'Ambien tweeting' is becoming a popular excuse — because it actually can cause bizarre side effects

While it may seem as though Ambien is becoming the go-to excuse to ward off the fallout from bizarre tweets, the sleep aid is actually linked to strange behavior.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk told The New York Times he sometimes takes Ambien because it's "often a choice of no sleep or Ambien." But some concerned board members have noted that the drug contributes to Musk's late-night tweeting, the outlet reported, citing a person familiar with the board's thinking.

Musk shocked investors last week when he tweeted he was considering taking the company private at $420 a share and that funding was secured. Roseanne Barr earlier this summer blamed Ambien for her sending a tweet comparing former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape.

Ambien, or zolpidem tartrate, is a type of sedative-hypnotic. It can help people with insomnia sleep, but it's also been linked to some strange incidents. Since being approved in 1992, Ambien's side effects have been well-documented.

Drug manufacturer Sanofi updated Ambien's label in 2008 to detail side effects, including visual and auditory hallucinations, abnormal thinking and behavioral changes like aggressiveness, agitation, bizarre behavior and even sleep driving.

Lawyers have successfully argued defendants should not be liable for car accidents — even those when the driver was under the influence of alcohol or other substances — because they took Ambien.

Tim Boyle | Getty Images
A prescription of bottle of Ambien.

A San Antonio jury granted a flight attendant probation for hitting a mother and two young children with a car. Her blood alcohol content was more than double the legal limit, but her defense argued she had taken two prescription Ambien pills.

Ambien's label says mixing the sedative with other depressants, including alcohol, can increase the risk of side effects like sleep driving.

Sanofi recommends taking Ambien "immediately prior to bed" and cautions people not to engage in "hazardous occupations requiring complete mental alertness or motor coordination such as operating machinery or driving a motor vehicle" after taking the drug.

The drugmaker noted to CNBC on Friday that users should not take the drug unless they're able to stay in bed for a full night — seven to eight hours — before they must be active again.

"Sanofi stands behind the robust clinical data that have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of Ambien since its approval in the US in 1992, representing more than 20 years of real world use and 24 billion nights of patient therapy worldwide," Sanofi said in a statement.

While Ambien clearly can cause some changes, it's not an excuse for everything. When Barr tried to blame Ambien for her tweet, Sanofi struck back, saying, "while all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication."

And with Musk, Ambien isn't the only factor possibly contributing to Musk's well-being. He's under intense pressure from investors and analysts who want to see Tesla meet its production goals. The Times report also said board members are aware that Musk has used unspecified "recreational drugs."

— CNBC's Meg Tirrell contributed to this report

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