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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