When Roseanne Barr attempted to blame Ambien for her racist remarks on Twitter, it wasn’t the first time someone has pointed the finger at the sleep aid.
Barr said she was “Ambien tweeting” when she wrote the remarks that sparked an uproar and ultimately led to the cancellation of her TV show.
Sanofi, the makers of the medication, bristled Wednesday morning at the idea it was the drug’s fault, saying that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
But Ambien can have some strange side effects, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. And it’s been blamed for everything from “sleep eating” to murder.
The FDA warns in its label that “abnormal thinking and behavior changes” have been reported with drugs like Ambien, including “decreased inhibition (e.g. aggressiveness and extroversion that seemed out of character), bizarre behavior, agitation and depersonalization. Visual and auditory hallucinations have been reported.”
The agency also said “complex behaviors such as ‘sleep-driving’ ” have been reported, and the risk increases with using too much Ambien and using it in connection with central nervous system depressants such as alcohol. People who are not fully awake after taking such drugs have also reported behaviors such as “preparing and eating food, making phone calls, or having sex,” the agency said.
While not commenting on Barr’s case, Dr. John Winkelman, chief of the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said Ambien and other medicines in its class “certainly can” have bizarre side effects.
“They produce a state of confusion or delirium in some people, certainly a minority of people,” he said. “It’s going to be more common in people taking it in higher doses or mixing it with other sedatives or taking the medication when not in bed and resisting sleep,” he said.
“If you don’t go to sleep, you can end up in this confused, delirious state,” he said.
People in this state can walk, eat, get on e-mail, or social media. In rare cases, they will leave the house and drive, he said.
At one point, Sanofi cut the dosage for women, he said.
He recommended that people who use the medication “take it in bed, take it at a low dose first to see how you tolerate it and do not combine it with other sedatives,” including alcohol.
In one case that made headlines and drew attention to Ambien’s side effects, in 2006, Patrick Kennedy, a scion of Massachusetts’ legendary Kennedy family who was then a congressman from Rhode Island, slammed his Ford Mustang into a barrier near Capitol Hill. He said he had been disoriented by Ambien and another prescription medication.
In 2012, zolpidem, the generic form of Ambien, was also blamed in a trial in which another Kennedy family member, Kerry Kennedy, the former wife of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, was accused of driving under the influence of a drug, the New York Times reported. In 2014, Kennedy, who said she took it by accident because she mistook it for thyroid medication, was found not guilty.
In 2017, Ambien was also one of four drugs and an active ingredient for marijuana that were in golfer Tiger Woods’s system when he was found asleep behind the wheel of his awkwardly parked car about 15 miles from his home in Florida.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.