Just as TV commercials for medicines spend as much time issuing their disclaimers as they do advertising their products, I must make my disclaimers now: Researchers are not certain that there is a definite link between Ambien and these activities. And a very small minority of people taking Ambien end up doing these things. So, most of the stories that we read about are not scientific studies, but are anecdotal.
But some of these anecdotes are doozies.
There are stories of people who drive their cars while still in a sleepwalking mode and have accidents. And there are stories of people who get up in the middle of the night, eat enormous amounts of food, don't remember eating, but find clues like candy bar wrappers and weight gains. Others claim to have committed crimes while sleepwalking like shoplifting or even physically attacking another person. And one doctor says that he has had passengers who've been in this state on airplanes and signed contracts with businessmen sitting next to them. And I thought a little drowsiness after a sleeping pill was an unfortunate side effect.
Janet Makinen went "from wearing a size 1 to wearing a size 12. I would eat raw eggs. I would eat a half gallon of ice cream. I would eat a bag of potato chips, a loaf of bread." She would find evidence of her "sleep binging" the next day, but had no memory of doing it. Helen Cary, says that her husband witnessed her getting a "package of hamburger buns and I just tore it open like a grizzly bear and just stood there and ate the whole package." Brenda Pobre claims that she gained 100 pounds from eating things that she can't remember eating in the middle of the night. For months, she blamed the candy bar wrappers next to her bed and the popsicle sticks on the floor on her husband and sons before finally believing that she was the one doing the eating.
This being America, there have already been some lawsuits filed against the drug manufacturer. I assume this was done while the plaintiffs were awake.
Sleepwalking has long been a part of movies and scary literature. In real life, people don't sleepwalk with their eyes closed and their hands outstretched. Sleepwalkers walk around with their eyes open. They can see while they go about their activities. It's a myth that you should not wake a sleepwalker. Believe me, if you see your spouse reaching for his or her car keys while still asleep, it's a good idea to wake them up. Similarly, if someone close to you is about to polish off a package of hamburger buns, experts would suggest your waking him up and escorting him back to bed.
What's always fascinated me — and has piqued my curiosity once again — is why are most, if not all, the tales we hear about sleepwalking negative ones? We hear about over-eating, dangerous driving, and assaulting people while individuals are asleep. How come we don't hear about overweight sleepwalkers exercising in their sleep? Why don't we hear about people who get out of bed and clean the house while still technically asleep? Why don't we read about people who get up in the middle of the night and write a novel in their sleep? Shoplifting appears to be a relatively popular crime among some sleepwalkers. Why isn't it just as popular for sleepwalkers to go to a store and straighten out all the inventory? We may read about people who supposedly commit violent crimes while sleepwalking, but I've never heard of one who donated a kidney at three in the morning and then went back to bed.
I think this is where the scientific research should be focused rather than on the possible side effects of one specific medication. If they could figure out a way for us to accomplish good things in our sleep, maybe some future scientists will win the Nobel Prize. And if they're really good at what they do, they'll be able to do their research in their sleep.
Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for SportsLine.com. He has written for many television shows, while awake, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver