The 72-year-old former host of "NBC Nightly News" tweeted that the reason for his health scare was that he had mistakenly taken the sleeping pill Ambien.
Michael Perlis, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the UPenn Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program, told HuffPost that based on what's been reported, it's not surprising that accidentally taking a sleep medication in a way it's not meant to be taken can have this effect.
"When you take sleeping medications and you've got a blood level that's meant to be knocking you out, and it's combined with the natural phenomenon of waking up at the end of the night, you're likely to feel just what Tom Brokaw felt," Perlis told HuffPost.
"He ingested a substance that is not intended to facilitate cognition, but rather a woozy sleepy state," he added.
Ambien has been in the news a lot lately, as it was found in the system of Kerry Kennedy, the ex-wife of N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo, after she was involved in a car accident in July, the Associated Press reported. And it was also found in the blood of NFL player Junior Seau, who died in an apparent suicide earlier this year, USA Today reported:
Those close to Seau also said he had trouble sleeping for years and did not always take sleep aids as directed. Nancy Emsley, who often worked out with Seau at a local gym, said she lectured Seau that he needed to sleep for eight hours after taking one. "He just rolled his eyes," she said.
Perlis noted that there's no proof that Ambien is more dangerous than other sleeping pills of its kind; it's just in the news more because more people take it than other kinds of sleeping pills. There's no word yet on how exactly the sleeping pill factored into these two cases -- if it even did at all -- but one thing is for sure: Sleeping pills like Ambien (also known as zolpidem) are meant to be taken as indicated and instructed by your doctor. [For the official indications, usage and side effects of Ambien, click here.]
"The rule of thumb is if you have more than 30 minutes before going to bed and you have important things to be doing, you're taking the drug too soon. Similarly, if you don't have six to eight hours to sleep and it's not a specialty medication, you're taking it too late," Perlis said.
Ambien also is known for having side effects of parasomnias -- activities like sleep walking, sexsomnia, sleep eating, and the like . However, these phenomena don't happen to everyone who takes the drug, and may be more common among people who were more likely to have parasomnias anyway, Perlis said.
U.S. News reported that sleeping pill manufacturers now have to include on their labels the risks of sleep driving or sexual behaviors, as requested by the Food and Drug Administration in 2007.
U.S. News reported:
That was in response to a few dozen reports the agency had received. Agency officials acknowledged in a media briefing that other cases could be escaping their attention. "We do believe that all of the drugs in the class are capable of producing these adverse events," the FDA's Russell Katz told reporters. To minimize risks, he said, consumers of prescription sleep aids might refrain from simultaneously using alcohol and other drugs that depress the nervous system, and they should not use more than the recommended dose of any sleep aid.
A recent study in the journal BMJ Open showed that people who take 18 or fewer sleeping pills a year have a 3.5 times higher risk of dying, compared with people who don't take any sleeping pills.
But this study showed an association -- not a cause-and-effect relationship -- since insomnia itself also carries a whole host of health risks.
"Chronic insomnia is, in and of itself, a risk factor for suicide and mortality, so it's difficult to disentangle the risk of the disease itself from the treatment used for the disease itself," Perlis said.
And as ABC News pointed out at the time, the study made no mention of whether the study participants were also being simultaneously treated for other conditions that could also up their death risks, or the reason for which they were given the sleeping pills (for example, if they experienced insomnia as a result of cancer treatment).
The Los Angeles Times previously reported that sleeping pill use among Americans has grown recently -- in 2008, there were a record-high 56 million prescriptions for the drugs. The LA Times explained that stress and anxiety over money, the economy and jobs are big factors in the sleeplessness prompting the pill use.
But still, sleeping pills shouldn't be the ultimate solution to long-lasting insomnia, Perlis said, as they only serves as a palliative treatment rather than a cure for the underlying cause. As the Mayo Clinic pointed out, sleeping pills are rarely recommended to be used for longer than a few weeks, and ones that can be used for longer periods of time can cause dependence on them.
"When you discontinue them [the sleeping pills], the game is over. There is no cure, there are no residual effects" in helping you sleep, he said. "You take it, it works; you don't take it, it doesn't work. It's like a pain medication, as opposed to an antibiotic."
Instead, non-pharmacological approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy should be the solution for chronic insomnia, Perlis said.
But at the end of the day, Perlis said, it's the actual insomnia -- which also happens to be the most common sleep disorder, ABC News reported -- that is the real health issue we should be talking about. Insomnia has been linked to obesity, decreased immune system, depression, problems at school or work and can even up the risk of more severe health problems like heart disease and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For a recent HuffPost Live segment on sleeping pill dependence, watch the video below: