Many of us have heard about Ambien’s side effects by now. But have you heard that it might make you racist?
Ambien, a popular sleeping aid, is used to treat scores of insomniacs; its side effects include sleepwalking, sleep eating, and sleep driving. People have even been known to turn into assholes and pee on their computers.
In his song Empire State of Mind, rapper Jay-Z gives ode to the pink pill — “The city never sleeps / better slip you an Ambien.” There are also articles such as 44 Ambien Stories That Will Creep You The Eff Out and a hilariously-yet-terrifying Reddit thread called “things you did on Ambien.” But it’s Roseanne Barr’s (Roseanne star), recent mention of the sleeping pill that has people talking.
In a not-so-comical move that resulted in the cancellation of the comedian’s ABC revival show, Roseanne, 65, took her late-night, Ambien-induced thoughts to Twitter. She wrote, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” in a tweet that has since been deleted.
“VJ” stands for Valerie Jarrett, a White House aide from the Obama administration.
The backlash was immediate. Within hours, ABC canceled the show. Valerie Jarrett is an African-American woman and because “monkey” or “ape” have historically been used in a derogatory manner to describe African-Americans, many interpreted Roseanne’s tweet as overtly prejudiced.
In a series of follow-up tweets, Roseanne tried to rectify the situation by claiming she didn’t know Valerie Jarrett was black. “I thought she was Saudi,” Roseanne wrote. “I honestly thought she was Jewish and Persian. Ignorant of me for sure, but … I did.”
Later, Roseanne tried to clarify her statement again, maintaining she did not know the subject of her tweets was black.
“I’m a lot of things, a loudmouth, and all that stuff,” Roseanne said in an interview. “But I’m not stupid, for God’s sake. I would never have wittingly called any black person … a monkey.”
But there’s more to Roseanne’s “apology tour.” While still furiously tweeting away, Roseanne blamed the Ambien’ side effects for her troubles.
“It was two in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting — it was Memorial Day, too — I went too far and do not want it defended,” she wrote.
But by shifting the blame to the sleep aid, Roseanne only exacerbated the intensity of peoples’ reactions.
Immediately following the scandal, Sanofi, the pharmaceutical company responsible for the production of Ambien released a statement. “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication,” the company said of the incident.
ABC also made a statement: “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values and we have decided to cancel her show.”
Is Ambien To Blame Or Roseanne’s Sanity?
“While Ambien is an effective sleep aid, its side effects can be severe,” says Dr. Sal Raichbach, PsyD, LCSW, of Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, and aggressive behavior have been reported. Although these side effects are somewhat rare, they can be especially dangerous for those who have or are predisposed to mental illness.”
One of Ambien’s side effects is hallucinations — both visual and auditory. Auditory hallucinations usually include a person on Ambien hearing imaginary voices, even when they are alone. But why? Why do Ambien users experience such strange behaviors that they can’t remember once the effects wear off?
Ambien activates the neurotransmitter GABA, binding it to GABA receptors in the same place of the brain that Xanax and Valium do their bidding. Once GABA is activated, it slows down the brain, inhibiting neuron activity. Why? Because its primary goal is to promote sleep, and neuron activity goes hand-in-hand with insomnia and other sleep disorders.
“Ambien affects brain chemistry by acting on the neurotransmitter known as GABA,” Dr. Raichbach adds. “Other central nervous system depressants, like Xanax, also increase GABA activity, but Ambien is unique in that it selectively targets parts of the brain that are active for insomniacs.”
The generic form of Ambien, Zolpidem, was first released to the public masses in 2007. At first, the label warned that outrageous side effects like sleepwalking, driving, and eating could happen, but the company insisted these side effects were rare. And yet, according to RxList, studies now show that ataxia, confusion, abnormal vision, and double vision are among the most frequent side effects users of Ambien experience.
According to the same study, 4 percent of patients (1,959 patients were used for the purposes of this study) “discontinued treatment because of an adverse reaction.” Of these “adverse reactions,” daytime drowsiness, vertigo, amnesia, nausea, headache, and falling were the top side effects cited.
When it comes to Roseanne, mental illness is another factor many have considered and brought up in light of her tweet. Tonight Show host Jimmy Kimmel seemed to allude to the fact that Roseanne is struggling mentally. He wrote on Twitter, “Please take a breath and remember that mental health issues are real. The Roseanne I know could probably use some compassion and help right now.”
Roseanne’s long-time friend and Real Time host Bill Maher also put his two cents in regarding the controversy. Like Jimmy Kimmel, he too cited mental illness. “Roseanne has said she has multiple personalities – and unfortunately one of them is quite a racist. It’s also not a mystery to me how a person with mental illness could be taken in by a party that has lost its mind,” Maher said.
It’s true that mental health issues may be at play here, though nothing has been confirmed. According to Dr. Sal Raichbach, mental illness can sometimes be exacerbated by the use of depressants.
“Ambien is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down brain activity, so people who suffer from insomnia are able to fall asleep,” Dr. Raichbach explains. “Unfortunately, central nervous system depressants can also affect emotional regulation and moodiness. Depression, agitation, and suicidal thoughts can occur, especially if the individual has preexisting mental health problems.”
The Most Hilarious Reports Of Ambien’s Side Effects
There have been many accounts of the strange, inexplicable things people do when under the influence of Ambien. According to the Reddit thread dedicated to aggregating Ambien-induced stories, people have done everything from making peculiar decisions to operating dangerous machinery.
One Reddit user reported that he, “Woke up next to a baseball bat and weed grinder.” Upon waking up, the user realized that in the Ambien-haze, he had smashed the grinder with the bat, until it was “obliterated.”
“Ambien can lead to some truly bizarre and dangerous behavior, ranging from the relatively harmless hallucinations to grandiose delusions, some of which has become the focus of lawsuits and news stories,” Dr. Raichbach continues. “Usually, these individuals have no memory of the event occurring.”
Another Reddit user wrote that when taking Ambien, everything on her phone became “3d.” Someone else shared that his wife takes Ambien before bed and reduces her inhibitions, making her “quite frisky in the sack,” though the user did admit that the wife “passes out very suddenly when it kicks in.”
Erratic behavior is not all that’s been reported of Ambien’s side effects. There are even reports of Ambien “waking the near-dead.” Wait, what?! Yes, you read that right.
“The sleep aid can have a profound — and paradoxical — effect on patients (in comas). Rather than put them to sleep, both Ambien and its generic twin, Zolpidem, appear to awaken at least some of them,” New York Times reports. “The early reports were so pronounced that until recently, doctors had a hard time believing them. Only now, more than a decade after the initial discovery, are they taking a closer look.”
Several patients throughout the years have made “miraculous cognitive gains” after being in a coma and using Ambien to wake up out of it. While doctors are not yet entirely certain about how Ambien affects our neurons — most especially in the cases of those who have woken from comas thanks to Ambien — one thing is for sure: it definitely does something to our brains, whether it slows them down or when already slowed down to a medical condition (like a coma), speeds it up.
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough – Another Side Effect of Ambien – It’s Addictive
Ambien can be addictive. According to the Addiction Center, Ambien isn’t just a sedative — the drug is in a specific class known as the sedative-hypnotics class but because the sleeping pill is a non-benzodiazepine, it was made and marketed with the intention of not being habit-forming. So while Ambien is a lot like Xanax, in that it offers a similar “calming” effect and aids insomnia, developers of the drug want you to believe that it’s not addictive.
However, the Addiction Center warns, “An addiction to this drug can form in as little as two weeks. Many people don’t know they have a problem until they stop taking the drug and realize they cannot sleep without it. The presence of withdrawal symptoms is one of the main signs of an addiction.”
These withdrawal symptoms are called a rebound effect. Those who take Ambien for more than two weeks are most likely to experience the rebound effect, the symptoms of which include cramping, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, crying spells, seizures, tremors, and more.
“Like other sleep medications, Zolpidem can be addictive,” says Dr. Raichbach. “While Ambien does produce euphoric effects in higher doses, even people that take sleeping pills as prescribed can quickly build up a tolerance, requiring higher doses to get the sleep-inducing effects. Eventually, the individual becomes dependent on the medication to get to sleep. Withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, and agitation can occur when someone stops taking Ambien.”
But Can Ambien Make You Racist?
Despite the wacky, long list of Ambien’s side effects, no, Ambien does not make a person racist. All that Ambien does is ensure that the user does not remember what they may have said, did, or tweeted.
Ambien also should not be mixed with alcohol. While Ambien possesses its own list of potential risks, the percentage of risk is amplified and exacerbated when the sedative is mixed with alcohol, a known and often-abused depressant.
Those who consume alcohol and Ambien together are twice as likely to be in intensive care as people who do not. The dangers of mixing with alcohol include loss of coordination, impaired judgment, sleep apnea, and more.
Holistic Solutions For Insomnia
But fear not — especially if you suffer from insomnia or other myriad sleep issues and are looking for some help falling (and staying!) asleep. According to Dr. Katrina Stage, NH, RH (AHG), sleepless people can turn to the many homeopathic options to combat sleep loss (and not worry about suffering the painful and inconvenient effects of sleep loss, or some of the side effects from drugs).
“Many people don’t realize that their evening activities can negatively affect sleep. Naturopathic doctors address sleep in a holistic way that encompasses sleep hygiene and natural therapies such as dietary changes, herbs, and homeopathy,” says Dr. Katrina Stage, a registered herbalist at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. “These therapies are non-addictive and don’t cause harmful side effects. Often, the combination of lifestyle changes and natural therapies cause lasting changes that no longer require any treatment.”
Looking for other roads that lead to the Land of Nod, preferably without scary side effects? Quicksilver Liposomal GABA w/ L-Theanine is a neutraceutical option that uses only two ingredients — Theanine, a calming amino acid found in green tea and GABA, Gamma Amino Butyric Acid— to induce relaxation and ultimately, slumber. Other natural options for those in search of shut-eye? Blue light glasses (which block out the damaging blue wavelength lights from various screens), our Better Sleep Bundle (which features ZZZ-inducing ingredients like lemon balm, ginger, GABA, and melatonin), and full spectrum hemp oil.
In short, getting to sleep and beating insomnia at its own game is possible without the help of sedatives like Ambien. Here are some powerful tips for getting shut-eye naturally, although making the transition to a more holistic, natural methods could take some time to get used to.
“Long time users of Ambien can be transitioned to a more natural approach, but we typically do this slowly, and often with the addition of lifestyle changes and natural therapies during this process,” says Dr. Katrina Stage. She recommends a careful transition to mitigate side effects. “Ambien, particularly if used long term, should not be stopped abruptly. Naturopathic physicians are trained to understand drug, nutrient, and herb interactions to ensure patient safety and positive outcomes.”
Roseanne’s Unlikely Connection To Ambien’s Side Effects
At the end of the day, Ambien can make you do some pretty weird stuff. (Any drug can.)
As for Roseanne Barr, she is still dealing with the public backlash and scrutiny that her drug-induced comments elicited. With her revival show Roseanne canceled, the comedian-turned-actress says she made the conscious decision to walk away from the show.
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe a drug can change your personality or ideals. Drugs, even sleep-inducing ones like Ambien, simply amplify what’s already present. I think Roseanne messed up, made a judgment in error, and because she had been under the influence of Ambien at the time of her racist remarks, did not remember her actions. Sure, Ambien impaired her judgment: made her not see that tweeting such a thing was a terrible idea. But Ambien didn’t put the racist thought in her brain. It was already there.
Roseanne says she is still trying to find the words to apologize and to forgive herself. “The right words, to me, don’t really exist in the lexicon,” she explained in a recent interview.
For now, she says: “I’m not a racist. I’m an idiot.”
Steph Osmanski is a freelance health and wellness writer, blogger, and brand consultant. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton.
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