The Strange Side Effects of Ambien
"Bizarre and Vivid Dreams..."
Sitting in the house of an elderly neighbor one morning, I remarked on his swollen and bloodied left ear, which looked a lot like somebody had smashed it with a frying pan. In response, my neighbor recounted a strange dream he had the night before. In this dream he was being attacked by an unseen person and in his attempts to defend himself, he took several wild swings, missing and finally falling against the bedside bookshelf. When he wakes he realizes it was a dream, sort of.
This is not the first time he has had such a dream, and the line between reality and dreaming seems to be blurry. As he said, “I could have sworn there was somebody in the room throwing sand in my face.” Examining his house the next day I thought I knew why. This gentleman’s housekeeping skills were nonexistent. I’m pretty sure the the dust mites and Daddy Long Legs thought he was living in their house. I also noticed something else; a prescription for zolpidem, the generic name for the popular and controversial sleeping prescription Ambien.
I had heard many stories about Ambien, most of them related to retrograde amnesia. This would be fine on its own, after all, how many of us remember what we did while we slept? I’m guessing I spent most of the time sleeping. However, Ambien users, or more accurately the family and friends of Ambien users, have reported them waking up and and performing a variety of acts of which they have no memory. The stories cover the gamut from boring to scandalous, and have raised concern over the safety of this drug.
What is Ambien?
Ambien is a prescription only sleeping aid made by Sanofi-Aventis. It’s bizarre side-effects are real and while some of the stories out there could be fabrications, there are plenty of true events to quell the skeptics. You would think such a drug would be recalled and taken off the market, but here’s the catch: Sanofi-Aventis warns of these side effects and many others in plain black ink in their literature.
Who is Ambien For?
Ambien is only available from your doctor and for good reason. As a powerful sedative/hypnotic medication, it is not for minor sleep disturbances, but rather for people suffering from chronic insomnia. After reading through the list of potential hazards, you would have to be in dire straits to take this drug:
-Abnormal Thinking and Behavioral Changes. Yes, sedatives/hypnotics tend to make one do strange things. To quote the literature: “...these changes may be characterized by aggressiveness and extroversion that seems out of character...similar to effects produced by alcohol and other CNS depressants.”
Further: “Visual and auditory hallucinations have been reported as well as behavioral changes such as bizarre behavior...” Indeed, getting high on alcohol and pills does all of this and more, but it isn’t usually what a person looks for in their sleeping prescription, rockstars excluded.
Indeed, among ambien side effects hallucinations seem to be one of the most common. Fortunately, Sanofi-Aventis claims that less than 1% of adults had any such reactions in test trials. In pediatric insomnia patients, it was only 7.4%. But maybe it’s safer to give the kids the alcohol and pills. No, not really. I’m kidding.
This particular section goes on to say that “complex behaviors such as ‘sleep-driving’ have been reported.” It further says that other complex behaviors have been reported, including preparing food, having sex and engaging in phone calls. These are all symptoms reported by various Ambien users in multiple internet forums. Fact or fiction, they illustrate the potential dangers of such behavior.
Under the Influence-of Ambien
Google crazy Ambien stories and you may be on the internet reading for quite a while. Some of this stuff is better than a good novel; or at least a juicy episode of Extra on TV. My lead story about the elderly neighbor is true, but after discovering the Ambien, I started to wonder about some of the other stories he had told me. Here are some examples:
”Someone from the CIA is after me. I think they were in the house last night.” This explains the 9mm under his pillow. “I used to be in the CIA you know.” I take this with a grain of, well, a rock of salt. Or a bag.
”Barry (name changed to disguise the innocent,) why do you have these penis growth pills? I’m not sure a guy your age should be taking anything with a name like Nitrozyte.” Barry: “What in the name of...I never ordered any damn penis enlargement pills!”
-Barry also claimed to have recently visited people he hadn’t seen for twenty years, although he had no idea of their exact location.
I should qualify these events with the fact that Barry may have mild dementia and was diagnosed with depression at one point in his life. However, according to Sanofi-Aventis, this only exacerbates the side effects.
To quote again: “Because sleep disturbances may be the presenting manifestation of a physical and/or psychiatric disorder, symptomatic treatment of insomnia should be initiated only after a careful evaluation of the patient. ...if insomnia does not stop after 7 to 10 days of treatment...there may be a primary psychiatric and/or medical illness that should be evaluated.”
One would hope this evaluation happens before prescribing this new age hallucinogen. In any case, the label goes on to say: “Worsening of insomnia or the emergence of new thinking or behavior abnormalities may be the consequence of an unrecognized psychiatric or physical disorder. Such findings have emerged during the course of treatment with sedative/hypnotic drugs, including zolpidem.” Sure, behavior abnormalities could be the result of an existing disorder; or it could be the drugs.
Either way, why do patients like Barry end up with ambien prescriptions? You could call it physician laziness, or busyness. Or maybe his doctor was doing a trial to see how he reacted to the drug. As seldom as he saw his doctor, she may have thought he was doing fine. Never mind the drug label warning about use in elderly populations.
Now, as promised, some other interesting Ambien tales. Here is a short list of funny things people claim to have done, but not remembered doing, while under the influence of Ambien:
-Put makeup on a dog
-Cook meals or make snacks
-Go shopping, after driving to the store...
-Ordered products online or over the phone after watching infomercials.
-Running out of the house in their underwear screaming
-Getting aggressive with loved ones
-Sexting or having full conversations over the phone
-Had sex with ex-girlfriend or boyfriend (or presumably with a spouse)
...and of course, having bizarre, vivid dreams, much like Barry.
There is no end to the list of things people have done while on Ambien. There is also no way to know what people had in their system in addition to the sleeping drug when they did them. The problem is, any of these actions could be dangerous. While no one has reported burning brownies or leaving the stove on and going back to sleep (not in what this author read,) it is easy to see the possibilities.
Burning down the house is also a scary thought, but what about wandering out of the house and having sex with strangers? Or acquaintances for that matter, which is probably more problematic. Sexting and talking on the phone are disturbing prospects as well. What was said? Where are those texts/photos now? Can you trust the person who was on the other line?
Obviously, insomnia sufferers should carefully weigh the potential dangers of taking this drug against its benefits. While many people have reported excellent results when first using Ambien/zolpidem, most report strange side effects with continued use.
Consumers should be aware of other issues concerning Ambien as well; some people have withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing the drug, physical side effects such as headache and nausea often occur when taking it, and as a CNS depressant, this drug will impair motor functions and mental awareness. Ironically, many people go for a drive after taking Ambien, albeit unintentionally.
If you have to take this drug, maybe the best thing to do is lock yourself in and hide the car keys. While you’re at it, unplug the TV and turn off/unplug the phone. Just in case, hide the Ambien and alcohol as well. Who knows, you may just get a good night’s sleep, and that is the point, isn’t it?
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