Did Ambien Lead To the Death of Heath Ledger?

by Florence Cardinal Patient Expert

I know there was a great deal of controversy over the movie "Brokeback Mountain." It was one of those
films you either loved or hated.

I saw it, and thought it was well and sensitively done. The two stars who played homosexual cowboys rendered their roles well and I looked forward to seeing further work by them.

I was deeply saddened, therefore, to find out that Australian born Heath Ledger had been found dead in his hotel room on January 22. The cause of death has not been officially announced. However, a bottle of the sleeping pills, Ambien, were found near his body. Ambien has been
known to cause a
great deal of bizarre sleep behavior.

Ambien and Bizarre Behavior

The sleep aid, Zolpidem, sold under the trade name Ambien, is the best-selling prescribed sleeping pill in the US. It's estimated that over 25 million prescriptions for this drug were filled last year, and usage is growing.

Although considered safer and less addictive than many previous sleep medications, including opiates and benzodiazepines, it's still a drug, and care should be taken when using it. Lately, Ambien has been linked to some very strange behavior.

The Ambien driver

It's late at night. The officer pulls the driver over for erratic driving (or there may even have been an accident) and when he or she steps from the car, the person acts like he's drunk, staggering and disoriented. He stares vacantly at the officer, like he doesn't know what's going on.

And that's because he really doesn't know what's going on. When his blood is tested, it contains not alcohol but Ambien. He may be arrested, tested for alcohol and drug use, spend the night in jail - and, upon awakening, not remember a thing about the entire episode.

Was he asleep? Not really. Was he awake? Not really. He was somewhere in the twilight zone between sleeping and waking. This person is now being labeled as an Ambien driver.

Sleepwalk to the Kitchen

A second disorder being linked to Ambien is sleepwalking with the added problem of sleep eating. A recent study in the Journal of Sleep Medicine reports on an evaluation of patients with underlying sleep disorders who were prescribed Ambien. The study suggested that use of Ambien in these people may lead to frequent arousals and could cause or augment sleep eating disorder.

Several cases have been brought to court linked to Ambien use and sleep eating disorder and dozens of people have reported involvement in traffic accidents, sleepwalking, hallucinations and bizarre behavior while taking the drug.

Sanofi Aventis, the pharmaceutical company responsible for Ambien, issued a statement admitting they were aware of such side effects, but they also claimed that Ambien, when taken as prescribed, was a safe and effective treatment for insomnia.

Side Effects and How to Take

The side effects of Ambien include:

  • Confusion

  • Depression

  • Hallucinations

  • Lightheadedness

  • Strange dreams

Instructions about taking Ambien:

  • Do not take with alcohol.

  • Let your doctor know about other medications you're using to avoid interactions.

  • Take only when ready to go to bed.

  • Do not take and then leave the house, especially if you're driving.

  • Not recommended for long-term use.

  • Use only as prescribed.

If your doctor has prescribed Ambien, talk to him about the side effects and ask him for the safest way for you to take Ambien and do so safely. Don't become a binge eater, sleepwalker or ambien driver.

Florence Cardinal
Meet Our Writer
Florence Cardinal

Florence wrote for HealthCentral as patient expert for Sleep Disorders.