Patients suffering from insomnia, the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, often seek the aid of medications to help them get the rest they require. Ambien, the brand name for the drug zolpidem, slows down brain activity; therefore, doctors prescribe Ambien for the short-term treatment of insomnia. Some patients, including those with liver problems, should not take Ambien as it can damage liver cells, thereby contributing to liver problems.
The liver, the largest internal organ, produces vital substances such as albumin and bile, stores substances such as sugar and vitamins, and filters harmful substances from the blood. Everything ingested into the body, including foods and medications, enters the bloodstream through the digestive tract and travels to the liver. Most medications metabolize, or break down, in the liver and some such as Ambien may break down into substances that can damage liver cells.
Once ingested, the liver breaks down Ambien. Enzymes in the liver, including cytochrome P450, break the drug into smaller molecules resembling those of alcohol, as described in research published by Pichard and associates in the 1995 issue of "Drug Metabolism and Disposition." Alcohol derivatives are toxic and can damage liver cells. So although these smaller molecules travel to the brain to illicit the wanted sedation effects, they can also cause or contribute to damage to the liver cells.
Although Ambien can effectively help those with sleeping problems, it also produces a number of negative side effects. The effects Ambien creates in the brain cause dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, unsteady gait, difficulty with balance, uncontrollable shaking and headache. Other side effects of Ambien include constipation, diarrhea, gas, heartburn, stomach pain, dry mouth, muscle aches and joint pain.
Ambien and Alcohol
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, which means that it slows down brain activity. This effect of alcohol enhances not only the sedating effects of Ambien, but also the negative side effects. In addition, ingested alcohol enters the bloodstream and travels through the liver, which functions to break it down into byproducts, including acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that can damage liver cells, causing inflammation and leading to the buildup of scar tissue. The damaging effects of alcohol can, therefore, enhance any damaging effects of Ambien.
Reducing Liver Problems
Patients should reveal any history of liver disease to their doctors prior to taking Ambien. To avoid additional liver damage doctors may recommend another sleep aid or try non-drug approaches, such as cognitive behavior therapy. Because of the damaging effects of alcohol, doctors recommend never taking any prescription sleeping medication, including Ambien, with alcohol. Patients should inform their doctors if they drink or have ever drank large amounts of alcohol before taking Ambien, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Zolpidem
- “Drug Metabolism and Disposition”; Oxidative Metabolism of Zolpidem; Pichard et. al.; 1995