Does Ambien Have Some Intense Side Effects? Yes, but They Don’t Include Racism

Call it the Ambien alibi: After tweeting some extremely racist and offensive remarks about Valerie Jarrett, a former Obama White House aide, earlier this week, Roseanne Barr is now blaming her inexcusable comments on the common sleep aid Ambien.

The now-deleted tweet read: “guys I did something unforgiveable [sic] so do not defend me. It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien-tweeting-it was memorial day too-i went 2 far & do not want it defended-it was egregious Indefensible,” she wrote. “I made a mistake I wish I hadn’t but… don’t defend it please. ty,” People reported.

Not surprisingly, this has elicited plenty of responses on Twitter and elsewhere, mostly focusing on the fact that whether or not she was on Ambien, her comments and intention were still rooted in racism — which does not happen to be one of the side effects of the drug.

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In fact, Sanofi, one of the pharmaceutical companies that makes Ambien, chimed in on Twitter writing: "People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world. While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication."

So, what are the side effects of Ambien? We spoke with a few doctors to find out if Barr's Ambien defense holds up.

The actual side effects of Ambien

Ambien is the brand name of the drug zolpidem, a sedative used to treat insomnia, Dr. David Belk, an internal medicine physician, tells SheKnows. In short, Ambien affects people in ways similar to other common hypnotics and antianxiety drugs, such as Valium or Ativan, all of which have side effects that can be very similar to those of alcohol, Belk explains.

According to Belk, some of the known side effects of Ambien include excessive sedation, confusion and disorientation, lack of motor coordination, slow response times, delayed reflex reactions, dizziness, hallucinations, impaired judgment and aggression.

Like any drug, Ambien affects everyone differently; not everyone who takes it falls asleep.

"If it doesn’t actually put you to sleep, some side effects could be finding yourself in a halfway state of being awake and sleeping," Dr. Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, tells SheKnows. These could include unusual behaviors like sleepwalking, sleep-talking, performing certain activities, making food, calling people or ordering products online. Then, when you become fully awake, some people have amnesia about these things and no recollection whatsoever of having done them, he adds.

But what's definitely not a side effect of Ambien? Racism.

Based on the known side effects, Belk says that "no one could say for sure" that a person who has taken Ambien couldn't send out a racist tweet any more than a person who is drunk might do so. "That said, I can't find any report of anyone acting this way simply because they took zolpidem, nor do I think it would matter much," he notes. "After all, if Roseanne had claimed that she only sent out that tweet because she drank too much that night, would we accept that excuse?"

So, does Barr's Ambien alibi have legs at all?

According to psychiatrist Dr. Alex Dimitriu, if Barr took Ambien anytime within four to five hours (or possibly longer) before the tweet, it is possible that her behavior may have been influenced by the drug. He says it's not uncommon for people to forget what they are doing after taking the medication, especially when they do not successfully go to sleep.

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"Ambien can cause disinhibition — in other words causing people to do things without thinking through the consequences," Masand explains. "Due to this, the only thing Ambien likely did to Roseanne was lower or remove her inhibition and allow her to reveal her true feelings without giving it a second thought. But to try and blame her racist remarks on the medication itself is unfounded."

So, playing fast and loose with Twitter is one thing, but the racism is all her.

"The alibi of being under the influence of Ambien or zolpidem does not stand," Dr. Niket Sonpal, the associate program director of the internal medicine residency at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn, tells SheKnows. "It would not change her feelings or opinions on a specific topic."

Is Barr more affected by the drug because she's a woman? Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, tells SheKnows that women are more prone to side effects than men because we metabolize the drug more slowly than they do, and for this reason, it is generally recommended that women take a smaller dose. But again, not an excuse for racism.

A popular defense

Barr is hardly the first famous person to use Ambien as an alibi for questionable decision-making. Not one, but two members of the Kennedy family have blamed the sleeping pill for car crashes. The first happened in 2006, when then-Congressperson Robert Kennedy (son of Sen. Ted Kennedy) said that taking Ambien and an anti-nausea drug caused him to crash his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill, CNN reported. Then, in July 2012, Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy) said that she had inadvertently taken Ambien instead of her thyroid medication right before getting into a car accident, CNN also reported.

Similarly, Ambien (along with Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax and THC) was found in Tiger Woods' system after his DUI arrest in 2017, though the police officers who pulled him over initially thought he had been drinking alcohol, People reported.

In 2017, Elon Musk sent a barrage of odd tweets including comments about vintage records, being 500 years old and his seven-step facial treatment, Mashable reported. Musk later conceded in another message that "tweeting on Ambien isn't wise."

Back in March 2018, Sean Penn also blamed Ambien for his strange behavior during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which included looking lethargic and disheveled and smoking two cigarettes, People reported.

And it's not just celebrities: An entire section of Reddit is devoted to "things you did on Ambien," New York Magazine reported in 2017. These include building a bathroom cabinet with no memory of doing so, having a dream in which Kid Cudi writes the Declaration of Independence whilst sitting on a piano made of cherries and reorganizing a kitchen.

But this goes beyond tabloid fodder: the Ambien alibi can end up preventing people from getting the treatment they need.

"It is a real problem when celebrities blame a medication that many people need and benefit from for mental health purposes because it frightens people using the medication, sometimes a medication they really need," Saltz adds. "Many people won’t be reassured by a psychiatrist telling them that this purported 'side effect' is untrue."

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