Ambien Side Effects on Memory and Behavior

Ambien, or zolpidem, is a commonly prescribed medication that is used as a sleeping pill to treat insomnia. There are a handful of common side effects, but how can Ambien affect your memory and cause amnesia? Is there a risk of long-term memory problems like dementia or Alzheimer's disease? Does it lead to sleepwalking or sleep eating episodes? What are the other common side effects of Ambien use? How might this work? Discover some of the side effects associated with Ambien use and alternatives that might help to avoid these problems.

Woman reading label on pill bottle
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How Does Ambien Work?

Ambien is a useful medication that is available as a prescription sleep aid to treat insomnia. It is also known as zolpidem, Ambien CR, and Intermezzo. It accounts for about 85 percent of the prescribed sleeping pills. It works as a hypnotic drug, meaning that it induces a state of unconsciousness, similar to what occurs in natural sleep.

Like most sleep aids, Ambien has only modest effects on the amount of measurable additional sleep it provides. For example, research suggests that it, and other drugs in the same class, decrease sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) by an average of 42 minutes compared to 20 minutes for a placebo.

What does it do then? It affects chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. By affecting a neurotransmitter called GABA, it can calm the activity of specific parts of the brain. One of the areas that may be affected is the hippocampus. Along with other regions of the brain, the hippocampus is important in the formation of memory.

Does It Really Affect the Memory (Ambien Amnesia)?

It is known that Ambien may cause memory loss as a side effect, a symptom of amnesia, especially at higher doses. If you take the medication and do not go to bed, this may be more likely to occur. When you immediately go to bed, a loss of memory is typically inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember lying awake for a few minutes before falling asleep, or after awakening during the night. There are many reports of people taking the sleeping pill and remaining awake and out of bed, however, with the affected person not recalling subsequent events.

Due to the association noted with other sleeping medications like diphenhydramine and benzodiazepines, there is some concern that Ambien could affect long-term memory and contribute to the development of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. This possible association has not been proven by research to this point.

Sleep Apnea and Memory Problems

It is possible that untreated sleep apnea accounts for the relationship between the use of sleeping pills and long-term memory problems. This condition may cause both awakenings at night and recurrent drops in oxygen levels. This may stress vulnerable brain cell populations over time, including the memory system. As a result, it may not be the medication causing the risk for dementia, but rather the untreated sleep apnea.

Ambien Associated with Sleep Behaviors like Walking, Eating

Another problem occurs when someone who has taken Ambien gets up during the night. There are reports of complex sleep-related behaviors, similar to parasomnias, occurring while under the influence of Ambien. These might include sleepwalking (which occurs commonly anyhow) or more troublesome behaviors, such as sleep eating, sleep driving, or sleep sex (sexsomnia).

In a confused state, a person on Ambien may act in a way that is different from their waking behavior. This may lead to important legal consequences, such as driving under the influence (DUI) or even sexual assault charges.

The parts of the brain that control movements may be functioning while full consciousness and the ability to generate memory is turned off. These behaviors may lead to unintentional harm, including falls among the elderly, or even the aforementioned legal consequences.

More Side Effects With Ambien Use

Beyond Ambien's effects on memory, awareness, and behaviors such as sleep eating or sleepwalking, there may be additional problems with the use of the drug. Consider some of these common side effects:

  • REM sleep suppression
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness, lethargy, or a "drugged" feeling
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Back pain
  • Allergic reactions
  • Sinusitis (sinus infection)
  • Pharyngitis (sore throat)
  • Dry mouth
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
  • Depression
  • Rash
  • Rebound insomnia

Any of these could be bothersome and may interfere with the continued use of the medication. Sometimes the benefits will outweigh the risks. If a symptom is particularly bothersome, discuss this with your prescribing healthcare provider to see if an alternative treatment may be a better option for you.

How to Avoid Side Effects

Use the medication as prescribed by your healthcare provider. Take it and immediately get into bed. Allow at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to ensure avoidance of morning hangover effects. Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule.

If you have other symptoms such as snoring, witnessed apnea, gasping, teeth grinding (bruxism), frequent urination at night (nocturia), persistent awakenings, or excessive daytime sleepiness, consider evaluation for sleep apnea.

Do not use Ambien with alcohol or other drugs that affect the brain. This may worsen the effects on memory and could even lead to dangerous problems, such as disrupted breathing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that women use lower doses of Ambien (such as 5 mg or 6.25 mg) due to the potential effects on morning function, especially driving.

If you find yourself having difficulties after taking the medication, you may want to speak with your healthcare provider and consider lowering the dose or tapering it off. If you experience serious side effects, contact your practitioner immediately and discuss the need to discontinue use of the medication to avoid recurrence of these problems. Once the medication has cleared out of your system, it is unlikely to continue to affect your health.

A Word From Verywell

Ambien can be a safe and effective medication to treat difficulty sleeping, but if it affects your memory or causes sleep behaviors or other adverse side effects, you should consider alternative treatments for your insomnia. Fortunately, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) can be helpful without any risk of side effects.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.