When I was on the university rowing team I had to face a grueling two hour practice every morning, six days a week. This meant I’d go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 4:15am, which proved difficult since I lived in a college dorm with students who played beer pong until midnight every day. Understandably I had trouble falling asleep the first few weeks of practice, so I snagged half of an ambien pill from a friend who had it prescribed.

I recall the night I took the half ambien pill. Echoes of people chugging beers on the other side of the wall faded as I drifted into a deep slumber…Or so I thought. The next day I woke up feeling groggy and frustrated that I wasn’t well-rested despite having slept eight hours.

As I packed up my stuff for rowing practice, I noticed something odd. All of the money was missing from my wallet.

“You don’t remember?” my roommate said, sitting up from his bed.  

“No… What?”

“You woke up around midnight and just gave all your cash to our neighbors.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Hell if I know. Oh, and then you went into our bathroom and pissed all over the walls. Don’t know how you pulled it off, but you literally missed the entire toilet.”

Despite some wild nights in college, it was unlike me to generously give away all my cash in the middle of the night and then urinate all over my own bathroom (especially on a weekday).

“Oh…I’m sorry man, I’ll clean that up. I honestly don’t rememb…”

That was my first and last experience with ambien. I had zero recollection of what had happened the night before.

Later I researched and found out that memory loss and sleepwalking were quite common while on ambien. My experience was funny and harmless, but others weren’t so lucky. Here are a few snippets of headlines from ambien users:

  • “Pissed on my computer”
  • “Bought a 3 year magazine subscription”
  • “I shaved off my girlfriends eyebrows…”
  • “Smashed my face into the sink and woke up with blood all over the place:
  • “I did a home mole-removal surgery with my fingernails”
  • Not to mention the stories of serious crimes committed on ambien..

We’ve known for a while that ambien and other sleeping pills make you do weird things that you can’t remember. More recently, though, we’ve got the research that backs it up, and it’s a lot worse than you might think.

Why you don’t remember anything you studied in college

If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you don’t give yourself a chance to form and solidify memories from that day. If you want to memorize your super long Gmail password, the best approach would be to get a good night’s sleep the day that you study it. This allows your brain ample time to shift those short term memories into long term memories, in this case, during NREM sleep (which plays a role in remembering explicit facts like dates and numbers).

This process of imprinting long-term memories doesn’t work if we miss a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, when we try to “catch up” on sleep a couple of days later, it won’t help us solidify what we tried to learn three days ago. This is why pulling an all-nighter to study for a test works in the short term, but is detrimental to actually retaining that information in the long term. In fact, you forget almost all of what you studied if quizzed on it just a few weeks later! No wonder I hardly remember anything from college.

When you add sleeping pills into the mix, things get a lot worse. According to one animal study, even with 8 hours of sleep, ambien “not only failed to match these benefits (despite the animals sleeping just as long), but caused a 50 percent weakening (unwiring) of the brain-cell connections originally formed during learning. In doing so, Ambien-laced sleep became a memory eraser, rather than engraver.” In other words, not only will you forget what you did that night, but you’ll remember less of what you did that day.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that frequent sleeping pill use (daily for 6 months+) has been linked to a 50% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, a disease that causes the degradation of memory. This is of personal interest to me as I found out through my 23andme test that I am a carrier of the APOE4 gene, a gene variation that is linked to early onset Alzheimer’s. If I ever have sleeping troubles in the future, I’m going to try every solution known to man before even considering getting a sleeping pill prescription.

Cancer and car crashes

As if memory loss and Alzheimer’s weren’t bad enough, sleeping poorly (and on sleeping pills) has repercussions that stem beyond just erasing your brain. Here are three key findings from Kripke’s research study on the detrimental effects of long term sleeping pill use, defined as taking them daily for over six months.

Increase in all-cause mortality (death). “Those taking sleeping pills were 4.6 times more likely to die over this short two-and- a-half-year period than those who were not using sleeping pills. Kripke further discovered that the risk of death scaled with the frequency of use. Those individuals classified as heavy users, defined as taking more than 132 pills per year, were 5.3 times more likely to die over the study period than matched control participants who were not using sleeping pills.” In other words, you’re just more likely to die of something.

Cancer. “Individuals taking sleeping pills were 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop cancer within the two-and-a-half-year period of the study than those who were not.” The higher risk of cancer applies both to people who take sleeping pills, as well as people who are sleep deprived. In fact, the link between a link of lack of sleep and cancer is so strong that the World Health Organization recently labeled being a night shift worker a carcinogen (and countries like Denmark are even compensating ex-night shift workers who later developed cancer)

Higher likelihood of car accidents. “Another cause of death linked to sleeping pill use is an increased risk for fatal car accidents. This is most likely caused by the non-restorative sleep such drugs induce and/or the groggy hangover that some suffer, both of which may leave individuals drowsy while driving the next day.” This is not surprising at all, and scary as hell.

Maybe a pill isn’t the best solution

It’s scary to think that over 70 million people in the US have been diagnosed with a sleep disorder and are being prescribed these pills. In light of the damning studies, we might want consider alternatives. I’m not denying that people have trouble sleeping (we’ve all had sleepless nights), but I’m highly skeptical that a pill is the first-line solution.

“Consider that the original Star Wars movies—some of the highest-grossing films of all time—required more than forty years to amass $3 billion in revenue. It took Ambien just twenty-four months to amass $4 billion in sales profit, discounting the black market. That’s a large number, and one I can only imagine influences Big Pharma decision-making at all levels.” – Dr. Walker

Yes, some people need sleeping pills. But many don’t. Many have poor sleeping habits resulting that are reinforced by the unrealistic and unnatural expectations of modern society. Our work culture applauds the executive or politician who gets by with little sleep. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both famously vocal about their 4 hours of sleep. Interestingly, they both went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

CBT-I

If you have trouble sleeping you can start with these 12 steps to getting good sleep. I would add in wearing earplugs, as even a tiny bit of surrounding noise can detract from your sleep quality (especially if you sleep next to someone that snores). I’m not saying this is easy. An addiction to caffeine, for example, will require all sorts of slow habit changes before you can follow those steps. Just take it step by step and take note of how your sleep quality changes.

If you’re on sleeping meds then you might want to seek the help of a professional. One of the most effective method is called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I. It’s quickly being embraced by the medical community. CBT-I entails working with a therapist for several weeks to break bad sleep habits and address anxieties that have been inhibiting sleep.

The treatment seems to be working. In 2016 the American College of Physicians made this conclusion: “CBT-I must be used as the first-line treatment for all individuals with chronic insomnia, not sleeping pills.” Haven’t heard anything from your doctor about it? Well, you’ll probably have to take the lead here and find a doctor that is certified to provide CBT-I treatment. You can find more on CBT-I from the National Sleep Foundation’s site here.

Lastly here a list of resources on getting better sleep that you might find useful:

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