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Science Says: Ambien’s odd side effects don’t include racism

Ambien and similar sleep aids are well-known for sometimes causing some weird behavioral side effects, but changing one’s political or cultural views is not one of them.

Roseanne Barr partly blamed the insomnia drug in explaining a tweet that led ABC to cancel her show: “It was 2 in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting,” she wrote.

Until this week, Ambien’s most headline-grabbing behavioral side effect was “sleep-driving,” essentially sleepwalking except getting behind the wheel and going for a drive with no memory of doing so.

But people also have reported making phone calls, eating meals, having sex and doing other things that they don’t remember after taking so-called “sedative-hypnotic” medications. People charged with crimes occasionally even have tried “the Ambien defense.”

Doctors call these “complex sleep behaviors.” On its official Ambien labeling, manufacturer Sanofi calls the side effects “abnormal thinking and behavioral changes” — changes that can include decreased inhibition.

“It’s behavior that’s done when the individual is in a sense both asleep and awake at the same time,” explained University of Pittsburgh sleep medicine specialist Dr. Daniel Buysse. It’s not so different from how people sometimes behave under the influence of alcohol, he added, and it can be hard to tell if the behavior really was due to the drug.

And while it’s not clear how common such side effects are, Ambien’s instructions clearly state: Take it right before you get into bed, and only if you plan to stay there for 7 or 8 hours.

“You should take it and lie down. Read a book or something” but don’t wander around or get on the computer or do other things waiting for the medicine to kick in, said Dr. Marc Schlosberg, a sleep medicine specialist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Sanofi said Wednesday in a tweet that “while all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Barr later tweeted that she has had odd experiences while taking the drug late at night. “I blame myself, not Ambien,” she tweeted.

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