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Posts from the ‘Sleep Disorders’ Category

Sleep Talking

Sleep talking, often times accompanying sleepwalking and other sleep disorders, is known as somniloquy. Most sleep talkers are completely unaware that they are speaking in their sleep until informed by a bed partner or housemate.

Sleep talking can be classified as simple mumbling, strange sounds or even long drawn out speeches or conversations. The sleep talker also varies in volume from whispers to shouting. Many sleep talkers’ bed mate (or house mates depending on volume) are disturbed by the noise and suffer from insomnia as consequence.

The condition is more common in males and children, but can affect anyone. 1 Also, episodes can occur in any stage of sleep; however, the lighter the sleep, the more intelligible the content. 1 In stages one and two, individuals may appear to be continuing a conversation from moments before or talk about the day’s events. In stages three and four, the speech may be limited to gibberish and mumbling, but can consist of comprehensible conversation.

Half of children between ages 3 and 10 carry out conversations during their sleep as do about 5 percent of adults. 2 Sudden commencement of sleep talking for the first time may be associated with mental disorders. 1

Normal episodes of sleep talking occur for no longer than 30 seconds; however, the content of the talking can be alarming, erotic and vulgar. 2 Content of sleep talking should be taken lightly as it is associated with no known psychological significance. 3

While sleep talking is thought to be genetic, various circumstances and behaviors can trigger episodes, such as:

  • Drinking alcohol before bed
  • Stress
  • Mental disorders
  • Certain medications

Other symptoms of sleep talking may include:

  • Sleep Terrors
  • Sleepwalking
  • Nocturnal Seizures
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea

While the disorder may be a serious problem for some, it typically does not require treatment. If the disorder is thought to be a side effect of a corresponding sleep disorder, treatment may be necessary. See your doctor if sleep talking is a problem and regularly disrupts sleep.

Bibliography

1. National Sleep Foundation—Sleep Talking; http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/sleep-talking

2. WebMD—Talking in Your Sleep; http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/talking-in-your-sleep

3. Carskadon, Mary A. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993.

Teeth Grinding and Sleep

Bruxism or teeth grinding affects 85 to 90 percent of people during their sleep. 1 Only about 5 percent of those are chronic teeth grinders. Most infants and children grind their teeth when they first come in during teething and when adult teeth come in. 2 Most people are unaware they are engaging in teeth grinding until they are informed by their sleep partner.

Signs of teeth grinding include a dull consistent headache the following morning and jaw or gum soreness. Teeth grinding typically does not disturb the grinder’s sleep, but can be very disruptive to the sleep partner.

Teeth grinding is most likely stress related and, therefore, can be remedied by decreasing stress. This can be done through medication, increasing exercise and getting more sleep. In some cases, teeth grinding is brought on as a side effect from other medication. In such instances, medication should be changed according to your doctor’s orders.

Teeth grinding has the potential to cause serious dental problems such as fracturing, loosening or loss of teeth. Extreme cases of chronic teeth grinding can result in damage to the jaw affecting hearing or even changing the shape of the face. Grinding can wear the teeth down resulting in the need for expensive dental procedures needed to fix the problem. 3

Treatment

Treatment for teeth grinding is limited but effective. Dentists can fit the mouth for a soft plastic mouth guard to prevent damaging the teeth. Mouth guards may become dislodged over time or increase the severity of teeth grinding in some individuals. Splints are similar to mouth guards, but much thinner, harder and more expensive. The reason for teeth grinding may also be crooked teeth, in which case braces and other teeth alignment treatments may correct the problem. 2

Other factors can help prevent teeth grinding such as:

  • Reduce caffeinated beverage and alcohol intake as they tend to increase the severity of teeth grinding. 3
  • Avoid chewing gum as it gets the jaw used to clenching as a natural motion. 3
  • Relax the jaw before bed by holding a warm washcloth to your check in front of the earlobe. 3
  • Train yourself to not clench your teeth. If you find yourself grinding or clenching during the day, place the tip of the tongue in between your teeth in order to train the jaw to relax. 3

Bibliography

1. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

2. Mayo Clinic—Bruxism/Teeth Grinding: Treatments and drugs; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bruxism/ds00337/dsection=treatments-and-drugs

3. WebMD—Teeth Grinding (Bruxism); http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism

Sleep and Depression: An Endless Cycle

A common symptom of many sleep disorders is depression. Those with depression report having difficulty sleeping. This correlation represents that both sleep and depression affect and are affected by each other. It is not certain whether one disorder is more dominant; however, sleep deprivation affects mood and a negative mood affects sleep, making an endless cycle of mood and sleep disorders.

Because sleep disorders are so closely related to depression, misdiagnosis is very common. Misdiagnosis makes treatment difficult and costly as trial and error with expensive medications can add up with little relief from symptoms. This correlation also makes it so that some treatments for depression work for certain sleep disorders such as prescription medication that treat depression and cause drowsiness.

Many of the same neurochemical and physiological processes involved in regulating sleep are also used in regulating mood. 1 Women and older individuals are more likely to experience depression. 2 These groups are also amongst those that report the most difficulty sleeping. Those with depression also commonly report fragmented sleep and early morning awakening before fully rested. 1

Common sleep disorders that list depression as a main symptom include:

  • Narcolepsy
  • Insomnia (chronic and irregular): Those with insomnia are ten times as likely to become depressed. 2
  • Restless legs syndrome: Forty percent of those diagnosed with RLS experience symptoms of depression if a sleep disorder were not already considered. 2
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Those with depression are five times more likely to develop OSA based on a European study; however, with regular use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, both OSA and depression symptoms were suppressed. 2

It is not certain if depression causes sleep disorders or sleep disorders cause depression, but it is clear that the mind is truly affected by sleep deprivation. Because some sleep disorders influence the ability to do certain tasks and can affect activities while awake, it is reasonable to believe that depression could stem from this added difficulty in life. Additionally, it had been shown that depression and related trouble sleeping could be genetically related just as restless legs syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea are thought to be genetic. 1

Studies have also shown that those experiencing symptoms of depression tend to have decreased amount of slow wave sleep (SWS) and increased brain activity during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). 1 Therefore, those with depression experience more dreams.

Though the depth of the connection between sleep and depression is not yet certain, one thing is evident: Do not undervalue sleep. It is vital to well-being and happiness and can make the difference in living a fulfilled life. Taking steps to improve sleep hygiene and sleep environment can help to ease the symptoms of both depression and sleep disorders and stop the endless cycle of sleep and mood disruption.

Bibliography:

1. Carskadon, Mary A. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993.

2. National Sleep Foundation—Depression and Sleep; http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/depression-and-sleep

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder resulting in discomfort, aching or strange sensations in the legs that are only relieved upon moving the legs. 1Insomnia is the major byproduct of RLS and can make staying rested very difficult. The sensations felt in the legs have been described as tingling, itching, creeping and aching. These sensations distract the mind and make sleeping nearly impossible due to lack of comfort.

Symptoms of RLS are most evident in the nighttime, especially when trying to fall asleep. The urge to move the legs can disrupt sleep causing insomnia and daytime drowsiness the following day. Over half of those suffering from RLS symptoms report taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night. 2

Between 5 and 15 percent of the population suffer from restless leg syndrome, although many are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. 2 RLS is commonly diagnosed as simple insomnia or depression as many of the symptoms are similar.

RLS can begin at any age but it more severe and pains last longer as age increases. The peak onset period is around middle age. 1 Additionally, RLS is known to run in families. More than 70 percent of children diagnosed with RLS also had a parent with RLS. 2 RLS is more common in females and those who are pregnant, suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or are anemic are at higher risk. 1

Treatment

Treatment for RLS is typically prescribed medication and relaxation therapy. 1 Walking, massaging the legs and acupressure are a few of the techniques proven to help reduce RLS symptoms. Relaxation techniques such as Yoga and Pilates, especially late in the day can assist in stretching the legs and help to alleviate symptoms. 2 Heat therapy in the form of heat or ice packs or simply a hot bath have also been shown to help with relaxation of muscles and helping to ease symptoms.

Caffeine intake can increase chances of developing RLS and can worsen symptoms if intake is not suppressed. Also, those with low iron levels or anemia may develop RLS and should take actions to increase iron intake.

The best way to combat the symptoms associated with RLS is through relaxing and going through the process to get better sleep overall. This includes making the bedroom quiet, cool and comfortable, not eating close to bedtime and exercising regularly.  Additionally, memory foam mattresses and latex mattresses may help with RLS as they help to reduce pressure points.

Teamed with the many other sleep problems and disorders, especially in adults, individuals suffering from RLS can experience a very difficult time sleeping resulting in lack of focus, lack of attentiveness and onset of depression.

Bibliography

1. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

2. National Sleep Foundation—Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Sleep; http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/restless-legs-syndrome-rls-and-sleep

How Do You Treat Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is the involuntary obstruction of the airway causing difficulty breathing. Many individuals are not diagnosed and believe that they are simply horrible snorers. This is because it is difficult to test for sleep apnea in the typical doctor’s office visit because many of the symptoms must be observed while one sleeps and there are no blood tests for the disorder. 1

There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is the least common of the two and is characterized by the brain failing to send the correct signals to the muscles involved in breathing causing individuals to not breathe for brief periods of time. Obstructive sleep apnea is much more common and is characterized by the airway being narrowed or blocked during sleep.

Many are affected by sleep apnea, and risk of experiencing symptoms increases as individuals get older. Of individuals over the age of 65, 1 in 10 will be affected by sleep apnea. 1

The best way to combat sleep apnea is through weight loss. Around 70 percent of those who have obstructive sleep apnea or snoring are overweight. 2 Weight loss helps with snoring alone, but has also been shown to assist in sleep apnea because of positioning and overall increased health.

Because of this chronic interruption in the sleep cycle, individuals are prone to experiencing all of the negative factors that occur from sleep deprivation. These factors include weight gain, consistent drowsiness and decreased alertness, which can lead to increased stress.

Positional therapy is the concept of training the body to sleep in a different position. Many individuals with sleep apnea report sleeping on their back, which only worsens the snoring. An effective way to combat this is by sewing a tennis ball to the back of your pajama shirt to make sleeping on your back very uncomfortable. Be sure to change your pillow to one suited for your new sleep position.

Surgery on the nasal passages is somewhat effective in treating snoring, however, because it is difficult to determine exactly where the obstruction in the airways occurs, it is not guaranteed to cure individuals of sleep apnea. 2

Oral appliances resemble athletic mouth guards and help push the jaw forward to aid in opening airways. 2 They have been proven to help stop snoring; however, sleep apnea can still occur and go untreated.

For those with moderate to severe sleep apnea, a positive airway pressure (PAP) device is suggested and most widely used. The device is a nose or facial mask that is connected to a machine by a flexible hose that allows constant air flow into the mouth and nose helping to keep airways open.

Sleep apnea can also be treated through elevating the head while still keeping the spine aligned. This can be accomplished through the use of an adjustable bed or inserting a firm pillow below the mattress.

Those with sleep apnea should exercise caution when using alcohol, sleeping pills or other depressants due to the risk of dying because the body cannot be fully aware of when the breathing passage is closed during sleep. Additionally, treating snoring can dilute the warning signs that sleep apnea may be present. Therefore, it is not required to snore in order to have sleep apnea. 2

Bibliography:

1. National Heart Blood and Lung Institute http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sleepapnea/

2. American Sleep Apnea Association http://sleepapnea.org/diagnosis-and-treatment/treatment-options.html

Jet Lag

Jet lag is a phenomenon that occurs when traveling east and west through time zone changes. 1 The effect causes individuals to lose sleep because of change in time schedule and sleep patterns. Jet lag only occurs when traveling east and west because when traveling north and south there are no time zone changes.

Effects of Jet Lag

Symptoms of jet lag can include confusion, daytime drowsiness, lack of alertness and trouble sleeping. Those who are extroverted, not easily stressed, exercise regularly and have a set day to day routine will likely suffer less from jet lag. 2 Traveling to a place multiple time zones away is hard on both the body and the mind, which is why being prepared for such strenuous travel is the best way to combat negative reaction.

Combating Jet Lag

Jet lag can possibly be avoided by taking simple steps to help you body and mind adjust to the new time zone:

  • Choose a flight that allows you to arrive in the early evening, and then go to bed around 10 p.m. This will help your body adjust to the new because you will most likely be tired from traveling as is and staying up for a short period of time should not be too difficult. 1
  • Plan to sit on the side of the plane opposite of the sun while you will be traveling.
  • Drink plenty of water to combat the tendency to become dehydrated due to the dryness of the cabin. 2
  • Practice stretching and walking around to increase circulation on long flights.
  • Bring earplugs or headphones to help block out noises and light that may disrupt adjusting to your destination’s time zone. You may also want to forgo the on-flight meal as it may fall at a strange time in your destination. 2
  • Be sure to ask for or bring your own pillow for the plane and hotel that may offer the comfort of home and aid in the adjustment process.
  • Prepare for jet lag. Five days before you leave, begin to preset your biological clock for your destination: if traveling east, go to bed and wake up earlier each day; if traveling west, go to bed and wake up later each day. 2
  • Change your watch to the time at your destination as soon as you get on your flight.
  • Upon arriving at your hotel set the thermostat at 65 degrees Fahrenheit and request to have a room on a high floor on the street side of the building away from the ice machine, elevators and staircase. 2
  • On your first day in your new location, you should avoid napping and push through the day. Go to bed early that night to ensure you get a full night’s sleep.
  • Do not stay indoors your first day in your new location. Daylight can help to regulate your biological clock and aid in your adjusting to the new environment. 1

Coping with Jet Lag

Taking sleeping pills or melatonin supplements can help with irregularities in sleep routine by helping you to be forcefully adjusted to your destination’s time zone. This method is proven effective, but can come with side effects of using drugs to induce sleep.

Jet lag is an uncomfortable, but manageable when the proper preparation is taken. By focusing on the concept that sleep is the most important thing and not pushing your body and mind to adjust you can rest easy and make the most of your trip.

Bibliography

1. National Sleep Foundation—Jet Lag and Sleep; http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/jet-lag-and-sleep

2. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998. 151

Fighting Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder associated with joint and body pain and tenderness as well as nonrestorative sleep. 1 Fibromyalgia is not technically a sleep disorder, but is characterized by affected individuals’ extreme difficulty with insomnia and problems waking up. Those with fibromyalgia report being woken up by pain and sleep deprivation making their pain worse. Also, those affected tend to feel exhausted from day to day due to waking up throughout the night. While the cause and prevention methods for fibromyalgia are still relatively unknown, treatment is possible and can be successful in controlling fibromyalgia-related pain and complications.

The most disturbing aspect of fibromyalgia is the nonrestorative sleep that results in a nearly constant feeling of exhaustion. 1 Fatigue is brought on because the body and mind rarely have the ability to heal as they would during deep sleep. This exhaustion can lead to severe depression and inability to do simply daily tasks.

Treatment

The best way to combat fibromyalgia is through improving quality of sleep. Sleep recommendations for those suffering from fibromyalgia are similar to those for insomnia. They include things like making the bedroom conducive to rest and avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the afternoon. It is also recommended to keep the bedroom cool at night as hotter temperatures tend to interrupt the sleep cycle. 2 Developing a sleep routine is the best way to insure better and longer sleep. Additionally, regular activity and exercise helps to relax the body when bedtime comes. Exercises proven to help with join problems are low intensity such as walking and underwater aerobics. 3 It has also been recommended that those with fibromyalgia buy a latex or memory foam mattress in order to reduce pressure points causing tossing and turning and joint pain. Additionally, mattresses and pillows that tend to release heat will help with continuous sleep throughout the night.

It is also recommended that individuals with fibromyalgia keep a sleep diary based on what actions they take to fall asleep, how often they wake up and overall tiredness during the day. It may also be helpful to become a part of a support group where they can share success and effective treatments in a positive environment. 2

There are certain medication prescribed to help with the symptoms of fibromyalgia; however, many are not entirely successful on their own. Muscle relaxants and pain killers have been used to combat joint pain. Antidepressants have also been used to improve sleep quality and overall mood. Overall, fibromyalgia weighs heavily on the sleeper whom it affects and can cause major disruptions in his or her life; however, with an effective combination of treatments, the individual can achieve optimal sleep.

Bibliography

1. Carskadon, Mary A. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993.

2. National Sleep Foundation—Pain and Sleep: What is Fibromyalgia? http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/fibromyalgia-and-sleep

3. WebMD—Fibromyalgia and Sleep; http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/ss/slideshow-fibro-coping-tips

Sleep Paralysis

Have you ever woken up unable to speak or move? If so, you are most likely part of the 40 percent of people who have sleep paralysis. 1

Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder that causes the body’s ability to move and speak to be paralyzed while falling asleep or while waking up. The disorder occurs in both men and women and is most often discovered during the teen years. Sleep deprivation is typically the reason people develop sleep paralysis. Additionally, it is thought to run in families and be associated with narcolepsy.

There are two types of sleep paralysis: occurring when falling asleep (hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis) and occurring while waking up (hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis). 1 A “paralyzed” state occurs during REM sleep (when most vivid dreaming occurs), making the body unable to move. True sleep paralysis occurs in the stage between the sleeping and waking states. It is due to the body and mind shifting between REM sleep and NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement). If you wake up before the body shifts from REM (paralyzed sleep) to NREM sleep, you will likely experience sleep paralysis. 2

Sleep paralysis is commonly talked about in folklore and famous plays. While the concept and actualization of immobility and inability to speak is quite frightening, sleep paralysis does not usually last more than a minute at most. One individual recalled being in a state of sleep paralysis for 15 minutes after working a night shift five nights a week for eight months. 2 This further confirms that getting the adequate amount of sleep can benefit the quality of rest you have.

The first term for sleep paralysis was “nightmare” derived from the idea that a creature (called a mare) would come and sit on people in their sleep. Upon awakening, the “victim” would be terrified and unable to move as if something were sitting on his or her chest. This is referred to in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The disorder does not typically require treatment, but can be linked to other disorders that may be treated such as narcolepsy or bipolar disorder. Other treatment methods involve simply improving sleep hygiene by insuring you get the adequate amount of sleep, sleeping in a comfortable environment and watching what you eat or drink before bed.

Bibliography:

1. WebMD—Sleep Paralysis; http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-paralysis?page=2

2. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

How To Tell If You’re An Insomniac

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep difficulties reported in the United States today, as it’s currently estimated that up to 30% of Americans have been diagnosed with some form of the disorder,1 which is characterized by a problem falling and/orstaying asleep.

Some of the tell-tale signs of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking up during the night and having trouble going back to sleep, waking up too early in the morning and feeling tired upon waking.

There are two particular known types of the disorder: primary and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia is a condition that affects people who do not otherwise suffer from any other medical problems. Secondary insomnia is a condition, by contrast, that affects people who do suffer from other ailments, the complications from which cause a person to lose sleep at night. People who’ve been diagnosed with asthma, heart problems, depression, anxiety, or arthritis pain frequently suffer from the secondary category.

An important variable related to insomnia is the amount of time that one can suffer from it. Insomnia is either considered “acute” [short-term] or “chronic” [long-term]. Acute insomnia can last anywhere from just one night up to a few weeks, whereas the chronic variety can, in certain cases, last for several months or even years, occurring some three times a week or more2.

  • Stress: Whether it’s created by your job, schoolwork, or love life, stress can cause anxiety which often keeps you awake at night.
  • Health Conditions: Diagnoses such as depression, asthma, heart problems, restless leg syndrome, cancer, and arthritis pain can all contribute to trouble sleeping.
  • Disturbing Environment: Attempting to rest in a room that’s too noisy, too hot or cold, or that has too much light can affect your sleep.
  • Medications: Those drugs that are prescribed for colds, allergies, high blood pressure, or in the treatment of depression can contribute to sleep loss.
  • Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol: Drinks containing caffeine are well-known stimulants, and consuming coffee, for example, in the late afternoon can keep you from falling asleep at night. The nicotine found in tobacco products is another stimulant which can cause insomnia; and though the sedative effects of alcohol may help you fall asleep, drinking it will prevent deeper stages of sleep and often cause you to awaken in the middle of the night3.
  • Eating Habits: Either ingesting a big meal just before going to bed or eating something that causes your stomach to become unsettled can keep you up at night. Eating too much can cause you to feel uncomfortable in when you lay down, and eating something spicy can cause you to lie awake suffering from indigestion and heartburn.
  • Owning an Uncomfortable Mattress: A worn-out or otherwise uncomfortable mattress can easily keep you awake at night. Those manufactured of spring coils, water beds, and air mattresses can all create both pressure on and stiffness throughout the body. The best remedy is a simple switch to a memory foam mattress, which will increase blood flow and thus create improved circulation… not to mention its unique ability to alleviate pressure by conforming to your unique shape.

If you believe you may have insomnia and would like to find out for certain, the most practical course of action is to seek the opinion of a professional health care provider. An accurate diagnosis of insomnia can typically be detected by a standard physical examination, accompanied by your documented history of medical and sleep problems. In certain instances, the medical examiner may ask to interview your sleep partner, or request that you keep a journal in order to document your sleep habits. Advanced cases may also be referred to professionals who will perform more detailed tests at a sleep center.

Although insomnia is a serious sleep disorder that affects a tremendous number of people every night, you may “rest assured” that it can be both treated and cured– quite often by simply monitoring bedtime habits and making the necessary adjustments. If modest changes to your nightly ritual, etc. do not have the desired effect, however, don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your doctor, who can discuss appropriate alternatives [ranging from a temporary sleep medication prescription to referral to a behavioral therapist] for lasting relief.

1. Vogin, Gary D. M.D.To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: All about Insomnia. http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50772. Last reviewed, January 30, 2005. 1996-2005. Retrieved on June 8, 2009.

2. WebMD. What is Insomnia?http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/insomnia. Retrieved on June 8, 2009.

3. MayoClinic.com. Insomniahttp://www.mayoclinic.com/health/insomnia/DS00187. Retrieved on June 8, 2009.

Why Do People Sleepwalk?

Watching a person sleepwalk must be one of the most eerie events you could ever experience.  Until I witnessed it myself, I thought sleepwalking was just something that happened on Saturday morning cartoons.  My perception of the phenomenon was changed forever when I was just a kid, and I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of our doorbell ringing. I cautiously opened my bedroom door and peered down both ends of our hallway, scared that it could be someone dangerous. My mom and dad followed soon after, wondering what on earth I was up to.  “Nothing,” I remember saying. “I think someone’s at the door.”  We crept together in alarm toward the front door, and then we suddenly heard a loud knock– which really scared me half to death.  Angered, my dad quickly swung open the door… only to find my kid sister standing there in her pajamas. “ASHLEY! What are you doing??” came my father’s booming voice.  My poor sister just stood there, looking terribly confused.  “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she insisted, and started to cry.  My Dad was shocked to find his baby girl outside so late at night. He was really starting to get upset when my mom finally suggested that Ashley had perhaps been sleepwalking. Apparently, my little sister had wandered outside while she was asleep, and had ended up locking herself out of the house.  She finally woke up only because it was so cold!

This story presents an accurate description of what usually happens when a sleep walker is awakened, as feelings of disorientation and utter confusion are typical after-effects from this sort of incidents.  But what happens during the rest of the process? What could make certain people suddenly arise and take a midnight stroll– all while fast asleep?  Researchers everywhere are fascinated by this question, and are at last beginning to make some headway in the research of the underlying causes.

Sleepwalking is a particular disorder that occurs when the normal physiological functions of the body are active at what would normally be considered “inappropriate” times1. In fact, people who sleep walk have been found performing an intriguingly wide range of activities, from simply raising upright in bed to attempting to cook a complete meal in the kitchen.  The unusual occurrence originates during the sleep cycle period known as Non-Rapid Eye Movement, or NREM.  This is the deepest portion of sleep that people experience every night, and is the period that proceeds dreaming.  Because NREM activity occurs more frequently early in life, children are often much more susceptible to sleepwalking events.  Though the reason this is true is still unknown, one thing that’s quite clear is that the condition is genetically passed along from one generation to the next.

Although the mysteries behind sleepwalking are as yet unsolved, there are some interesting theories that are worth talking about.  Some research, for example, suggests that fatigue contributes to the level of frequency at which sleepwalking occurs.  Other researchers have suggested that particular chemicals are released during NREM which tell your brain to perform normal daytime functions.  In a recent study at the University of Montreal, 40 participants were chosen to be observed during two periods of sleep. The first period was referred to as “baseline” sleep which consisted of a normal, healthy night’s rest.  The next period, however, was observed after those in the study were kept awake and monitored for 25 hours.  Out of said 40 participants, fully 32 showed such signs of abnormal activity from playing with the bed sheets to actually attempting to jump over the rails of the bed.  If you’re someone, therefore, who is known to sleepwalk, do make sure you are getting plenty of rest, and this may go a long way to alleviate the condition.

Oftentimes, this “mixed state” of being exists when someone is simply aroused during their sleep mode.  And, to contribute to the idea that fatigue leads to sleepwalking, those that suffer from sleep deprivation disorders [such as insomnia and sleep apnea] are also known to sleepwalk.  A few simple solutions that are worth a try should you find yourself or someone you love having difficulty keeping from nighttime wanderings include getting to bed earlier, watching what you consume in the evening, and avoiding disturbances that could arouse consciousness during the restful state.

Finally, be aware that the conventional wisdom suggesting that awakening a sleepwalker has permanent effects which can be harmful to one’s well being is only a myth.  The worst it could do, in fact, is embarrass the one who’s doing it… and waking them up may help save you from disturbing late-night doorbell rings.

1. Navarro, Carlos. Scientific American Mind. Why Do Some People Sleepwalk?.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-do-some-people-sleepwalk. Retrieved on June 10, 2009.