Sleeping pills are notorious for causing people to do weird things in their sleep, and apparently Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are no exception. Teigen tweeted on Tuesday that the couple had an odd experience the morning after she took a sleeping pill.
“I took a sleeping pill (consult your doctor) and john and I woke up covered in chewed gum,” she wrote.
Fans replied with their own sleeping pill stories. “My mom woke with a sheet cake in her lap. When I went to bed there was no cake in the house. Or cake mix. She made a cake from scratch and took it to bed,” one person wrote. “I once took a sleeping pill and woke up with a garbage can filled with water at the foot of my bed and no memory of that adventure,” another said. “At least you didn’t book a 4-day vacation at a luxe spa for your entire family…although we did have a great time!” another shared.
Sleepwalking and doing other activities while you're asleep are known to be potential side effects when taking prescription sleeping pills.
In fact, the website for Ambien (zolpidem) specifically warns that the drug can have “serious side effects” including “sleep-walking or doing other activities when you are asleep like eating, talking, having sex, or driving a car.” Additionally, the labeling information for Lunesta (eszopiclone) also warns about “complex behaviors” like “sleep-driving,” noting that patients have also reported preparing and eating food and making phone calls while sleeping.
These things do happen, and probably more often than you’d think. “So many people describe these bizarre events,” board-certified sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, tells SELF. “We’ve got a list a mile long. They’d be incredible if they weren’t terrifying.” Dr. Winter has had patients, for example, who have eaten fistfuls of chocolate or brown sugar in their sleep and were shocked to wake up to a total mess in the kitchen.
“People can go to the fridge, grab a stick of butter, and eat it,” Rita Aouad, M.D., a sleep medicine expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. “Some people have even recorded family members cooking an entire meal while on a sleeping pill. Exactly why this happens, we’re not completely sure.”
But it's probably not surprising that if you have a history of parasomnias—unusual behavior when you’re sleeping, like sleepwalking or sleep-eating—you shouldn’t take a sleeping pill since you're already at a higher likelihood of experiencing those behaviors, Dr. Aouad says. And we know that mixing these medications with other substances, such as alcohol, can make issues during sleep more likely.
Every sleeping pill is a little different, but they all work in a similar way.
Prescription sleeping pills are designed to treat insomnia, a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep or can cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep, per the Mayo Clinic.
The most common prescription sleeping pills (including zoplidem and eszopiclone) work on receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in your central nervous system. GABA is heavily involved in regulating your level of alertness, Jamie Alan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells SELF. And because these drugs alter the function of GABA receptors, they cause a hypnotic effect that allows you to fall asleep more easily, she explains.
Although experts don't know exactly why sleepwalking and other weird behaviors might happen while you're asleep, there are some theories. For one thing, this type of drug can cause retrograde amnesia, a condition in which you don't remember things after they happen, Alan says. So, it might be that people are awoken at some point during the night (or awoken into a different stage of sleep), do something relatively normal, and simply don't remember why they did it. In that case, the drug isn't necessarily causing the weird behavior, it's just making it difficult to remember why or how you did it.
Prescription sleeping pills can definitely be helpful in certain situations, but they aren't recommended for long-term treatment. Luckily, there are some alternatives.
According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors don’t recommend using prescription sleep medications for more than a few weeks. “A sleeping pill is not treating your insomnia,” Dr. Winter points out. “It’s sedating you to sleep at night."
For more long-term help, you'll need to make some larger changes to your life. That might include seriously reducing your stress levels, changing other medications you're taking that might be keeping you up, or even taking part in specialized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
This type of therapy can help you control or get rid of negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake, the Mayo Clinic explains, and it can be as effective (or even more effective) than taking medications. For instance, it can help you recognize and work through that negative cycle of worrying so much about sleep that you can't actually get to sleep.
On top of that, CBT often includes training in basic sleep hygiene practices, such as setting a consistent bedtime and wake time, avoiding naps, using relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety at bedtime, trying to stay awake rather than fall asleep when you get into bed (in an effort to reduce the worry and anxiety about being able to get to sleep), and light therapy to try to help you stay up later and stay in bed later.
So, if you're consistently having a hard time getting good quality sleep, talk to your doctor. There are many things they can do to help you, and that may or may not include prescription medication.