Ambien Linked to 'Sleep Eating'

Rare Cases of Unconscious Eating and Cooking Seen in Patients Using Sleeping Pill

From the WebMD Archives

March 15, 2006 - New reports appear to confirm weird behavior in patients taking Ambien, the world's most popular sleeping pill.

Perhaps the strangest of these behaviors is sleep eating. It was first reported in 2002 by Michael H. Silber, MD, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorder Center. Silber is the president-elect of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

"What happens is the patients get out of bed, walk to the kitchen, prepare food -- often sloppily, and often with strange, high-calorie ingredients," Silber tells WebMD. "They have microwave food sometimes. They eat in a very sloppy way, either in the kitchen or after taking the food back to bed. And they have no memory of it. They wake to find a mess in the kitchen or crumbs in the bed."

In each case, Silber says, the patient took Ambien as prescribed. At the time of the 2002 report, Silber had seen no more than five cases. He now has seen some 20 cases of sleep eating in patients who took Ambien as directed.

"It could be injurious -- but I have not had anyone who set the kitchen on fire," Silber says. "The most important thing is the severe embarrassment and discomfort these patients experience. And some put on a lot of weight due to high-caloric sleep eating. We have some patients who have had it happen often -- in one patient, more than once a night."

Sleep-Related Eating Disorder

New interest in this rare, strange side effect of Ambien has been spurred by recent New York Times articles. The articles cite recent studies by Carlos H. Schenck, MD, and colleagues at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. Schenck told the Times that he thinks thousands of U.S. Ambien users experience sleep-related eating disorders.

Sleep eating isn't a new phenomenon. It's a rare sleep problem called sleep-related eating disorder. It may be related to an eating problem called nocturnal eating disorder, in which people fully wake up, get out of bed fully conscious, and binge eat.

"Sleep-related eating disorder happens during sleep, with no memory of the event. Nocturnal eating disorder is when people wake up hungry and, with full memory and consciousness, begin to eat," Silber says. "We have had people with nocturnal eating disorder who were put on Ambien, and they converted to nocturnal sleep disorder. There may be a continuum, but that has not been well explored."