Dangers of Mixing Ambien and Alcohol – Some of the biggest challenges in treatment for alcohol use disorder occurs when a person is routinely combining alcohol with other substances, either unintentionally (perhaps not being aware of the consequences) or deliberately.
In many instances, patients don’t realize that alcohol and certain medications can cause a severe reaction. In other cases, those who abuse drugs may consume alcohol and use medication intentionally to experience euphoria or to self-medicate conditions, such as insomnia or anxiety, without knowing the risks. Clinically, this is referred to as polysubstance abuse.
One drug that is dangerous to mix with alcohol is zolpidem, better known by the brand name Ambien. Mixing Ambien and alcohol, regardless of the reason, can cause a dangerous reaction that may be life-threatening. Understanding what transpires when a person combines Ambien and alcohol can help discourage this behavior and let people know when it’s time to get professional help for polysubstance abuse.
Combining Ambien and Alcohol
Doctors almost always advise against combining any medication with alcohol. The reason for this is that the properties of many medications, alcohol, and other drugs can interfere with each other, resulting in an unpredictable and adverse reaction that can, at the very least, render the medication ineffective. What’s more, combining medications can lead to physical harm, including life-threatening complications, such as an overdose or risky behavior that results in injury.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants
As a hypnotic and powerful sedative, Ambien is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning that it reduces activity in the brain and body. Alcohol is also a CNS depressant. Understanding how CNS depressants work can help explain why mixing alcohol and medications such as Ambien can be dangerous. Specifically, these substances cause messages transmitting throughout the body by the CNS to slow down.
Reducing activity in the CNS can result in the following:
- Decreased anxiety
- Impaired coordination
The effects of CNS depressants are cumulative. This means that using two or more depressants can amplify the resulting symptoms, and thereby cause extreme drowsiness and perilously slow breathing and heart rate.
How Ambien Works
Ambien does not put a person to sleep immediately. Rather, it is a hypnotic and sedative that mimics the sleep-wake cycle and works on one of the three benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. This simulated cycle can sometimes cause the person to sleepwalk, enabling him or her to be active without any conscious memory of what happens while under the influence of the medication.
Sleepwalking is one of the best-known and most dangerous side effects of using Ambien. In fact, the person is probably not even aware of the behaviors they engaged in while sleepwalking. This situation can be particularly hazardous if the person drinks alcohol and attempts to drive or engage in other activities that can cause harm to both the person and others.
Why People Use Ambien and Alcohol
Sometimes, people combine drugs with alcohol intentionally to get a more intense effect. Some people combine alcohol with sleep aids, erroneously believing that it will help them sleep more soundly. This is a misconception, however, because sleep that results from alcohol use is not healthy, restful sleep, and the person does not experience a normal sleep cycle. Also, as noted above, if alcohol is used in conjunction with Ambien, it can result in dangerous behaviors or overdose.
Others may use the two substances together to experience a euphoric or a hallucinatory effect. Ambien use comes with its own set of risks, especially if it is used regularly. In addition to physical and behavioral risks, there is also the possibility that the person will develop an addiction to one or both substances, resulting in continual abuse and the potential for overdose.
Specific Results of Combining Ambien and Alcohol
Mixing Ambien and alcohol can result in the following very serious symptoms:
- Profoundly depressed breathing
- Dangerously slow heart rate
- Severe drowsiness
- Impaired coordination
- Clumsiness and falls
- Loss of consciousness
- Mild visual hallucinations
- Confusion and memory loss
If you or someone you know has used Ambien and alcohol and is experiencing the above symptoms, they could be overdosing on one or both substances and be in imminent danger. Please call 911 immediately.
In addition, alcohol and Ambien can have unpredictable interactions include erratic behavior, mood swings, and being unable to remember activities engaged in while under the influence of both substances. It is essential to note that these effects can sometimes result in death, either by the person using enough of either substance to stop breathing entirely or through participation in dangerous activities like driving while under the influence.
Research has shown that people who drink alcohol and Ambien together are more than twice as likely to end up in intensive care, compared to those who used Ambien but did not also consume alcohol. And according to a 2010 report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), about 57% of emergency department visits and hospitalizations caused by taking too much Ambien also involved other substances. Ambien, in conjunction with alcohol, accounted for 14% of those visits.
Prescription Does Not Necessary Mean Safe
Some people assume that obtaining a prescription from a doctor guarantees that the medication is safer to use than other drugs. However, this is an unfortunate misconception that has resulted in accidental overdoses and other problems when people have participated in routine activities without knowing what reactions the substances will have. Moreover, prescription drugs are not safer to abuse just because they are legal.
Medications work by altering certain conditions in the body. In the case of Ambien, these conditions can create dangerous situations if the person attempts to operate heavy machinery or a motor vehicle after taking the drug—the related drowsiness and impaired coordination are highly likely to lead to an accident.
In fact, due to the potential risks of Ambien alone the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety (ICADTS) classified zolpidem as a Schedule II substance as one that impairs a person’s driving similar to a blood alcohol content of 0.05-0.08%.
If you suspect that someone you love is engaging in the combined use of alcohol and Ambien, it is vital to get the person help as quickly as possible. This step can prevent an inadvertent overdose or other complications from happening, whether or not the person has combined the drugs accidentally or intentionally. If you yourself are combining these two substances, you should, of course, seek professional help as soon as possible.
Harmony Recovery Center offers help for persons who are struggling with alcohol and drug abuse in the form of a research-based, certified alcohol treatment program. Through the use of education, therapy, counseling, and peer support groups, people learn why combining drugs and alcohol is risky, as well as develop the skills they need to achieve abstinence, avoid relapse, and maintain long-lasting sobriety.
If you or someone you love is abusing Ambien and alcohol or other substances, contact us today to discuss treatment options, which are administered in both partial-hospitalization and outpatient formats. We are dedicated to helping people by providing them with the knowledge, resources, and tools they need to fully recover and break free from the chains of substance abuse for good!
Related: Is Alcohol a Depressant?