Nothing is worse than insomnia … or is there? Imagine suddenly waking up from a sound slumber – to find yourself in jail because you caused a car accident and then resisted arrest – all while fast asleep. This is what happened to some people who took the highly touted insomnia medication Ambien or Ambien CR (brand name for zolpiderm tartrate).
As explained in a March 2006 New York Times article, Ambien patients weren’t just sleep walking – they were grabbing the car keys and going for a drive. This inevitably led to accidents. The article goes on to note that people who take Ambien will suffer from hallucinations, sleep walking and sleep driving even more if they drink alcoholic beverages.
What’s Going On?
Ambien is a type of drug called a sedative-hypnotic, which basically is a fancy way of saying “puts you to sleep”. But when a person falls asleep, the brain will send chemical messages to the body to keep it still. This may be a cause of many nightmares when something is chasing you and you suddenly can’t move. When there are problems with this chemical communication, the body usually suffers sleep paralysis, which is a type of narcolepsy.
And then there’s sleepwalking. This is usually seen in children more than adults, possibly because their brains are still trying to learn how to properly communicate with the rest of the body. But here, too, is when the brain does not tell the body to keep still. Night terrors are similar, and can be dangerous to any people in the sleeper’s way.
The person is asleep and dreaming. But instead of staying still and reacting only with the mind, the body is apparently getting up and reacting to the dreams. This is the best theory, because many people do not remember their dreams – especially if the shock of waking up in a car accident or in jail may cause dreams to fade faster than usual.
Ambien isn’t the only sleep-aid drug that can potentially cause sleepwalking, but it is the one that has gotten the most press. Sleep aids that are basically just decongestants are not thought to cause sleepwalking or sleep driving.
In March of 2007, because of lawsuits and bad press, mighty pharmaceutical giant Merck halted all work on an experimental Sedative-hypnotic called gaboxadol because some human test subjects began to sleep walk. Merck is also the same company that made the now-banned painkiller Vioxx and they are still not through with all of the lawsuits about that.
The FDA put out a warning about Ambien’s proclivity to make an insomniac walk while asleep in 2007. They and Ambien’s maker, Sanovi-Aventis, urge people to go right to bed when they take the medication. They also suggest having someone you trust in your home to keep an eye on you for the first couple of weeks to see that you don’t head for the car.