Sleeping Pills and Bizarre Behavior

Patient Expert

I wrote an article a short while ago on the strange behavior that sometimes occurs when a person sleepwalks. Sleepwalking, in fact, has sometimes been used as a murder defense.

Something else that can cause similar behavior is the use of sleeping pills. An article in the Wall Street Journal mentions painting doors, trying to cook, cursing people over the phone and crashing  cars. As most of these medications are hypnotics, the people have no recall of the event when they awaken.

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

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 he 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, written up in the Journal of Sleep Medicine reports on an evaluation of patients with underlying sleep disorders that 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 also claiming 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 you use ambien, do so safely. Don't become a binge eater, sleepwalker or ambien driver, and it's not just ambien. Other medication can have similar effects.

If you think you may do unusual things while under the influence of sleeping pills, reduce the risk. The Wall Street Journal suggests hiding your car keys or even attaching an alarm to your bedroom door that will alert you when you attempt to leave the room.