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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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  • SmartyPants196

    I turned to ambien when i was at my wits end, i wasn’t sleeping i mean at all, and after months of suffering, i turned to my dr who gave me ambien, at first it was a miracle, i was sleeping, feeling better, my body didn’t ache, I also have MS and when not sleeping it;s like i get severe fatigue.. But then i finally took myself off it, and my sleep stayed improved without it. Now i used to be a sleep wallker but never did when i took ambien. For chronic sleeplessness it can help, also chronic pain doesn’t heal unless you get the restorative sleep, so if you have chronic pain, getting sleep will help stop the cycle of pain.
    Now my mother who is eighty she was on it and kept on it, she started falling out of bed in the middle of the night and was sleeping a lot during the day and she was getting dementia issues, well finally when she went into the hospital for some other problem the ER dr said elderly people shouldn’t be on it. So i got the med discontinued and my mother doesn’t need it anymore.. The assisted living place was just keeping her on it, saying “She’s been on it for years.” so i got the ER dr to dc it and now she’s off it.
    So if you need it for short term it is very affective , but get off it as soon as you have a month or two of good sleep then, exercise is a good way to be tired at the end of the day, and don’t eat chocolate or drink caffeinated drinks after six pm. But the exercise piece is most important. Now i sleep fine,

  • Suzanne

    Also increase your magnesium, D3 and add in K2.

  • Not sleeping is also extremely dangerous. Ambien saved my life. Nothing herbal, homeopathic, etc. worked, although those plus acupuncture helped the underlying problems. Other sleeping pills available 19 years ago when I developed the killer insomnia didn’t work, either. I was a tough case. And I’m not kidding: I would have died without something to get me to sleep.

    It’s crucial to use only the smallest effective dose. If people are taking a whole 10-mg tablet, that is likely why they’re getting into so much trouble. Most of us can use only a quarter of that and have it be very effective. And it’s crucial to use the right treatment for the right person. I tolerate Ambien extremely well, but not everyone does.

    One thing I appreciate about this dosage of Ambien is that it does NOT knock me senseless. If I need to get up, I can manage, albeit wobbling a little. So I know that if there is some emergency, such as a fire, I will not sleep through it.

    GABA? Yeah, right. I use it to help get deeper sleep and to stay asleep longer, but it absolutely does not put me to sleep. I suggest it to patients, and I do think it’s very useful, but it can only do so much.

    Don’t make people feel guilty or frightened for doing what they need to do to survive.

  • L Hogan

    The current outcry about medications is overblown. I am an accident victim and have chronic pain that has needed multiple surgeries. If I did not have Ambien, I would not be able to sleep for the physical pain. I can’t turn or move the way others do in their sleep. In addition to that, I have been on a limited number of Norco for pain management for many years, as well as Gabapentin. Both allow me to get up, move in the morning, care for horses, shovel manure, live an active life, and contribute my work and teaching to the world. Without these, I would not be able to move from one position and I would be in bed all day. In the past, I cried out when having to move. I have used every single natural relief that I find and still do order them. I eat an amazingly healthy diet and take good care of myself. I love my life, and studies show that people who are truly in pain do not have the same “high” or addiction of those who seek it.

    There are people on our streets, in corners of empty buildings, and selling their bodies for drugs. It is time we look at our social conditions and the politics that create them, the poverty and pain of people who want to leave their lives while they are still living. That is a concern each one of us should have for other beings and then begin to work for the social injustice that creates their need for true addiction.

  • DC

    I tried Ambien, and it gave me the most terrifying nightmare I can recall. In the dream I was in a creepy cemetery at night, dragging my own corpse in a body bag up a hill towards an above ground grave, like a small mausoleum. I was struggling with the bag trying to get it in, lest anyone should catch me, and no being able to do so. I still remember the dream from many years ago now.

    I have never had any dream even remotely like this. Needless to say, I never used Ambien again.

  • Ambien junkie , fours the benifits of a good notes sleep outweigh the side effect of Ambien , if any , depends on ones personal history , and not getting any sleep at all post PTSD , stress disorders and insomniacs . I will still take a sleeping pill which does not have the side effects of Death – found in @Zolloff” . Points to consider while making such aqua actions about individual chemistry and sleep walking history.,etc;,

  • Sheila Dougherty

    I was on ambien a couple of years ago. I woke up and had cut every hair off my head. No recollection of it and did it with scissors. I said I looked like Sweet Pea in Popeye, a couple of hairs left on my head.

    I say at least I didn’t drive around in my underwear lol.

    You can’t believe how long it takes for hair to grow when it is right down to nothing.

  • Cassandra Dunn

    Ambien almost killed me. It was a slow kill. Flu like symptoms for a few months, then horrific chest and back pain for another few months, then spread to my shoulders, elbows, .. every tendon and ligament was tearing, including my esophagus, after 2 years of taking daily Ambien, and only a half a tab at that. I was flown to Mayo, Cleveland, etc,,, they all diagnosed me with some “auto immune disorder”, Parkinsons, Myasthenia Gravis, Stiff Person Syndrome, etc etc….at 93#, I wound up in a electric wheelchair,, then Hospice was offered. I then went to Brazil for alternative medical treatment as this just DID NOT MAKE SENSE. there it was found that Ambien caused all of my health issues,,, ever single one. I finally healed after about two years. I lost my job, home, car, and about $500k in medical bills all from Ambien. I had numerous doctors tell me to continue Ambien, that its “Safe”… BS! Its a slow kill!

    • Cassandra Dunn

      PS: By the way, I could not sue the mfg as they are protected.

      • Cassandra Dunn

        PSS: By the way, how come no one really investigates the root cause of insomnia?? Other than MD’s wanting to load you up on psych meds for supposed bi-polar! Well, after 8 years of daily insomnia, a wonderful diagnostician, MD in Vegas finally found root cause…. MERCURY POISONING from my 9 large fillings and from vaccines. I am now having “silver” fillings removed (which are half silver, and half mercury, and undergoing chelation therapy.

        So, FYI: Mercury can be one cause of insomnia.

  • Nancy Hummel

    We had two friends take their lives while taking Ambien. One was a Male nurse. The other had just been told she was cancer free. Both put a gun in their mouths and pulled the trigger while experiencing night terror dreams. A third friend taking Ambien said he stopped taking it when a voice inside his head told him he would never get better and he might as well put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Why is this drug still on the market? How many more people have had friends or family killed or harmed? Something is very wrong with the FDA and drug companies who make these drugs.

  • Penny Parker

    I bite a 5 mg pill in half, and take a half once or twice a week. I doubt this puts me in trouble! I love the way it knocks me out quickly. I sleep only half the night, then take a natural pill to finish the night.

  • Charlotte Orth

    I was not aware of any benzos that are over the counter. Is this in countries outside of the US?

  • Lengthening the inhalation and lengthening the exhalation seems to be useful for inducing sleep. One can mentally count, “one thousand, etc. to four thousand” for the inhalation, and likewise for the exhalation. If you do this for a while, it’s like the next thing you experience is waking up after 4 hours of sleep so that you can go to the bathroom.

  • WARREN

    I used to take Ambien and experienced serious side effects. 1st time my girlfriend heard me calling her and found me sitting on a lamp that had a bulb in it. Another occasion, at home woke up next morning to find burnt plate in the sink and ashes all over the apartment. I apparently had tried to cook something by putting it on the plate and then placing it on the stove. The last incident I woke in the morn to find candy wrappers on the table. These only are some of the incidents I remember. I discontinued the drug when a business associated told me it was causing the problem. I now notice I have memory problems.

  • Larry Stanford

    All of your natural medicine people always attack the pharmaceuticals but offer no help at all. Yes I know ambient is bad but what is a person to do if he cannot sleep? I have spent so much money on all of these natural supplements and nothing not even GABA helps. What am I to do.

  • ricbee

    This stuff is just more poison from Big Pharma-even our Special Forces are popping them.
    Nobody ever died from lack of sleep.

  • American adults don’t seem to get nearly enough physical exercise to counteract all the caffeine some of us drink. Most of us also don’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals essential for the healthy function and repair of our bodies. It is no wonder we have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep.

    Relying on alcohol and/or sleep aids like Ambien leads to some very amusing late night snacks, which no doubt further impair their sleep.

    It is sad that in one of the wealthiest and most technologically-advanced countries in the world, we’re too busy to take time to attend to our primal needs. Getting quality sleep is easy for those who do.

  • Marva Lang

    I find this weird because I took Ambian for 6 years with no problems at all. I am 68 and decided on my own to quite in January..but during the 6 years that I used them and I took one every night, I never ever had a problem of any kind. I did not have confusion, I could take one and still watch the Tonight show, I could wake up and go to the bath room, hear my grand babies when they woke up at night, get up in the morning and function. However, the one think I did not do, which may have been I had no problems is I do not drink alcoholic beverages or take a lot of other meds.

  • Claudia

    During a very stressful time in my life my doctor prescribed Zolpidem, the generic Ambien. Not only did I become totally obsessive/compulsive, which I have never been but after several months I also developed not only suicidal but homicidal feelings. Luckily my son told me about about the side effects and hallucinations of Ambien. I stopped immediately and went through several days of severe depression and not sleeping for several nights before things got better. I believe in the Ambien defense because I was right there.

  • Mike Prestcott

    “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.”
    Shall we now reward people for taking mind altering drugs and using them as an excuse to behave badly.. If anything the punishment should have been increased. The man was in his ‘right mind’ when he deigned to submit his brain to chemicals. Anyone who submits their brain to mind altering drugs should suffer the full penalty of anything they ‘do’ while ‘under the influence’. Go to http://www.SSRIStories.org for the full report.

  • Olivia

    While I understand that ambien and other sleep meds may have bad effects, maybe those effects should be measured alongside the alternative: the zombie-life of those who haven’t gotten enough sleep – not last night and not, perhaps, for many many nights.
    A common response to this comment of mine is that a person with enough moral fiber etc. etc. can sleep without help; all it takes is real effort and right thinking. If only all problems could be dealt with in this simple way! Then farewell aspirin (with its attendant risks) — and how many other medications? Yes, be aware of the risks in taking any medication (or even, many foods), and try to balance those risks with the benefits.

  • Diana

    I have taken Ambien for about 6 years. I cut my pill of 5mg in half and take it with Melatonin. I have not experienced any of the weird side effects listed in this article. I always feel horrible in the morning, BUT if I don’t take it I absolutely cannot sleep. I’ve tried and tried to get off of it, only to go back to it after 4 or 5 nights of no sleep. I don’t know what you are supposed to do if you have really bad insomnia. I would love to NEVER take this drug anymore, but can’t figure out what to do. I’ve tried all the herbal remedies, taking calcium/magnesium at bedtime, Sleepy Time Tea, you name it, and NONE of it works for me.

  • Ronald Hammarstrom Jr

    I would not recommend any product which potentiates, mimics, or increases the neurotransmitter GABA. This includes Ambien, all benzodiazepines, alcohol, and barbiturates. Unless used in a life-threatening circumstance, the risks do not outweigh the benefits. ALL GABA potentiators cause rebound insomnia and anxiety when discontinued. This makes them extremely likely to cause dependence, leading to addiction. If a drug is absolutely needed, why not try an antihistamine like doxylamine succinate. It is far safer and does not affect GABA receptors in the brain.

  • Susie20

    I saw no mention in this article about suicidal tendencies. I have spoken to a few people who said they had them while taking this drug. I had a brother-in-law who did commit suicide while using this drug. Considering all the people in the US who work night shifts and have difficulty sleeping, the effects of this drug can be devastating. My brother-in-law was a RN working the night shift in a psychiatric hospital so should have known all about the effects of this drug yet because of severe sleep issues, apparently felt he had to try it.

    So are suicides linked to this drug also?

  • Shane

    Ambien should be banned because of the severe side effects for long-time users.

  • Richard Chodelka

    I read somewhere that the astronauts in the space station take Ambien to help with sleep.

  • Mark Thorson

    Hey, why didn’t you mention melatonin? That stuff works great! It’s the same as the natural sleep hormone made in the brain. It is also a natural antioxidant.

    There’s only a couple of warnings about melatonin. Don’t take it except right before going to bed. It kicks in pretty quickly. Also, many supplements contain very high levels, 3 milligrams and above. I take 500 micrograms (half of a milligram). More than 500 micrograms is a pharmacological dose — a dose that induces levels far above the normal level of melatonin. Melatonin is pretty harmless, but I don’t think people should be taking doses larger than 500 micrograms every day.