Live

Watch CBSN Live

Ambien May Prompt Sleep-Eating

Some people don't just walk in their sleep, they eat as well.

As sleep disorders go, it's one of the more bizarre, observes CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone.

He says Dr. Mark Mahowald and other sleep researchers have discovered that nocturnal eating may be a side effect of the popular sleep medication, Ambien.

That comes on the heels of reports that some Ambien users may drive while sleeping.

Mahowald, who's medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis, tells Blackstone, "We've had people eat very inappropriate things that they would never eat while awake. Some example would be buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches, raw bacon."

And sleep-binging could leave its mark – on waistlines.

"I put on over 100 pounds since I've been on Ambien," says Brenda Pobre, who couldn't figure out why she was gaining so much weight.

"I would wake up in the morning and there would be candy wrappers all around the bed," she says. "There would be crumbs in the bed. There would be all kinds of evidence that someone had been eating in the bed. But I had absolutely no recollection of it."

Her sons stayed up to watch her, afraid she would injure herself.

"We have had people, infrequently, cut themselves as they're trying to chop up food to eat in the middle of the night," notes Mahowold.

Pobre adds, "There would be a big mess in the kitchen. There would be wrappers on the floor, popsicle sticks on the floor. I would accuse my sons of making the mess and they would say they didn't, and they would say they had seen me doing it and, of course, I thought they were lying."

Mahowald points out that, "Sleep and wakefulness can occur simultaneously. Everybody thinks the brain is either all awake or all asleep, and that's not true. The brain can be literally half awake and half asleep."

Ambien's maker issued a statement saying the side effect is known but rare, and that "when taken as prescribed, Ambien is a safe and effective treatment for insomnia." The side effect is disclosed in the product's labeling material.

And Pobre still takes it, saying, "I have chronic insomnia. And I've tried everything, behavior modification, everything. And nothing works except Ambien."

But now, says Blackstone, she also takes another medication that helps defeat her urge to eat in her sleep.

Over 26 million Ambien prescriptions were doled out last year, ringing up more than $2 billion in sales for the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis, the third largest drug company in the world.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay tells co-Anchor Hannah Storm nobody really knows how common the sleep-eating caused by Ambien is.

"The company says it's a rare side-effect, which means they have fewer than 1,000 reports of this. Also, keep in mind, 26 million prescriptions last year, 13 years on the market. So this is probably a real side effect. But the exact number of people who are affected has yet to be determined, but I think we confidently say it's unusual.

"What you see often is, once a drug has been on the market for a long period of time and it's been used by so many people, you start to see these unusual side-effects in greater numbers, and that may be what we're seeing here with Ambien."

Senay stresses that you shouldn't abruptly stop taking Ambien without consulting your physician: "I don't think you should stop taking it for this reason, if you really need a good night's rest and you're working with a doctor on your sleep habits."

What are some signs people may be sleep-eating?

Like Probre, users report finding empty food wrappers by their beds. Also, missing food, unexplained weight gain, and having the taste of food in your mouth when you wake up.

Senay says you don't have to take Ambien to sleep-eat: Some non-users also do it.

In any event, she suggests, if you seem to "have this problem, definitely present it to your doctor."

Sleeping pills such as Ambien shouldn't necessarily be your first attempt to deal with insomnia, Senay continues.

"A lot of people recommend behavioral therapy prior to getting to a sleeping medication. This would include things such as making sure you have a very rigid schedule, that you go to ed at the same time every night, that you wake up at the same time every morning."

Other tips for better sleeping include regular exercise, relaxing before bedtime, limiting stress, limiting caffeine after 2 p.m., and not turning to alcohol to help you fall asleep."

Senay cautions that mixing alcohol with any sleep medication isn't a good idea and, "Doctors don't recommend that."

Senay told Storm sleeping experts are pushing for people to view sleep as a part of their lives that's as important as regular exercise and a healthy diet: "I think a lot of Americans forget sleep is essential."