If you’ve been finding it harder than ever to get some sleep over the past several months, you’ve got plenty of company. People are terrified by violence, job loss and the threat of a lethal infection.
Many have been losing sleep for months, and some have asked their doctors to prescribe something to help them sleep. Back in April 2020, the pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts reported a big bump in prescriptions for anti-anxiety pills and sleep aids such as zolpidem.
Zolpidem, also sold under brand names Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar and Zolpimist, was the first in its category of “Z-drugs.” The Food and Drug Administration approved Ambien in 1992, and at first doctors thought this drug was super-safe. Over the decades since then, though, patients and clinicians have discovered some drawbacks.
Doctors who prescribe zolpidem are advised to limit its use to no more than two weeks. Nonetheless, many individuals take this medication for months or years. The most obvious problem is morning “hangover.” Some people may not realize that they are impaired. They grab a cup of coffee and get behind the wheel. We have heard from many readers that driving can be hazardous in this situation.
One reader shared this experience: “I was arrested for DWI when I was sleep driving while taking Ambien. I never misused it, but I lost my driver’s license, as well as my career. When I quit Ambien suddenly, the rebound insomnia led to a horrible car accident. I fell asleep at the wheel and now I have 24/7 chronic pain.”
Some people report unusual behavior that they cannot recall. Another reader commented: “My psychiatrist prescribed zolpidem as an aid to eliminate depression-induced insomnia. Within a few short months, I experienced a night-eating episode.
“One morning I woke up out on my back porch (I had gone to sleep in my second-floor bedroom) and my mouth was filled with blue-black bits which I first thought to be cockroaches. I had no idea how I had gotten out on the porch.
“When I went in the house to look in the mirror to see what was in my mouth, I saw the blue tortilla corn chips strewn about. I blamed my cat, Winston, who loved them, until I saw them in my own mouth in the mirror.
“I was horrified, having not one shred of a memory of even awakening in the night. I later found the bag stashed in the refrigerator. (I usually keep the tortilla chips in the pantry.)
“I discussed this at my next appointment. My doctor immediately took me off the drug and told me that I was the fourth person in two months who had had a scary nocturnal episode like mine. She would no longer be prescribing it as a result. To experience the complete loss of control over your behavior and also your memory of the event is frightening indeed.”
No one should stop zolpidem suddenly without medical supervision. A gradual taper in dose may assist in reducing withdrawal symptoms, such as rebound insomnia. To learn more about managing insomnia without medication, you may wish to consult our eGuide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep. This online resource is available in the Health eGuide section at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email them via their website: