Sleepwalking or somnambulism can seem like something out of a movie. There’s a fascination attached to it, and while it may seem mysterious, it’s not uncommon. The Stanford University School of Medicine in 2012 said that 3.6 percent of American adults were prone to sleepwalking. That’s upwards of 8.4 million people. Meanwhile, a 2004 Sleep in America poll conducted by the National Sleep Association reported that 1 percent of pre-school children and 2 percent of school-aged children sleepwalk a few nights a week. But what exactly causes it and is there a way to treat it? Let’s take a look.
Sleepwalking is a parasomnia, which is a sleep disorder that involves abnormal behavior and movements. During sleep, you cycle through various sleep stages – N1, N2, N3, and REM. These consist of non-REM or NREM sleep (N1, N2, N3 deep sleep) and REM sleep. In NREM sleep, the body is at work repairing tissues, supplying blood to muscles, and releasing hormones necessary for growth and development. However, while the body is active, the brain isn’t. You don’t really dream in these deep sleep stages, and even if you do, you won’t be able to remember much upon waking. In REM sleep, your body becomes inactive, but your brain starts working. You dream vividly and are able to recall it if you wake up soon after.
Sleepwalking occurs during the deepest stages of sleep – stage 3 and 4. The body is active although the brain quiets down, which explains why sleepwalkers become disoriented and can’t remember their actions when they’re woken up. It’s not known why people sleepwalk, but it could be that the body hasn’t fully quietened down during sleep and something rouses the brain from its deep sleep state. Sleepwalkers are in a transition of sorts between sleep and wakefulness.
Children sleepwalk more than adults but they usually outgrow it when they grow up. Boys tend to sleepwalk more than girls too. It’s believed that children’s brains aren’t mature enough to have a clear sleep-wake cycle. It’s also believed that children spend more time in deep sleep, which is when the brain is basically inactive but the body is active.
You may have heard the saying that you shouldn’t wake a sleepwalker as it can cause a shock or a heart attack. This isn’t true, but it’s best not to as they could injure themselves in a fall or something similar. What you can do is guide them back to bed.
Sleepwalking presents itself in several ways. Sleepwalkers may sit up in bed, get out of bed and wander around, and have a glassy-eyed expression. They may not speak when spoken to, be disoriented when woken, and not remember that they sleepwalked. In more extreme cases, they may leave the house, drive, and engage in sex without being aware of it. They may also become violent.
It’s not clear exactly why sleepwalking happens, but there are risk factors that increase the likelihood such as those given below. It can also happen when inebriated, when taking certain medications, and due to psychiatric disorders. Stress and fatigue can also contribute.
A lack of sleep or interrupted sleep is another risk factor for sleepwalking. The University of Montreal conducted a study on 40 suspected sleepwalkers who had their baseline sleep patterns monitored. They were then kept awake for 25 hours and allowed recovery sleep the next morning. Their behavior was videotaped. During baselines sleep, half of them demonstrated about 32 behavioral episodes. However, during recovery sleep 90 of them exhibited 92 behavioral episodes. These episodes ranged from playing with bed sheets to attempting to jump over bed rails. The study also found that sleepwalkers had trouble transitioning from one sleep stage to another.
Sleepwalking can be hereditary, and there’s a higher chance of children sleepwalking if their parents do/did it. A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that the prevalence of childhood sleepwalking is 47.4 percent if children have a parent with a history of sleepwalking. This is in comparison to 22.5 percent for children who don’t have a parental history of sleepwalking.
Illnesses, sleep/breathing disorders, and fever are said to increase the risk of sleepwalking. This could be because they place undue stress on the body that manifests during sleep as disorders like sleepwalking. In the case of sleep/breathing disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) where you’re deprived of oxygen, your body is roused to try to trigger muscles that help you breathe. If motor functions are activated at this time, you could end up sleepwalking.
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Sleepwalking caused by an underlying medical condition can be addressed by treating the said condition. If it’s the medication that’s likely the problem, you should speak to your doctor who can prescribe something that doesn’t trigger sleepwalking. If it’s stress and fatigue, relaxation techniques and getting enough rest may help manage it. In many cases, sleepwalking can be treated with proper sleep hygiene. Here are a few tips that can help.
Expose yourself to natural light and darkness to reset your circadian rhythm if you tend to sleep and wake up at different hours. You should exercise regularly too as it reduces insomnia and sleep complaints. It also regulates mood, and you’re more likely to fall asleep when you’re less stressed.
Another thing you can do is to unwind before bed to set the stage for sleep. It could be anything that helps you relax like taking a warm bath, reading a pleasant book, listening to soothing music, journaling, etc. Try to do it each night, so your mind and body associate the activity with relaxation and sleep. A clean, clutter-free bedroom can also help you feel less anxious and stressed.
Using a well-designed mattress is just as important for better sleep; otherwise, you’ll toss and turn at night. Nuvanna aims to promote sleep by targeting disruptors with the help of three unique layers. It’s been created by a mattress scientist with over 20 years of experience, and the result is a mattress that has the right balance of comfort and support.
We still have miles to go before we understand the mystery of sleepwalking. But for those who experience it often, the important question is whether it can be treated. While there may not be a specific treatment, the good news is that it can be reduced and even eliminated. Good sleep habits, staying away from sleep-disturbing stimulants like caffeine, addressing risk factors like medical conditions and sleep disorders, etc. are all part of the solution.