Overdosing on Sleep Medication is a Big Problem

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According to a recent survey, 69 percent of primary care patients complain of insomnia and other sleep issues. To solve the problem, doctors often prescribe sleeping pills or hypnotic medications. However, many people end up using these drugs for long stretches of time, unaware that the medications are only for short-term use. This destructive cycle has created a sleeping pill epidemic, with overdose numbers skyrocketing.

There are several sleep-inducing medications on the market today. They include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, melatonin-like drugs, or antihistamine drugs. However, one very common sleep medication, zolpidem, is in its own category.

The Dangers of Zolpidem

Zolpidem is an FDA-approved medication meant to treat short-term bouts of insomnia. Brand names include Ambien, Ambien CR, Edular, Intermezzo, and Zolpimist. The medication works by mimicking GABA, a calming and relaxing neurotransmitter that makes patients feel drowsy.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report presents evidence that shows the use and abuse of zolpidem is creating serious health concerns. Highlights of the report include:

  • The total estimated number of zolpidem-related emergency department (ED) visits involving overmedication increased among males and females between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010.
  • In 2010, females accounted for two thirds – or 68 percent – of zolpidem-related ED visits involving overmedication.
  • Patients ages 45 to 54 represent the largest proportion of zolpidem-related ED visits involving overmedication.
  • More than 57 percent of zolpidem-related ED visits involving overmedication in 2010 included other pharmaceuticals (i.e. benzodiazepines, narcotics, etc.)that were combined with zolpidem.
  • Nearly half (47 percent) of zolpidem-related ED visits involving overmedication resulted in either a hospital admission or transfer in 2010, 26 percent of which were admissions to intensive care.

Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, says the “only other legally available drug with a comparable risk to the zolpidem drugs is cigarettes.” Thanks to the increased number of medical emergencies, the FDA has also officially reduced the recommended dosage of zolpidem for women.

Is There a “Safe” Sleeping Pill?

When asked if there is a safe sleeping medication on the market, Professor Kripke says, “I’ve never seen evidence for it yet. Our understanding of the brain is still so basic that putting in powerful chemicals to do one thing has knock-on effects elsewhere.”

One safe and alternate solution for sleep problems is professional counseling. The most effective type of sleep-related counseling is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), as it changes how patients think and behave, while helping to establish healthy sleep patterns. Over the last few years, thousands of therapists have been trained in CBT, making it much easier for people to locate a qualified therapist.

Learn more about the dangers of Ambien abuse and addiction

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