Sleeping Pill FAQs by Dr. Wedro on


Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEM

Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Insomnia, the inability to
sleep, is all too common in our society. Many
people have transient sleep disturbances and treat them with over-the-counter
medications, while others turn to their healthcare provider for prescription
medications – and there are plenty of choices for medications. Each has its
benefits and risks, indications, and side effects, and these medications are not
interchangeable. More importantly, they aren’t safe to use together.

Regardless of the mechanism of action of sleeping pills, they are all
“downers.” They depress brain function, and if too many are taken or if they are
mixed with alcohol or other drugs, the breathing centers of the brain can be
depressed to the point that the body stops breathing, and the person dies.

One prescription sleep medication is
zolpidem (Ambien). Ambien is a sedative drug that
works quickly; but as with any sleeping pill, it needs to be used in a wise
manner. It should be used in the smallest dose possible to get the intended
effect (sleep), the person should be able to have 8 hours available for
potential sleep when taking the drug, and until the effect of the drug is known
on that individual person, the next day’s activity should not include driving or using heavy machinery.

Ambien also has some potential side effects that are to say the least,
“frightening.” Sleep driving can occur, in which people get out of bed and drive
their car while not awake. Sanofli Aventis, the company that makes Ambien,
writes, “Other complex behaviors such as preparing and eating food, making phone
calls, or having sex have been reported in people who are not fully awake after
taking a sleep medicine. As with ‘sleep driving,’ people usually don’t remember
these events.”

They also state, “This behavior is more likely to occur when Ambien is taken
with alcohol or other drugs such as those for the treatment of depression or

Sleep Disorders: Insomnia, Sleep Apnea, and More

Ambien and other similar drugs have a reasonable safety profile, meaning that
the amount of medication needed to get the therapeutic effect is unlikely to
cause complications. Medications that are prescribed to affect brain function
need to be carefully chosen by the care provider and need to be respected by the

Reference: Ambien CR™ Patient Pamphlet; Sanofi-Aventis, April 2007 (

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