You've heard the stories: the zombied-out guy who gets behind the wheel at 2 a.m., wraps his car around a telephone pole, and then wakes up in a hospital bed with no recollection of ever having left his house; or the man who polishes off a pizza and pint of ice cream in the middle of the night but, come morning, has no clue where the dirty dishes came from.
Although it's intended to relieve short-term insomnia, the widely prescribed sleep aid Ambien has a whole gamut of scary side effects, from sleepwalking and "sleep driving" at night to hallucinations and disturbed, uncharacteristic behavior during the day. And according to a just-released Drug Abuse Warning Network report, emergency room visits stemming from Ambien use skyrocketed 220 percent between 2005 and 2010 (the latest available data).
Surprisingly, these aren't just careless college kids using Ambien as landing gear after all-hours booze benders. The report says 74 percent of ER visits were by people age 45 and up. And while women were more likely than men to wind up the hospital after taking Ambien, thousands of guys found themselves in ERs too.
As for why Ambien-related ER visits have spiked, it's likely a combination of more people using the drug and more people abusing it, says Dr. Eric Olson, codirector of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Many more people take Ambien than just a few years ago," he says. "And many of them don't respect the power of sleeping pills, so they do things concurrently like mix them with alcohol."
Olson says booze, along with drugs like Benadryl, valium, morphine, and other muscle relaxers, can spell trouble when taken with Ambien because it causes an overload of sedating effects. "When you mix Ambien with another drug that depresses the central nervous system, you run the risk of becoming overly sedated and committing nonsensical or even harmful acts you might not remember," he says. "Bizarre things can happen."
While the report says a huge chunk of ER stays stemmed from mixing Ambien with other substances, "abusing" the medication doesn't just mean popping a pill along with a cocktail or pain reliever, Olson says. "People often fall into the trap of increasing their Ambien dosage without talking to their doctor," he explains. "They think, 'One pill worked, so two might be better.'" Or else, Olson says, people take it at the wrong time, such as before they're actually ready to go to bed, so they're awake and trying to operate while heavily sedated.
Despite Ambien's pitfalls, Olson maintains that, overall, when used correctly, it is a very safe drug. "There have been millions of successful nights of sleep thanks to Ambien," he says. "But since it's so widely used, there are going to be issues." And since the potential for misuse and abuse is so high, it's imperative to be careful with it and to always follow doctor's orders.
Before asking your practitioner for a prescription, really consider whether you're a good candidate for Ambien. Olson says if you like your nightly Glenlevit or take pain meds, you may want to avoid it. Same story if you don't keep a steady sleep schedule. He also offers up several drug-free ways to get better rest that you should try first: Limit caffeine and alcohol, eat a balanced diet, don't go to bed hungry or overly full, exercise daily, manage stress, and stick to a bedtime routine. Even a few natural products, such as the hormone melatonin or the herbs lavender and valerian, may help you score shut-eye.
Everyone wants – and needs – sounds sleep, so if all else has failed and you turn to Ambien, just do yourself right and use it correctly.