The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills - Sleep Week


By Jorri Roberts

Photo courtesy of e-Magine Art.

Have trouble getting to sleep? Need some “help” in the form of a miraculous little pill? Chances are you’re one of the nine million Americans who rely on prescription pills like Ambien to get to sleep every night. Although only comprising about 2-3 percent of the country’s population, it still seems as if a staggering number of people need sleeping pills to get a good night’s sleep.

However, this relatively common habit is apparently far from harmless. Along with the risk of dependence and even a possible increased risk of cancer and death, sleeping pills can lead to parasomnias, or strange “sleep behaviors” such as sleep walking or eating. Perhaps the most dangerous parasomnia of all is sleep driving, during which users operate a vehicle in a trancelike state; one can only imagine all the probable dangers waiting to happen in such a situation.

Kai Falkenberg, Editorial Counsel at Forbes magazine, studied these dangers firsthand while writing her 2012 Marie Claire piece, “While You Were Sleeping,” which detailed the strange and oftentimes horrific side effects of sleeping pills containing the chemical zolpidem, which is evidently the active agent that causes parasomnias to happen.

In the article, Falkenberg discusses in particular the case of Lindsey Schweigert, who was arrested for driving while intoxicated—she took a generic sleeping pill containing zolpidem and apparently had no memory of sleep driving and crashing into a car on her way to a restaurant in the middle of the night.

Falkenberg had written other health-related stories in the past, but “While You Were Sleeping” was her first that dealt specifically with prescription sleeping pills. She was particularly interested in the legal quandary that those suffering from such side effects found themselves in, including the devastating consequences of these situations. In her research, one especially disturbing story besides Schweigert’s came to light.

“In one particularly tragic story, a new father in his twenties continued to be prescribed Ambien for insomnia after experiencing several sleep walking episodes,” she tells BTR. “Three years ago, a few hours after taking an Ambien, he got out of bed, got into his car, and drove the wrong way down a local road. He was involved in a head on collision, the car caught on fire, and he burned to death.”

Similarly devastating stories have made the news, and zolpidem use appears to be the link between all of them. Falkenberg believes that it is partly the physicians’ responsibility to understand all of the risks of sleeping pills before prescribing them to patients.

“Many physicians who regularly prescribe Ambien are unaware of the sizeable percentage of users that experience sleep walking or sleep driving as a side effect,” she says. “Nor are they aware that drinking alcohol prior to taking Ambien significantly increases the risk of these side effects.”

Although dramatic side effects of any drug are more rarely experienced by users than relatively minor ones, the serious side effects of Ambien and similar drugs seem to be coming to light more and more, most likely because of its generous abundance of users. Falkenberg thinks that the damaging side effects of drugs containing zolpidem do not happen as rarely as we would like to hope.

“It would be rare but for the fact that there are so many people that take zolpidem,” she explains. “There are 39 million prescriptions for zolpidem filled a year. If only one percent of those users experience the tragic side effect of sleep driving, that’s a significant number of people who are putting both their lives and the lives of others at risk.”

The Food and Drug Administration has paid attention to these frightening occurrences, as they have recently required drug manufacturers who use zolpidem in their products to alter the recommended dosage to a lower amount, particularly for women. This is because women’s bodies eliminate the chemical from the bloodstream more slowly than men’s bodies, so they are more likely to suffer adverse dangerous effects such as parasomnias. The policy will hopefully reduce behaviors such as sleep driving and eating, as well as decrease possible inhibition of alertness the day after use, which is also a risk of sleeping pills.

With the sheer number of Americans taking prescription sleeping pills, however, people may continue to feel and enact the harmful effects of zolpidem until either use is decreased or zolpidem is improved or extracted altogether from the medication. In the meantime, sleeping pills continue to provide an easier—although perhaps dangerous—means of finally getting some sleep for many American users.

Falkenberg remains wary, though. “I have not taken Ambien since I first started reporting the story,” she says. In simple terms, “The risks are not worth it.”

She followed up “While You Were Sleeping” with another health-related piece addressing the unintended consequences of over reliance on patient satisfaction surveys.

In general though, Falkenberg particularly warns against the dangers of drinking alcohol before taking drugs containing zolpidem.

More information on zolpidem can be found here.