Ambien: Sweet Dreams or Total Nightmare?

What if a sleep medication is more dangerous than insomnia?

Kate bolted out of bed at the sound of her doorbell. It was 3am; she couldn’t imagine who would be at the door. She rushed to the foyer to find her best friend, Nicole, standing on her porch, dressed in her PJs.

In a crazed, trance-like state, Nicole demanded that Kate return her dog. Kate did sometimes dog-sit for Nicole, but hadn’t in months. After a few confusing moments, Kate realized Nicole wasn’t actually awake. She led Nicole inside and guided her to the couch, where Nicole rested until morning. After fully waking up, Nicole was extremely confused – clueless as to how she woke up on Kate’s couch.

After informing Kate she’d taken Ambien the night before, the two of them began putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Everyone knows about sleepwalking and sleep talking…but sleep driving? That was scary. Nicole decided then and there she wouldn’t be taking any more of those pills.

The Ambien Hangover

Nicole’s story is not the only one of its kind. Ambien (zolpidem) is a sedative prescribed to treat insomnia. It affects chemicals in the brain to help you fall – and supposedly stay – asleep.

While Ambien can be very effective in helping you drift into slumber land, it also poses the risks of serious side effects. Some of the most dangerous include somnambulism (sleepwalking), like Nicole experienced. Sleepwalkers can complete complex tasks (like driving) while still in a sleep state. Reports indicate there are more claims of sleepwalking due to Ambien than from all other sleeping aids combined.

And driving isn’t the only risky activity Ambien-users engage in…

I Did What?!?

Haley was disturbed by her discovery in the kitchen. The gas burner was on, a dirty skillet was on the counter and three eggs were missing from her fridge. She had no memory of it, but judging by the yolk still stuck in her teeth, she could only conclude that she had cooked and eaten a midnight breakfast in her sleep. She turned off the stove, grateful she hadn’t burned down the house. She then called her doctor to inform him she wouldn’t be taking any more Ambien.

Other patients have reported making phone calls, walking and even having sex with no memory of the events. This can happen because Ambien causes amnesia and sleepwalking. But patients don’t experience the typical “I-can’t-remember- who-I-am” retrograde amnesia. Instead, the brain can’t log current events (called anterograde amnesia) and, as a result, you do things that your brain fails to keeps record of.

As you can see from the examples, this combination of memory loss and a half-conscious state can create very dangerous situations for Ambien users.

Dreaming of Better Sleep…

Despite these dangerous side effects, Ambien has remained one of the top-prescribed medications in the country. In fact, five million Americans take zolpidem each year, and many patients report success with it. And while research is underway to find safer alternatives that interact with our brains differently, a sleepy 30 percent of our nation continues to struggle with insomnia and wait for those healthy solutions.

Learn more about treatment options for Ambien abuse and addiction.

Image Source: iStock