One of the bigger issues seen in alcoholism treatment is when individuals combine alcohol with other substances, either by accident or on purpose, resulting in overdose or other physical harm. In many cases, individuals don’t understand that alcohol and medication can cause a severe reaction in the body. In other cases, people who abuse drugs may combine alcohol and medication on purpose to experience euphoria or to self-treat physical conditions like insomnia or anxiety, without checking with a doctor first to understand the risks.
One drug that is risky to mix with alcohol is the insomnia medication Zolpidem, brand name, Ambien. Mixing these two substances, whether by accident or on purpose, can result in a dangerous physical reaction that can even be life-threatening. Understanding what happens with a person mixes alcohol with Ambien can help to deter this behavior or at least help people understand when it’s time to get help in order to stop using these substances together.
Combining Alcohol and Medication
Mixing medications is typically advised against without a doctor’s specific guidance and knowledge. The reason for this is that the elements of medications can interact with one another, causing an unexpected or bad reaction in the body that can, at the very least, render one medicine ineffective. However, at its worst, mixing medications can cause physical harm, including life-threatening conditions like overdose or risky behavior that leads to injury.
This may not seem relevant because alcohol is not a medication. However, alcohol acts on the brain and body in ways that are similar to the actions of some types of medication, referred to as central nervous system (CNS) depressants. In fact, alcohol is itself considered to be a CNS depressant. Because of this, combining alcohol with CNS depressant medications can result in problems similar to those that occur when combining two CNS depressants together, as described in an article from Alcohol Research and Health. Regardless of the type of medication being used, it is generally considered a bad idea to drink alcohol while using any medication without checking with a doctor first.
Central Nervous System Depressants
Understanding more about CNS depressants demonstrates why mixing alcohol with other medications can be risky. Specifically, these medications cause the messages being sent through the body by the nervous system to slow down in one way or another. As described by Healthline, slowing down the CNS results in the following:
- Slowed cognitive function
- Slowed heart rate and breathing
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased coordination
The behaviors and actions of CNS depressants are cumulative. That means that combining two or more CNS depressants increases the intensity of the symptoms that result. This is what happens when a person mixes alcohol with Ambien, a CNS depressant designed specifically to help a person sleep better.
How Ambien Works
Ambien does not immediately put a person to sleep. The drug is a hypnotic sedative that simulates a sleep-wake cycle in the brain; this simulation most often leads the person taking it to fall asleep. However, sometimes this simulated cycle results in the person sleepwalking, enabling the person to be active but without any conscious memory of what happens while under the medication’s influence.
Often, the individual may not be aware of the behaviors engaged in while sleepwalking. This can be particularly dangerous if the person drinks alcohol and engages in risky behaviors, such as driving, sex, or other activities that can cause harm not only to the individual, but to others as well. Because the person is unconscious while active, they may even participate in activities that would never even be considered if they were sober.
Dangers of Mixing Alcohol with Other Benzodiazepines
Why People Mix Ambien and Alcohol
Sometimes, people mix drugs with alcohol on purpose to get a specific effect. For example, an article in Psychology Today demonstrates how some people combine sleep aids and alcohol to sleep more soundly. This is a misconception because sleep that results from overuse of alcohol is not typical sleep, and the person does not engage a normal, restful sleep cycle. Also, as seen above, if this is done with Ambien, it can result in dangerous behaviors or potential overdose.
Others may use the two together to experience a euphoric or hallucinatory effect. This type of drug abuse can have its own risks, especially if it is done regularly. Not only are there physical and behavioral risks, but there is also the potential of the person developing an addiction to either or both substances, resulting in continued use, abuse, and potential for overdose.
Specific Results of Mixing Ambien and Alcohol
Mixing Ambien and alcohol has some of the typical reactions of mixing multiple CNS depressants, as described by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), such as:
- Extremely slow breathing and heart rate
- Severe drowsiness
- Clumsiness and loss of coordination
Even more, alcohol and Ambien can have unexpected interactions, as explained by the article. This can include unanticipated behavior, mood swings, and blacking out or being unable to remember activities performed while under the influence of both substances.
It is important to note that sometimes these effects can lead to death, either by the person taking enough to completely stop breathing or by engaging in dangerous activities like driving while under the influence of the combined drugs. Using alcohol and Ambien together can result in the person not having conscious control over behaviors, causing the individual to engage in activities that would not normally be considered if the person were not under the influence of these substances.
Just Because It’s Official Doesn’t Mean It’s Safe
Some people assume that getting a prescription from a doctor means that the drug is safer to use than other drugs. However, this dangerous misconception has resulted in inadvertent overdose or other issues when individuals have participated in normal activities without realizing the effects the drug might have. As explained by the National Council on Patient Information and Education, prescription drugs are not safer to abuse just because they are legal (when used as prescribed).
Medications work by changing conditions within the body. In the case of a drug like Ambien, these conditions can create hazardous situations if, for example, the person tries to use heavy machinery (like driving a car) after taking the drug. The associated drowsiness and decreased coordination can quickly lead to an accident. Similarly, using Ambien and alcohol can result in the risks described above, regardless of whether the Ambien was received via a prescription or sourced illegally. Because of this, it is always important to talk to a doctor before mixing any prescribed medication with alcohol.
If combined use of alcohol and Ambien is suspected, it is important to get the person help as quickly as possible to avoid inadvertent overdose or other complications. Whether or not the person has combined the drugs on purpose, it can be risky to continue doing so, as described above. The first step is to get emergency help if the person is still under the influence of both substances, to make sure that overdose hasn’t occurred.
Once the effects of the Ambien and alcohol have worn off, it can help to get the person professional support from a research-based, certified alcohol treatment program. Through the education, therapy, and peer support programs available at rehab and other treatment centers, the individual can learn why combining drugs and alcohol is risky and gain skills to manage substance abuse, preventing it from becoming a bigger problem down the road and working toward a more productive future.