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Amazing Ambien (3/19/12)

March 19, 2013

The Rock Star Drug

Steve Tyler of Aeorosmith took it to sooth an aching foot.  He fell off the stage.  One Calgary man claimed it made him take a bottle of vodka out of the fridge, down it and drive directly into other cars – all while he was asleep!  My patients have woken with chicken carcasses spewed throughout the kitchen. Vegetarians wake with hamburger clogging their teeth.  Now the Australian Olympic relay swim team declared it used it for pre-game “bonding”.

What medication produces these remarkable reactions?  It’s amazing ambien – one of the most popular pills on the planet.

Swimming to the End of the Pool

Australians were quite disappointed with their Olympic teams in 2012..  While “mother country” UK brimmed with gold medals, famously athletic Australians produced more of an iron harvest.  And the historically strong swim team was a terrible performer.

Case in point #1 – the swim relay team.  Its six members now admit they took a banned sleeping pill, stillnox – what we Americans call ambien or zolpidem.  They did point out that when they had bought the drug is was not banned and it was not banned by the Olympic committee but only by the Australian Olympic committee (doesn’t this sound like the explanation of  American bankers?)

The swimmers were expected to get a medal – probably a gold or silver.  They came fourth. But the Stillnox Incident occurred in sensible Manchester, ten days before the London games.

All six members of the team claimed they wished to “bond” to allay the anxiety of world witnessed performance.  They also claimed it was part of Australian team tradition to take drugs like stillnox and “have some fun” (Previous team members stated there were no such traditions).

So in the evening they took the pill.  Then then made crank calls – to women swimmers.  Some whacked on the females’ doors and appeared “only in their jeans.”  One lay down “stumbling” on a female swimmer’s bed.  Later they came back only wearing undershorts.

Their female teammates were not amused. They protested.

As for the “traditions” of Australian sports, rugby and football players are said to have routinely combined stillnox and alcohol to get a bit “up”.  Youngsters use the same combination for a “legal high.”

So what’s really happening? What is zolpidem/stillnox/ambient/intermezzo?

Famously, it’s a drug generally used as a sleeping pill.

What Does It Do?

Modulate one of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain – GABA (gamma amino butyric acid).  Ambien does it by hitting a major benzodiazepine receptor, named after drugs like valium (diazepam) and restoril (temazepam) that hook onto that receptor.   Ambien was originally marketed  as “safe” because it’s half life – how long it takes for the liver to take out half of it – was only 2-3 hours – so most of it would supposedly be gone by morning.  No morning hangover – in theory.  The FDA recently recognized that was not true and leveled the maximal dose – for women – by half, to 5 mg.

Does It Produce Normal Sleep?

No.  Ambien produces a “twilight” state that some researchers label akin to coma.  This “state” then aids the initiation of sleep.  The drug also makes it easier to forget you woke up  in the night.

What Are Public Health Problems with the Drug?

According to Dan Kripke of UCSD and Scripps, regular use leads to as much as a five fold increase in death rates from accidents, heart disease and tumors.  Other studies show lesser but regularly increased death rates.

And ambien produces a lot of sleepwalking – particularly in people with restless legs syndrome.  People do almost anything when they’re sleepwalking – and the bizarreness of the sleepwalking created by ambien is now a globally recognized phenomenon.

The Allure of Altered States

Even if it kills them, people like to get “high”.  High does not necessarily mean an “elevated” state, but an altered one.

You feel like something other than yourself.

People have been using alcohol to provide altered states for thousands of years.  Alcohol plus benzodiazepines was a common way to get high in the sixties and seventies.  And people who do so sometimes died – like Brian Epstein.  Today people take alcohol plus energy drinks, or alcohol plus ambien.  And some of them die as well, including film stars.

People appear like becoming something other than themselves.  They want novel experiences – to sense their minds in different forms.

But just as there are many, many ways to fall asleep naturally, there are many ways to enjoy “altered” mental states.

One of them is sleep.

People generally don’t remember their dreams.  But they can.  They can wake themselves a slight bit early, tablet in hand, and write down their dreams.  They can pre-dream – imagine their dreams beforehand.  They can meditate, reaching highly pleasant “twilight states” without the use of any drug.

One standard way of handling sleep is to change the brain to change the mind.  We take a pill.

But most sleeping pills increase mortality.  They leave us draggy in the day.  They worsen memory.  They provoke sleepwalking.  And they can addict us, so much that we can’t imagine trying to sleep without them:

PILL = SLEEP.  That’s an equation for many millions around the world.

Yet we can fall asleep through an opposite means – changing the mind to change the brain.  We can learn how to consolidate wakefulness so that we’ll consolidate sleep.

And we can have fun doing it.  Making up stories about the dreams we’ll have.  Reading a pleasant book before bed.  Imagining the different lives we would remember if we could only remember the different altered states we experienced during sleep.

Changing the mind to change the brain has been practiced for thousands of years.  It can provoke “altered states” that are pleasant and productive, creative and comforting.

Better living through chemistry?  Or through the interesting use of your own head?

You decide.
Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration,healthy without health insurance, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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