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Not-So-Sweet Dreams: Sleeping Pills’ Scary Side Effects

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By now, most of us have heard of the “Ambien defense.” A certain scandalous professional golfer used to text his mistresses requesting the sleep aid, and other people have reported performing a multitude of crazy actions under the veil of slumber that this drug and other, similar sleeping pills induce—ranging from binge eating to dangerous driving to uncharacteristic sexual encounters and scary hallucinations. We’ve all seen enough commercials to know that prescription meds can come with a bevy of side effects, but these drugs take things to a whole new level with strange, barely remembered behavior occurring in people of all ages and backgrounds.

Ambien (generic name zolpidem) is a prescription sedative-hypnotic meant to temporarily treat insomnia. The drug decreases sleep latency, or the time it takes someone to fall asleep, and increases the amount of sleep the user gets in a given night. The official literature reads that patients shouldn’t take such sleeping aids for longer than ten days without the close monitoring of a doctor; however, as prescription-drug addiction continues to rise, it’s obvious that many people aren’t following this advice—and their late-night binge eating is just the beginning of the fallout.

Sleep Eating
Nothing derails a diet like a late-night meal after a few too many drinks. Pop a sleeping pill, though, and that feast just might escalate to an entirely new level: many users wake up unaware that they’ve spent the previous night making and consuming large amounts of food. Ambien-induced food experiences are by far the most common of those shared in support groups.

One woman reports polishing off an entire three-layer cake in bed after popping her pill and falling asleep. She woke up confused and surrounded by crumbs, wondering which of her children left food near her bed. Her husband had to retell the experience to her because she had no memory of it.

Another woman’s family members described a strange food episode to her: She woke up in the middle of the night and filled a bowl with a tub of butter, ham, cheese, mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and milk, and rubbed it across her kitchen counters and cupboards. She then poured soda into her reclining chairs.

Another describes her father-in-law’s sleep-induced binge-eating habit. One night, he trashed the entire kitchen while downing a whole cake and multiple boxes of cereal. When she brought it up to him the next morning, his response was: “Please tell me I had on clothes.” No memory whatsoever.

Sleep Driving
Police officers are trained to look out for drivers under the influence, but most of the time that means under the influence of alcohol. This new wave of sleep meds, however, has left cops searching for a whole new strain of inebriated drivers: those who are drowsy and disoriented from prescription sleep meds.

One boy who’d been prescribed drugs for insomnia and depression took his meds and went to bed; the next thing he knew, he was waking up in the back of a police car. He had been arrested for backing his car into another vehicle in a parking lot. He had been Tased and arrested for driving under the influence after being combative with the police.

Another user reports being detained for driving under the influence after ramming into a fire hydrant. After hitting it (and creating a geyser of water), he was arrested in front of his neighbors and taken to jail.

Sleep Hallucinations
After popping sleep aids, many users have reported seeing and experiencing things that weren’t really there—some funny, some just plain scary. In fact, it’s not uncommon for patients to have to discontinue their use of Ambien to avoid these visual trips.

One support-group member reports that her mother, once she pops a pill, begins believing that the porcelain dolls around the house are her neighbors, and carries on full conversations with them in front of other family members.

Another reports that she saw her mother (who had passed away three years earlier) sitting on her bed next to her, along with a huge group of other people. She was terrified and immediately discontinued her use of the drug.

Another got up to adjust the thermostat and suddenly saw the floor of her apartment rolling like waves in the ocean. She remembers seeing swells moving across the floor and barely being able to walk.

Sleep Sex
Beyond the Tiger Woods fiasco, many other Ambien users have reported strange sexual experiences. Whether the drug is taken on purpose or not (who can forget Woods’s alleged requests for Ambien sex?), some have reported experiencing hypersexual feelings and experiences while under the pill’s influence.

On one support Web site, a woman describes having sex with her husband for two hours while on Ambien. While she was able to remember only sporadic bits of the experience, similar to having a dream, he reported back on the entire episode to her the next day.

A chef who used to take the drug reports that he would often wake up to a decimated kitchen littered with empty plates, the remains of steaks, and untouched gourmet dishes he’d somehow whipped up in the middle of the night.

Despite the seeming prevalence of these stories, both the Mayo Clinic and official Ambien literature insist that both dependency on the drug and its related bizarre behaviors are unlikely. Regardless, relying on a pill to help you sleep isn’t a good idea, period. The best approach, of course, is the proven one: addressing whatever it is that’s causing your sleeping difficulty in the first place. And if it’s a Tiger Woods–like experience you’re looking for … well, maybe a chat with a doctor is a good idea either way.


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