For those who missed the media storm, Roseanne Barr faced widespread criticism and the cancellation of her television show due to a number of racist tweets. The actress explained she was on the medication Ambien, suggesting its effects to be responsible for her lack of judgment.
The sedative drug is prescribed as a form of treatment for insomnia but is not intended for long-term use. It can only be prescribed by doctors and is classified as a schedule IV controlled substance due to carrying a risk of being abused. A national survey estimated more than 250,000 people to be abusing Ambien and other sedatives in 2013.
Sanofi, the manufacturer of the drug, humorously dismissed Barr’s claim on Twitter, stating: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
Most of us can agree with that. But what are the side effects of the medication, realistically speaking?
Ambien may leave some feeling dizzy, especially the morning after. Driving or performing activities that require alertness is not advisable until the user knows how the medicine affects them. Since it operates by slowing down the central nervous system, it may also affect the ability to walk, possibly risking falls among the vulnerable.
The medication has also been linked to changes in behavior and mood by triggering anxiety and depression. In some cases, people have also reported suicidal thoughts and behavior. Experts recommend seeing a doctor as soon as possible when experiencing side effects such as memory loss, breathing problems, suicidal thoughts, itching, hallucinations, and more.
Blackouts can also be a serious consequence in less than one percent of cases, according to Sanofi. In these instances, people reported sleep-walking, engaging in sexual intercourse, eating food, talking on the phone, or having hallucinations when they were not fully awake. Later, they were unable to remember these events.
“Ambien does not induce ‘racist tweets’ but it is possible that people could text or tweet while on Ambien and not remember,” said Dr. Rachel Salas, associate professor of neurology in the sleep medicine division at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “My advice for people is not to sleep with your phone or electronics near your bed when on sleep aids, and to put a passcode on your phone to make it more difficult to send texts, tweets, or make purchases.”
The drug is called “habit-forming,” which makes it dangerous to abruptly stop using without guidance from a doctor. The National Institutes of Health details a long list of withdrawal effects such as shakiness, lightheadedness, stomach and muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, sweating, flushing, tiredness, uncontrollable crying, nervousness, panic attacks, sleep problems, uncontrollable shaking of a part of your body, and rarely, seizures.