Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. You've heard the stories, right? Someone takes Ambien so they can sleep, and next thing they know, they're waking up halfway across town with no memory of how they got there. From sleepwalking to sleep driving--and even sleep sex--Ambien has been implicated in a number of strange sleep behaviors. A friend of a friend of mine took Ambien, went to bed, and about a week later, she got all these packages in the mail. Apparently, while she was sleeping, she'd ordered a bunch of "hooker clothes" (her words)! So what is it about Ambien that can induce such bizarre behavior, and why do people continue to take it?
I spoke with Dr. Steven Poceta, a neurologist from the Scripps Clinic, who told me about Ambien's interesting side effects. Watch the video above to learn more.
If you have an Ambien story of your own, share it in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
Well, first things first, the generic name for Ambien is Zolpidem. In other countries, it's sold as Stilnox and Sublinox. It works on a receptor of the brain that binds GABA (short for gamma-aminobutyric acid), the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in humans. GABA quiets the nervous system, and drugs that mimic or potentiate GABA are prescribed for anxiety, as anticonvulsants, and to help people sleep, like Ambien does. To learn more, I spoke with Dr. Steven Poceta, a neurologist from the Scripps Clinic. He told me about Ambien's interesting side effects.
See, in addition to helping people fall asleep, and stay asleep, Ambien can also cause anterograde amnesia. Anterograde (as opposed to retrograde) amnesia is memory loss for future events, specifically those that take place while under the influence of the drug. The exact reason this happens is still unclear, but it seems to have something to do with the hippocampus--a part of the brain that's largely responsible for forming new memories. Since it has a high concentration of GABAergic cells, when Ambien binds to them, it can make it hard to form new memories. Now this wouldn't be a problem, since most people are only on Ambien while they're asleep. But, pair memory loss with another side effect, somnambulism, and things could get interesting.
What's somnabulism? I'm glad you ask. Why, it's exactly what it sounds like. Somn, sleep, ambulism, walking. Sleepwalking! It's relatively common in and of itself, affecting about 10 percent of adults. And stay with me, things get even weirder. There are numerous reports in the scientific literature of sleep-related eating disorder, sleep driving, even sleep, well, doin' it, on Ambien. And again, most people don't remember any of it happening. There's even a website called "I do crazy things when I take Ambien." Now, these side effects can be exacerbated in people who take other medications. Dr. Poceta told me that "there's an increased risk of sleepwalking or other sleep-related behaviors if they take Ambien....presumably the amnesia effects and the sleep effects are additive....especially with alcohol and especially with antianxiety medications."
Research out of Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that it may be the very inhibitory nature of Ambien--the reason the drug helps you sleep--that causes bizarre sleep behavior in susceptible people. Because it quiets certain behaviors, Ambien may actually inhibit the inhibition of movement while you're sleeping. In essence, it could potentially unparalyze you, allowing you to act out your dreams.
So, why is Ambien still on the market? Because under controlled supervision, it helps people. Ambien treats insomnia, a big problem for millions of people. But Dr. Poceta told me that many people on Ambien would like to come off it, but they can't. They keep taking it because they're hooked. Ambien can be hard to quit. He says, "It really comes down to a choice--whether or not you want to take the risk of side effects versus the benefits of sleeping." Just last year, Americans filled around 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills. And there are studies underway for potential off-label benefits of Ambien, like bringing people out of coma or improving speech after a stroke. But a study out of the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center and the Jackson Hole Center for Preventive medicine published earlier this year suggests that patients who took Ambien were almost five times more likely to die than matched controls over a two and a half year period.
So what do you think? Is taking Ambien worth the risk? Let me know on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me.