hits peak blood concentrations only 30 minutes after being ingested. Because of the rapid onset of effects, it’s important that Ambien be taken immediately before going to bed, and not earlier in the day. It’s such a strong sedative that it’s dangerous to attempt to drive or perform physically-demanding activities while on Ambien.  How much Ambien can you take at once is limited to 10 mg zolpidem at night, before sleeping.

How long does Ambien work?

The half-life of Ambien is only about 1.5 hours. However, sedative effects can linger for over 8 hours after taking the medication.

What makes Ambien work better

It’s important to only take Ambien if you can get a full 7-8 hours of sleep that night. People have reported memory problems after taking Ambien and waking up early. For some people, it may take even longer for the drowsiness of the medication to wear off.

Does Ambien work for everyone

No, Ambien is not right for everyone. In fact, Ambien is a habit-forming medication that’s not recommended for those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. And in some people Ambien can cause severe side effects or dangerous behaviors. People who experience problems while taking Ambien should talk to their doctor immediately about discontinuing the medication.

How Ambien works questions

Still have questions about Ambien or how zolpidem works? Please leave your questions, comments or experience with Ambien here. We will be happy to answer your questions personally and promptly or refer you to someone who can.

Reference Sources: PubMed Health: Zolpidem
DailyMed: Ambien CR
Toxnet: Zolpidem Tartrate
NIDA for Teens: Facts on CNS Depressants
FDA: Side effects of sleep drugs
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. If you are a migrainer, NEVER, REPEAT, NEVER, take this drug! I used 5 – 10 mgs to sleep thru pain, it caused a CLASSIC MIGRAINE EVERY TIME! PLEASE SAVE YOURSELF!

  2. @AddictionBlog. For insomnia I have taken a generic Zolpidem for four months (5mg tablet, 10/month). Each and every time I’ve taken a tablet I’ve gone out like a light getting a solid eight hours of sleep. Last week when I picked up my Zolpidem prescription I noticed that the tablets were different, I didn’t think much about it other than to look forward to good night’s sleep. That night I took one of the tablets and laid down and went to sleep. An hour later I awoke and could not go back to sleep. I’ve since taken two more tablets about two days apart. Both times I did not feel drowsy and was unable to sleep. The new tablets are produced by a different manufacturer. My deduction is that apparently the new tablet formulation is different and is not efficacious for me. Your thoughts please…?

    1. Hi Emansnas. It may be. Check out the ingredients, and consult with your pharmacist about your new tables. Also, consult with your doctor to adjust the dosage.

  3. After using a zolpidem 10mg tablet… Shall I sleep very well without heavy noise an wakeuping from other persons for at least 6 hrs???
    Please reply fast….. I m waiting

  4. In people with a mind in nighttime over-drive, you can pave-the-way to sleep by mentally and physically calming down. No internet. no mind games, no political thoughts, no problem-solving. Read. Listen to calm music, or an audio story-teller with a soft voice. I listen to Shakespeare sonnets… not for everyone, but it works for me. I also take 1/3 of an Ambient (10) at bedtime, I don’t drink alcohol after 5 PM, I have no negative side effects at all and have forced myself to quit it entirely for a week now and then but am like a zombie by the 5th. day from 4 hours of sleep a night. I consider myself lightly addicted; at 72 being able to function in a normal way during the day trumps the light addiction.

  5. In my opinion it’s a wonderful medication that helps to sedate your brain and arrive to that feeling that you always had when you were a child

  6. I have taken ambien cr 12.5mg nightly for 5 years now. Its a miracle drug for me. I can finally get a full 8-9 hours of sleep a night uninterrupted. I went off for 6 months, I was tired all the time, didnt sleep well. Napping during the day. Non focused when im off it. There are many whom its not for but there are good with the bad. But for me its a miracle drug. Thanks Ambien Cr…

  7. Had been taken 5 mgs of ambien everyday for the last 7 years. My doctor decided it was time to quit cold turkey. I had trouble sleeping the first night, it has been 2 months and sleep solid every night and nap during the day, also my desire to drink my daily glass of wine. I feel great and like I have never had issues sleeping.

  8. Hi. I am curentley taking Prozac for anxiety and depression. My doctor prescribed Ambien for sleeping
    Is it safe to take these both medications? Are the side effects more dangerous once taken? What kind of memory problems dose Ambien cause?

    1. Hi Hector. According to several studies, both zolpidem and fluoxetine were well tolerated in combination. However, using fluoxetine together with zolpidem may increase side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. I suggest you consult with your doctor first, then start taking them. Here’s a list of the studies:

  9. If you are concerned about your addiction to Ambiem, do all the suggested recommendations for night sleep preparation and gradually start decreasing your dosage of the pill at bedtime. I am down to 1/4 of a #10 pill and it allows me to fall asleep.. for me it was GETTING to sleep that was the problem. A lot of sleep anxiety is the dread of NOT sleeping. It will take some re-training your thoughts to gain some control of this bad habit.

  10. Is it safe to take GABA in the morning and Ambion in the evening? GABA would be taken to reduce anxiety and relax muscles.

    1. Hi Ken. Please direct this question to your doctor or call your pharmacist for a more professional input.

  11. I have taken collided a year ago but didn’t seem work much I am trying again with left over pills. How long does it suppose to work.. in days immediately or a few days. Thank you…

  12. After using 10mg ambien a night for a year, will normal brain chemistry come back? Any idea how long this will take?
    Just to clarify: i have completely stopped taking ambien – just wanting to know if after you stop it, is normal brain chemistry restored after some time?

  13. @Jim and anyone else accidentally stumbling across this post from a search engine –
    Ambien is a horrible drug for a lot of people, and can cause depression / suicidal thoughts when taken consistently for a long period of time.
    I took ambien for a year or two, most nights of the week. I noticed a definite negative impact on my mood, memory and cognitive ability. This medication can and does cause depression and suicidal thoughts. Combined with subtle to severe memory “gaps”, a person often struggles to even logically assess the situation from within that mental fog.
    I am not a doctor, but my opinion as a former ambien user is to keep it simple and FLUSH THE AMBIEN DOWN THE TOILET RIGHT NOW. I did that after the negative effects were undeniable and also confirmed by friends who were also taking ambien at the time.
    The withdrawal / sleepless nights will be horrible for few days, but you’ll feel like a new person within a week. I work managing multi-million dollar projects for global firms, and the subtle damage this medication does over the long term in some people is staggering.
    I also believe the problem is very common, but the majority of people are unaware of the cognitive and memory impacts simply because their job role and daily activities are not intensive enough to highlight the problem.

  14. Jim, please allow yourself some time to weather out this negative period of your life. You are self-medicating with the alcohol and you will get stronger and be able to cope better, but it all takes time. Nothing stays the same. Life gets hard but one day at a time allows the hurt to pass.

    1. Hello Bob. One of the very rare side effects from taking Ambien is fast heartbeat. I’d suggest you consult your doctor and report this one, and any other side effects that you may be experiencing.

  15. In my attempt to check out of this life I ingested 15 quantity of 10 mg. Zolpidem and 3/4 of a 750 ml. bottle of vodka. To my disappointment, I woke up 40 hours later. My previous high water mark was a single 10 mg. tab along with about 1/3 of a 750 ml. bottle. I weigh 180 lbs. and have been drinking for about 10 months.

  16. I can use 1/2 of a 5mg. and get the same results. Many times i/3 of a 5 will give me enough sleep to get by on. Sometimes I think a placebo would work and I try to trick myself by opening the bottle, taking a melatonin pill instead, but this only works until 2 am and then it is back to a *racing pop-corn thought brain* that runs in over-drive until the alarm goes off in the morning.
    I have a love/ hate relationship with this pill. Nothing I have found leaves me feeling so rested and full of energy than a whole 8 hr. sleep with ambien. I am 71.

  17. Hello Marc. Amongst many other roles it has in our body, the function of the hormone ‘cortisol’ determines our sleep patterns. The levels of cortisol should be high in the morning, gradually decline throughout the day, and become lowest at night-just as we’re getting ready for bed time. Ambien are sleeping pills that interfere with the quality REM sleep cycle. People taking Ambien might experience anxiety as a result of the drug’s side effects, not because of its direct actions.

  18. I have significant morning anxiety. Does ambien contribute to this? Is there a correlation? Also is there any connection between ambien and cortisol?

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