Ambien, generic name zolpidem, is the most commonly prescribed sleep aid, accounting for 85% of prescribed sleeping pills. It also ranks in the top 15 on the list of most frequently prescribed drugs in the country. Its popularity is clearly due to its efficacy. Zolpidem works as a hypnotic drug, meaning that it induces a state of unconsciousness, similar to what occurs during natural sleep. How does it do that? Zolpidem affects chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters, specifically a neurotransmitter called GABA. By affecting GABA, it calms the activity of specific parts of the brain. One of the areas in the brain that is affected is the hippocampus. Along with other regions of the brain, the hippocampus is important in the formation of memory. Because of this hippocampal involvement,
zolpidem can cause memory loss, especially at higher doses, an effect colloquially referred to as “Ambien Amnesia.” If you take it and do not go to bed immediately as recommended, this is more likely to occur. When you get right in bed after taking it, a loss of memory is inconsequential…it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember lying awake for a few minutes before falling asleep. But there are many reports of people taking it and remaining awake and out of bed, and they commonly experience an inability to recall subsequent events shortly after taking it. Because of its effects on memory, there is some concern that zolpidem could affect long-term memory and contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, though there has been no research to prove or disprove these possible associations. Zolpidem comes with a host of known side effects that range from weird and wacky to illegal and downright dangerous behaviors. Included are hallucinations, decreased awareness, disinhibition, and changes in behavior. Very serious problems may occur when someone who has taken zolpidem gets up during the night. They may exhibit very complex sleep-related behaviors while under the influence of zolpidem. These might include relatively innocuous sleeptalking, sleepwalking, sleep cleaning and sleep eating, to more disturbing behaviors like sleep cooking and sleep sex, to potentially deadly sleep driving. While in a confused state, a person on zolpidem may act in a way that is different from their normal waking behavior. This can lead to legal consequences, such as driving under the influence (DUI) or potentially even sexual assault charges stemming from disinhibited sexually charged behavior.
I have a long time patient named Deanna that takes zolpidem and regularly sleepwalks, also known as somnambulation for the Scrabble set. It happens that she has been a sleepwalker ever since she had the ability to walk, so being on the zolpidem now makes her nocturnal activities and behaviors really way out there. Just flipping back through her chart, I see she mentions: taking apart electronics and trying to put them back together with no success. Dumping all of her shoes out of their boxes onto her closet floor. Taking all of her clothes off their hangers and throwing them over her dining room chairs. Gathering all sorts of disparate items together, evidently whatever catches her eye at the time, and putting them in her oven. She said she learned that particular lesson the hard way. This one is whacked. She started “painting” a wall in her house….with a purple sharpie. She showed me a picture of that. She once found several pages of her stationery scrawled in words she knew she didn’t consciously write in a letter to someone, she didn’t know who. She brought that in. She said she would evidently clean in her sleep; she put shower gel all over the tile in her shower and “put things away” in odd places they didn’t belong in. She also sleep eats. Cereal, bread, ice cream, whatever she sees that looks good I guess. She regularly wakes up to a mess in the kitchen and destruction in the house. It used to really freak her out to see the evidence of activities she didn’t remember, but now she just feels unsettled as she surveys the damage from her night time escapades. But since it hasn’t ever been anything dangerous and because zolpidem works well for her, she doesn’t want to change it.
How is it that a person on zolpidem can achieve these complex behaviors while unconscious and asleep? It’s because the parts of the brain that control movement still function, but inhibition, consciousness, and the ability to create memory is turned off. Because of this, the person is disinhibited, and that can lead to unintentional actions and behaviors as discussed above.
Beyond zolpidem’s effects on memory, awareness, and behavior, there may be additional issues associated with its use. Some other common side effects include:
– “Hangover” or carry-over sedation, especially in women
– Loss of appetite
– Impaired vision
– Slow breathing rates
– Muscle cramps
– Allergic reactions
– Memory loss
– Inability to concentrate
– Emotional blunting
– Depression and/or suicidal thoughts
– Back pain
– Diarrhea or constipation
– Sinusitis (sinus infection)
– Pharyngitis (sore throat)
– Dry mouth
– Flu-like symptoms
– Breathing difficulties
– Palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
– Rebound insomnia
Any of these side effects could be bothersome and may interfere with the continued use of the medication. Sometimes the benefits of zolpidem outweigh the risks and/or side effects. If a symptom is particularly bothersome, discuss this with your prescribing doctor to see if an alternative treatment may be a better option for you.
If you take zolpidem, use it exactly as prescribed and get in bed immediately after taking it. It’s best to allow yourself at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to help ensure avoidance of morning hangover effects. Keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule will also help. Taking zolpidem with other drugs that depress the central nervous system such as alcohol, opioid pain medications, or tranquilizers intensifies the sedative effects of zolpidem and increases the risk of overdose as a result of respiratory depression. Zolpidem is an abusable drug. Individuals who take it for non-medical reasons or at more than prescribed doses are at risk of experiencing intensification of adverse side effects, including the following:
– Excessive sedation
– Confusion and disorientation
– Lack of motor coordination
– Slow response times
– Delayed reflex reactions
– Impaired judgment
Men and women don’t metabolize zolpidem in the same way. Women metabolize it much more slowly, so they often wake up with a zolpidem hang over and feel cloudy in the morning. So an important note for women taking zolpidem is to be extra cautious about allowing at least 8 hours of sleep after taking it and to take lower doses of it due to the potential effects on morning function, especially driving.
Actor Roseanne Barr had probably taken a little too much when she “Ambien tweeted” a racist statement comparing an Obama aid to an ape. She admitted that she had taken zolpidem shortly before the 2am tweet that caused her eponymous show to be cancelled. Elon Musk, Mr. Tesla, can feel her pain. He shocked investors when he tweeted he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share and that funding was secured. He said he sometimes takes zolpidem because it’s either that or no sleep. Good thing he has people to protect him from himself when he’s in a zolpidem daze.
Zolpidem can be a safe and effective medication to treat insomnia, but if it affects your memory or causes sleep behaviors or other adverse side effects, you should probably consider alternative treatments for your insomnia. Hello Roseanne and Elon…that means you!!
I talk more about drugs for sleep like zolpidem and a host of other psychoactive drugs in my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States, making it the most common mental health condition in the country. Untreated anxiety can affect every facet of life, making it difficult to relax, to achieve success in a work environment, to have fulfilling hobbies, and to maintain close relationships with family and friends. While there is no cure for anxiety, there are ways to manage it. While there are many prescription anxiolytics, today I want to talk about some behaviors, supplements, vitamins and homeopathic remedies that you can use to help deal with anxiety and release the hold it may have on your life.
Let’s start with some simple stuff. Some behaviors that you should stop and some you can start to help quell anxiety.
Behaviors to stop
Alcohol: If you think consuming alcohol would help ease anxiety, you would be wrong. While alcohol relaxes the body, it clouds the mind, and a clouded mind actually increases anxiety. And though you might feel relaxed for an hour or two, once you stop drinking, your mind and body are affected as the alcohol leaves your system, so the other 22 hours of your day will only be filled with more anxiety. Not only that, if you have chronic anxiety and drink in a misguided attempt to help it, you’re going to be consuming alcohol in quantities that can end up in your developing alcoholism.
Smoking tobacco: Again, you may think that cigarettes might help anxiety. When a smoker gets stressed, they often say they want to smoke to chill out. So why does smoking seem to help smokers relax? Smoking cigarettes interferes with certain chemicals in the brain. When smokers haven’t had a cigarette for a while, the craving for another one makes them feel irritable and anxious. These feelings can be temporarily relieved when they light up a cigarette, so smokers associate the improved mood with smoking. In fact, it’s the effects of smoking that are likely to have caused the anxiety in the first place, as nicotine raises blood pressure. Additionally, many studies have shown that cutting out the cancer sticks improves mood and thereby reduces anxiety.
Caffeine: This one is a no-brainer. Caffeine is actually a psychoactive drug, and like many of its kind, it is a stimulant. When you consume it, caffeine stimulates your “fight or flight” response, and studies show that this not only increases anxiety, it can even trigger an anxiety attack. If you’re anxious, consuming caffeine is pretty much the worst idea ever in the history of ideas.
Poor diet: Like it or not, what you eat can make a difference in how you feel, physically and mentally. You should not be on a first name basis with the Dominos delivery dude and the Mickey D’s drive-thru girl. Fact, Jack! Cut out the high carbs, the high fats, the processed foods and sugars. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.
Electronics: Surfing the net, watching YouTube vids, online shopping, and anything done on a screen can lead to an increase in anxiety by affecting your sleep. How? Exposure to the blue light of a screen anytime within four hours of sleep disrupts the natural circadian rhythm, and may even disrupt the natural production of melatonin, resulting in poor sleep. Functioning normally while tired can increase anxiety.
No news is good news: If you are anxious or prone to anxiety, stop watching the news. Stop reading the news. Stop listening to the news. Why? The press is categorically tailor-made to incense, aggrevate, enrage, and incite. All of these roads lead to Anxiety City. So think again before feeling guilty for not keeping up with current events. A national survey conducted by (oddly enough) NPR and a bunch of other eggheads found that watching, reading, or listening to the news caused people greater stress and anxiety. It’s like the old saying goes…what you don’t know can’t hurt you. And clearly, what you do know can.
Anti-Social media: The advent of social media has completely changed the way humans interact on a global scale. Just stop and think about that. It literally changed the entire planet. Now you can interact with anyone on the face of the earth that has a cellphone on a 24/7 basis. It sounds like the greatest thing ever, but it can cause an incredible amount of anxiety in a number of ways. Trust me, I see it day in and day out. So, how does social media cause anxiety? It has brought the concept of keeping up with the Jonses to a whole new level. Used to be the Jonses just lived down the street. Now they’ve moved. To everywhere! There are billions of electronic Jonses to emulate, be jealous of, to love, to hate, and to outdo. From posting the perfect picture that took 2 hours to take on Fakebook to likes and hearts and wow! faces, everyone gets to weigh in and hate on. All of these things are so anxiety producing. But social media can also be addicting. It’s a like-seeking quest, and every like reward is a dopamine hit. Dopamine is a happy chemical. A hit gives a little high, akin to any drug high. And just like with drugs, there can be an actual withdrawl if you separate that person from their source, their cellphone. Some people check social media 20 times or more in a day. They must check for likes, they must see what all their “friends” are doing, what all those electronic Joneses are up to. Keeping up with them and always being on the hunt, all are naturally anxiety producing. If you find that social media becomes stressful, makes you feel jealous, or mad or sad as a result of trolls or the presence or absence of positive comments, silence the alerts, put the damn phone down, and do something more positive with your time. If you feel anxious when you do this, go visit your parents or a friend in real life. You’ll get through the anxiety and be better for it. Then do whatever you have to do to set and stick to limits on your social media use. Be electronically anti-social and personally social.
There are also tons of behaviors that you can add to your life to help with anxiety.
Behaviors to start
Exercise: You don’t have to turn into a gym rat, just spend at least 15 minutes a day doing something that moves your body.
Meditation: Spend 5 minutes a day centering yourself. Clear your mind and the rest will follow.
Breathing: Dr. Andrew Weil deveoped a breathing exercise called 4-7-8. It goes like this: exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8. You’ll likely find this is very helpful in reducing anxiety.
Reading: This is great for distracting yourself from stressors occupying your mind and causing anxiety. Open a book and immerse yourself in someone else’s story.
Routine: Establishing and following a routine forces behavior modification and can be stress reducing.
Positive affirmations: Practice saying all the good things about yourself to yourself.
Connect with nature: Take a walk in the woods or get some sand between your toes. Try to lose your worries and yourself in a place that’s bigger than you.
Eat healthy: Eat lots of fresh fruit and veggies and eat only lean meats. There are some natural food components that can help with anxiety. Omega-3 fatty acids make up the basic building blocks of the brain and nervous system. They are essential for cognitive functioning and have also been shown to improve symptoms of depression, which is often closely linked with anxiety disorders. These brain-boosting amino acids are found in a wide variety of fish species, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies. They are also found in supplement form. Probiotics are also helpful. Probiotics are microorganisms known for their digestive health benefits. But recent research has revealed that probiotics can also have a profound impact on mental health. A healthy balance of bacteria in the body can boost the body’s ability to cope with stress, improve overall mental health, and bolster cognitive functioning. Probiotics can be found in direct supplement form but are also found in a wide variety of foods and drinks. Some of the most common sources include sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and pickles. Put good stuff in, get good stuff out.
Talk: Whether to a therapist, friend, family member or clergy, find someone to talk to and share worries and anxiety with. The support of others can do wonders.
Be grateful: Count your blessings; think about the good things in your life: a home, support of family and friends, a place to sleep, food to eat, a vehicle, whatever the positives may be, be happy that you have them.
Take action: If you have something you need to do that’s weighing on your mind, do it. If you have a bunch of things to do, make a priority list and start doing them. As you finish the items, literally cross them off the list. This way the list isn’t overwhelming and it will feel really good to mark things off.
Sauna: Heat is amazingly relaxing and wonderful in combating anxiety. Relax the body to relax the mind.
Massage: A great massage is fabulous in reducing tension and anxiety.
Accupuncture: The Chinese haven’t been wrong for thousands of years. Accupuncture is one of the most relaxing, stress and anxiety reducing activities. Don’t be scared of the needles. Almost a must if you have anxiety.
Spirituality: If you have it, use it. Prayer can be centering, almost meditative.
Supplements and vitamins: If you live with anxiety, one measure you can take to reduce your symptoms is to include supplements and vitamins for anxiety in your diet. These can be taken directly in an oral pill form and in the consumption of various foods and drinks. Before taking any of these, check with your physician first, especially if you already take any prescription medications.
Some of the best supplements and vitamins for anxiety include:
B Vitamins: B vitamins are vital to healthy nervous system functioning, so they play an important role in various aspects of mental health. They also have a significant impact on stress management and mood. Because of these benefits, many people with anxiety take B-complex vitamins and/or incorporate B vitamins into their diet through a variety of foods, including wild salmon, shrimp, tuna, halibut, yogurt, eggs, cheese, lamb, venison, turkey, grass-fed beef, carrots and green, leafy vegetables.
L-Theanine: L-theanine is an amino acid that can improve focus, reduce stress and promote relaxation. You pretty much have to take this as an oral supplement because it’s not commonly found in many foods or drinks. You can take 400mg of the supplement three times a day.
Chamomile: Chamomile has been used as a traditional medicine for thousands of years to calm anxiety and settle stomachs. Chamomile is best known as an ingredient in herbal tea, but is also available as capsules, liquid extracts, tinctures, and topical creams. Adults can take it in capsule form, 400 to 1600 mg in divided doses daily; as a liquid extract, 1 to 4 ml three times daily; in a tincture, 15 ml three to four times daily; or as a tea, 1 to 4 cups per day.
Lavender: Lavender is an herb that has been proven effective by leading researchers as a natural remedy for treating signs of anxiety. In one published study, lavender oil was shown to be just as effective as the pharmaceutical drug lorazepam, but without sedative effects or potential for drug abuse or dependence. Other studies have confirmed the anti-anxiety properties of lavender as well as many other medicinal benefits. Lavender oil capsules can be taken by mouth, 800mg three times a day. Tea can also be made by using 1 to 2 tablespoons of whole, dried flowers for each cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes using a tea infuser or strain before drinking. You can also add six drops of lavender oil extract and 1/2 cup of dried lavender flowers to bath water for a great anxiety relieving soak.
GABA: Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a neurotransmitter located in the brain that is crucial to serotonin production. Serotonin is one of the nervous system’s most “feel-good” neurotransmitters, so GABA plays a significant role in reducing anxiety, regulating mood and in relaxation, aka “feeling good.” I’m told this is very effective. When I tried it, I noticed that my skin tingled. An unual and somewhat unpleasant side effect.
Passionflower: This is a calming herb commonly used as a household treatment for anxiety. It has been shown to alleviate nervousness, promote positive moods, and improve sleep quality. Passionflower can be consumed as an extract and tablet, or can be added into teas and tinctures.
Valerian Root: This has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes since the time of ancient Greece. While most commonly known as a sleep aid, this herb can also be helpful for reducing anxiety. Valeric acids found within the herb convert to calming, “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the body, regulating stress and relaxing the mind and body. Valerian root extract is available in both capsule and liquid form, as well as a tea.
Licorice Root: This herb carries many health benefits for people with anxiety because of the effects it has on the adrenal glands, which produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Licorice helps regulate the production of these hormones, relieving stress and reducing anxiety symptoms. Licorice root can also soothe gastrointestinal upset, which is common in many people with anxiety. Be aware that most drinks and candies that claim to contain licorice only contain flavoring, which has no benefits. It’s best to consume licorice in an extracted, purified form. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is the safest and most effective variety of medicinal licorice root available. DGL is sold in capsule, powder, tea and chewable tablet forms.
Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is a plant native to India and North Africa that has been used for centuries to reduce anxiety, combat the effects of aging, and improve energy. In natural medicine, the root is considered to be an “adaptogen,” or a compound that helps regulate the body’s natural processes and promote overall wellness and health. Today, many people use Ashwagandha to improve mood and reduce anxiety symptoms. While the benefits of Ashwagandha are gained by eating the fruit, seeds and shoots of the plant it is derived from, Ashwagandha is most commonly consumed in capsule form, 600mg a day.
CBD products: Cannabidiol (CBD) is a type of cannabinoid, a chemical found naturally in marijuana and hemp plants. Unlike THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, another type of cannabinoid, CBD doesn’t cause any feelings of intoxication or the “high” associated with cannabis. Several studies point to the potential benefits of CBD for anxiety. It can be found in many forms: oil, gummies, teas, tinctures, vape pens, and more. As for where to begin, consider trying a sublingual (under the tongue) CBD tincture first. They have high bioavailability, meaning the body easily absorbs them. If you’ve never used CBD before, be sure to do some research and get it from a reputable place…not from the gas station around the corner. Start by taking the dropper and placing the liquid under your tongue and allow it to sit for about 2 minutes so it absorbs into your bloodstream before you swallow it. Figuring your ideal dose is tricky. Most packaging will have guidelines, but dosing is still a guessing game, as CBD affects everyone differently. You can try one dropper full and go from there. You’ll have to see how you feel to determine how much works best for you.
Rhodiola: Also referred to as “golden root,” Rhodiola has a long history of medicinal use in traditional Chinese and Siberian medicine. Like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola is considered to be an adaptogen, meaning that it promotes physical and mental health while improving mood and resilience to stress. It is typically taken in capsule form, but it is also available in extracts and teas.
While the above homeopathics, supplements, and vitamins can be beneficial for anxiety, it’s important to check with your doctor before adding them to your diet. Taking this precaution can help prevent any potentially dangerous side effects or drug interactions. Keep in mind that while vitamins for anxiety can be helpful, they are not a substitute for prescription medications or doctor-approved therapies. It is especially important to speak to a medical professional if your anxiety co-occurs with another mental health condition.
The supplements, vitamins and homeopathics discussed above can be found on Amazon. I discuss anxiety and other mental health issues in my book Tales from the Couch, also available on Amazon.Learn More