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The Pulse of Natural Health Newsletter

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Sleeping Pills So Dangerous There’s Now an “Ambien Defense”

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Even OTC sleep meds may be hazardous—and may contribute to Alzheimer’s.

One of the world’s most popular sleeping pills is also, at 40 million prescriptions per year, one of the most-prescribed medications, period. Ambien—also sold under the brand names Intermezzo, Stilnox, Stilnoct, Sublinox, Hypnogen, Zonadin, Sanval, Zolsana, and Zolfresh—is becoming better known for its disturbing side effects rather than as a treatment for insomnia.

In 2009, for example, Robert Stewart stormed into a nursing home where his estranged wife worked, and killed eight people. Stewart’s defense team successfully argued that since he was under the influence of Ambien at the time of the shooting, he was not in control of his actions. While he was convicted, his Ambien plea won him a slightly reduced sentence.

The information sheet dispensed with the drug warns, in small print, that medications in this class have occasional side effects including sleepwalking, “abnormal thinking,” and “strange behavior.” But it wasn’t until 2006 when former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) had a middle-of-the-night car accident and explained to arriving officers that he was “running late for a vote” that the bizarre side effects of Ambien began to receive national attention.

Kennedy claimed he had taken the sleep aid and had no recollection of the events that night. Now, incidents of “sleep driving,” “sleep eating,” or “sleep shopping” have become associated with Ambien blackouts—even when the medication is not mixed with alcohol.

Shortly after the Kennedy incident, Ambien users sued manufacturer Sanofi because of bizarre sleep-eating behaviors while on the drugs. People were eating things like buttered cigarettes and eggs, complete with the shells, while under the influence of Ambien. An attorney called people in this state “Ambien zombies.”

As a result of the lawsuit, and of increasing reports coming in about “sleep driving,” the FDA ordered all hypnotics to issue stronger warnings on their labels. Later that year, the FDA approved label changes specifying new dosage recommendations for Ambien products because of concerns regarding next-morning impairment. These warnings too are printed in extremely tiny letters in the dispensing literature.

Ambien functions by triggering the brain’s GABA receptors; when GABA receptors are activated, the brain slows. However, rather than a fine-tuned process, Ambien’s action is rather blunt, knocking the individual out “senseless.” Studies show that Ambien is good at putting you to sleep, but not good at keeping you asleep unless you take the extended release version of the drug.

Because of the many side effects associated with Ambien, the FDA seems to be extremely cautious about approving future sleeping drugs. But is that too little, too late? The FDA approval process for sleeping pills is, frankly, inadequate: the clinical trials required for hypnotic drugs such as Ambien investigated the drug’s effectiveness only for the short-term—and they were approved only for short-term use. In reality, however, people take them for years, as we noted in our report on sleeping pills two years ago.

There are two main classes of medications are used for sleep, muscle relaxation, and anxiety relief: benzodiazepines, the older class (which includes Valium), and short-acting nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics of the imidazopyridine class (which includes Ambien). Life Extension discusses a number of concerns with Ambien and other sleep medications, including rebound anxiety, grogginess, a three-fold increase of death, depression, dizziness, slow thinking, and withdrawal symptoms. But of even greater concern is the new study from the University of Bordeaux showing that benzodiazepines (some of which are OTC) can increase one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by more than 50%—and the risk is greater the longer you take them.

Sleeping pills also affect the quality of your sleep. Dr. Oz notes that many sleeping pills don’t promote deep sleep or REM sleep—what many experts call “restful sleep.” You dream during REM sleep, and a reduction in REM sleep leads to a less restorative or less satisfying sleep. That’s why one may not feel completely rested after taking a sleeping pill, even after eight hours of sleep.

On top of that, a study published earlier this year showed that some sleeping pills may affect memory consolidation, which usually occurs during sleep. Memory consolidation is a measurement of one’s improvement on a given memory task over a period of time. In other words, sleeping pills can hurt your short-term memory and the formation of new memories.

Sleep is essential to good health, but one needn’t rely on sleeping pills. Instead, ask your healthcare professional about natural GABA supplements to promote a restful night. In addition, consider our tips for natural ways to improve your sleep.

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