Sleep is supposed to see us in blissful slumber, unaware of the conscious world as our bodies and minds work hard to repair muscles and tissues and consolidate memory. But for some people, sleep is a different – and something unsettling – story. You’ve probably heard of common sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome (RLS) and sleep apnea. But what about disorders where people sleep for days or hear loud noises when nobody else does? Or where they compulsively eat while sleepwalking? These are conditions that seem drawn from strange tales where the truth is stranger than fiction!
As nasty as the name is, exploding head syndrome or EHS doesn’t actually cause the head to explode – thankfully! Rather, sufferers are awoken by loud noises just as they’re beginning to fall asleep or wake up. These noises may resemble explosions, gunshots, thunder, fireworks or doors slamming shut. Some may see flashes of light and experience a racing heart. While the condition isn’t dangerous, it can lead to anxiety that may cause psychological problems in the long run. The fear of being woken by a loud noise may also lead to the development of sleep-onset insomnia.
No one knows what brings on EHS but it’s believed to happen during the transition between wakefulness and sleep. One theory suggests a miscommunication in the reticular formation of the brainstem, which is responsible for regulating transitions between wakefulness and sleep.
Unless you’ve pulled an all-nighter or haven’t slept well the previous night, you probably don’t feel sleepy during the day. At least, not so sleepy that you just fall asleep. For people with narcolepsy, daytime drowsiness and sleep attacks are a way of life. Staying awake is difficult no matter what activity they’re engaged in. Some people have it worse if the disorder is accompanied by cataplexy. It’s a condition characterized by a sudden loss of muscle control that’s triggered by strong emotions like laughter or crying.
It’s not known what causes narcolepsy and there’s no cure but people with the condition have low levels of the neuropeptide, hypocretin, which regulates wakefulness and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Interestingly, researchers also discovered a link between a certain H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine – Pandemrix – and narcolepsy. In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, they found that a nuclear protein contained in the H1N1 virus and Pandemrix blocked a hypocretin receptor that keeps people awake. The vaccine was used in Europe during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and only affected those with a specific genetic makeup.
The thought of sleeping a couple of extra hours is good news for anyone. But imagine sleeping for as many as 20 hours in a day for several days or weeks – sort of like hibernation. It doesn’t exactly sound fun. Kleine Levin Syndrome (KLS), also called Sleeping Beauty syndrome, is a disorder where excessive sleep episodes can last for many hours. The symptoms can go on for days and maybe even weeks. These episodes suddenly come on after years of dormancy. Sufferers are difficult to wake up and when they do wake, they display abnormal behavior like disorientation, hallucinations and binge eating. They don’t show evidence of dysfunction in between these periods of excessive sleep.
The underlying cause of KLS isn’t known but it’s theorized that it could be due to malfunction of the area of the brain that controls sleep and appetite. It’s also believed that it could be due to infections or head trauma although none of these suggestions have been proven.
Binge eating is never a good idea but imagine doing it while asleep. Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a parasomnia that involves binge eating while asleep. Sufferers may be partially aware of their actions or they may not. They usually don’t remember binging the next day.
While SRED may not sound dangerous, it can be a safety risk because sufferers may injure themselves while preparing food while in a state of sleep. Over time, they may gain weight because most of the food consumed is typically high in calories. The associated embarrassment and/or shame of having the disorder may also lead to depression and may even compel them to over-exercise in an effort to control weight.
The cause of SRED is not known but it occurs more often in people who sleepwalk. Narcolepsy, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS), mental health issues and certain medications are a few risk factors.
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Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a stage of sleep where dreams are vivid, the heart beats faster and the eyes move rapidly. The muscles of the body become paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams. However, in REM sleep behavior disorder, the body moves as sufferers enact their dreams. They may also sleepwalk, scream, shout and thrash about. The obvious danger is that there’s a high risk of injury, not only to those who have the disorder but to their sleeping partners.
Like the disorders mentioned here, it’s not known what exactly causes REM sleep behavior disorder. However, the nerve pathways that keep muscles from moving during sleep don’t work, which is why it’s possible to physically act out dreams. The disorder may also accompany neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and narcolepsy and may occur with some medications.
These aren’t the only strange sleep disorders out there; there are more that will have you teetering between wonder and eeriness! Sleep paralysis where you’re temporarily unable to move/speak when falling asleep or waking up; Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome where the circadian rhythm isn’t in sync with the 24-hour cycle; irregular sleep-wake syndrome where numerous naps are taken throughout the 24-hour period; and sleep sex or sexsomnia where individuals engage in sex during non-REM (NREM) sleep – there’s a whole world of mysterious conditions that we don’t really know much about but they are truly astonishing!