Zolpidem: Characteristics and Side Effects

This is a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic medication to treat sleep disorders that should only be taken under medical instruction.
Zolpidem: Characteristics and Side Effects
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 09 May, 2024

Zolpidem, also known as Ambien and Stilnox, is used for occasional sleep disorders, like insomnia. It’s a fast-acting, nonbenzodiazepine sedative, making it useful for people who have trouble sleeping or who wake up a lot at night.

A lot of you might already be familiar with it. Zolpidem is one of the most widely prescribed medications for short-term insomnia. “Short-term” here means that you only take it for a day or two, or at most a month, otherwise you will experience withdrawal.

In fact, the United States Air Force uses it to help pilots sleep after a mission. It’s effective, fast, and doesn’t result in a bad “hangover” the next day, unlike benzodiazepines.

But just because zolpidem isn’t a benzodiazepine and doesn’t act as a muscle relaxant does not mean it’s a harmless drug. It is very addictive if you use it for too long. 

Zolpidem: what is it for?

Like we’ve mentioned, doctors prescribe zolpidem to treat short-term insomnia. It works in a similar way to benzodiazepines, by influencing your gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).

The difference is that on the molecular level they’re two different compounds. Zolpidem also doesn’t have any effect on your medulla.

  • Interestingly, this drug changes the structure of sleep (inlcuding REM and non-REM phases) less than other drugs. 
  • Doctors also prescribe zolpidem for people with restless legs syndrome. It’s usually very effective for elderly people too.

Zolpidem is part of a group called Z-drugs. Other examples are zoplicone and zaleplon, which are also similar to benzodiazepines and good for treating insomnia.

How should you take zolpidem?

Just like any other medication, zolpidem should come with a doctor’s prescription. A doctor is the one who should decide if you should take this sedative and for how long. It can improve your sleep quality, but you should only take it for up to four weeks.

It’s fast-acting, so be ready to sleep for around 7-8 hours. Of course, during that time you shouldn’t drive or do anything else that requires your full attention. If you wake up only 2 or 3 hours after you take this medication, you’ll have trouble with coordination, altertness, memory, and fatigue.


Side effects of zolpidem

These so-called Z-drugs are effective, and zolpidem is the most commonly prescribed. But it’s important to remember that it can be highly addictive if you take it too often.

It has a very high tolerance, and metabolizes very fast in your liver, and because it’s also a sedative you have to be careful what other medications or substances you’re taking so they don’t interact badly.

If you take zolpidem regularly, you might experience some of these side effects:

  • Anterograde amnesia.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Visual hallucinations.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Trouble with coordination.
  • Intestinal problems (diarrhea or constipation).
  • Tremors in your extremities.
  • Ringing in your ears.
  • Joint pain.
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • Headaches.
  • Sleepwalking.

It’s also important to point out that elderly people are more sensitive to the effects of sedatives. They must be extremely careful to follow their doctor’s instructions.

If they use zolpidem longer than recommended, older people also have a high risk of falling and suffering from negative cognitive effects.


Using zolpidem also makes it harder for you to drive and increases your risk of getting into an accident. It’s not a coincidence, either. Most sedatives slow down your reaction time and decrease your coordination, so once again we want to remind you not take it longer than what your doctor recommends, which should never be longer than 4 weeks.

Before we go, we just want to point out that this medication might interact with other medications, substances, or even vitamin supplements (natural or not). So always follow your doctor’s instructions and be on the lookout for any unexpected side effects. If you have any, you should immediately tell your doctor.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.