Tox Tuesday: Zolpidem

Get a good night sleep, finally. In an age of technology where you may stare at a computer/smartphone screen for hours on end during the day, it can be hard to shut down at the end of the day and get the sleep you need and deserve. That’s where short-acting non-benzodiazepines come into play, an example of which is zolpidem.

The drug (known by brand names such as Ambien) works in minutes in the same manner as benzodiazepines to help treat insomnia and brain disorders.

Perhaps the pill works a little too well, in some cases.

A report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013 noted the potentially hazardous side effects of the drug. Particularly, the FDA warned the public of “activities that require alertness the morning after use.” These activities include things such as driving. While all users should practice caution, data showed that the highest risk for impairment were for patients taking extended-release forms of the drug. Additionally, women also seemed more susceptible than men.

To help combat this issue, the FDA recommended that women cut their usual doses in half after laboratory tests. A lower dosage meant that the drug remained in the blood system for fewer hours, reducing the risk of morning drowsiness. It was estimated that 10–15% of women could have enough of the drug still in their system eight hours after taking the pill to impair their driving. Men were also tested; only about 3% of men were still affected after eight hours.

Zolpidem is a widely prescribed product. According to a New York Times article, about 60 million prescriptions were dispensed in 2011 in the U.S. alone, up 20% from 2006. The FDA cited 700 reports of zolpidem impairments, leading to decreased driving ability and/or road traffic accidents as the cause for their recommendation.

The drug was also the suggested cause for thousands of hospital visits during the early 2000s. In fact, a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said 19,487 emergency visits could be attributed to the drug; up drastically from just over 6,000 in 2005.

Of those patients, two-thirds of them were comprised of women in 2010.

Dr. Bob Rothstein, an emergency doctor, said in an ABC News article: “I think we know that women clear the drug from their system more slowly than men.”

And while the drug can be regarded as dangerous, especially for those out on the road, the side effects of zolpidem can also be promising. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that the pill “enhances the brain’s ability to consolidate memories, or move information from short-term to long-term storage.” This could mean new therapies for dementia, Alzhemier’s and schizophrenia patients.

For information on test kits from Neogen that test for zolpidem, click here.

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