an image of a man sleepwalking while sleeping
Last Updated on June 6, 2022 by Peter

Sleepwalking: All You Need To Know About It

Sleepwalking is a human phenomenon that, broadly speaking, is pretty much described by its name. It is described in detail as a complex chain of behavior (walking, running) done while being asleep. Some people might talk while sleepwalking but only in a rambling voice without coherence. Commonly, the sleepwalker will have his eyes open but will lack focus in his sight, gazing through things in front of him.

Early childhood is usually the period where sleepwalking is most prevalent to occur. Rarely does it happen during adolescence and almost never during adulthood. Regardless of the sleepwalker’s age, the biggest fear when facing a sleepwalker is – should you wake him up? It is not dangerous to anyone involved and should be highly considered. This is due to the potential injuries that can occur because falling over or losing balance is very common among sleepwalkers.

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    Why do we sleepwalk?

    Described in early medical literature in the 4th century BC, sleepwalking is a widely known medical condition. Sleepwalking (somnambulism) is occurring mostly during childhood, while the most affected group are children around the age of 11-12. Rarely do adults experience this condition as only about 4% of this demographic is affected.

    an image of a man sleepwalking and sleeping

    Sleep process

    To have an understanding as to why sleepwalking occurs we have to have a light understanding of the sleep process. Sleep is defined by two board categories that are defined by analyzing the changes occurring during the brain wave test (electro encephalogram, EEG). These categories are quite known to most people, REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep cycles. The categories are split into sleep phases – each with its own traits and characteristics.

    Non-REMStage I5-15 minutes, very light sleep, sense of falling is common
    Stage II5-15 minutes, body temperature lowers, heart rate slows down
    Stage III and IV5-15 minutes each, delta sleep, body regenerates
    REMStage V10 minutes initially (up to 1h in cycles after), dreaming, high brain activity, restarts the cycle to stage I

    Stages I-IV are non-REM sleep cycles that last between 90 and 120 minutes. Those stages repeat about 4 to 5 times during the entirety of the sleeping process. Studies suggest that about 15% of children are sleepwalkers (aged 2-6 years) and connected some bodily patterns and behavioral symptoms with it. Such symptoms are, but are not limited to:

    • Sleep terrors
    • Bruxism (grinding of the teeth)
    • Sleep enuresis (bedwetting)
    • Rhythmic movements (head banging, foot tapping)

    When does sleepwalking occur?

    Sleep walking occurs during initial sleep cycles stages. Usually the first and second cycle have sleepwalking involved. As far as the sleep stages are concerned, sleepwalking happens during stages III and IV – during delta sleep (deep sleep). Since this takes in some cases a couple of hours to occur, sleepwalking is very uncommon during naps or shorter sleeping patterns.

    an image of a man sleepwalking while asleep

    How does sleepwalking manifest?

    Sleepwalkers can have a broad range of behavioral patterns during the sleepwalking process. This can range from basic activities like sitting or walking to complex actions like changing clothes and arranging objects. Some sleepwalkers can even be in control of a motor vehicle while in such state. This can happen if the driver takes a long drive during the night and simply transitions into a state of sleep.

    After they wake up, sleepwalkers have no recollection of the events that occurred or their behavior while they were sleepwalking. The episodes vary in length, but usually last from a couple of seconds up to couple tens of minutes. Waking up a sleepwalker should be done in case they are exhibiting behavior that can potentially hurt them (handling sharp objects, running, etc.)

    an image of a woman sleepwalking

    What are the causes of sleepwalking?

    The exact cause for sleepwalking to exist is unknown, but a broad amount of factors do exist that can certainly point to that direction. Such factors are environmental, physiological, medical, as well as genetic.

    From a genetic standpoint, it is 10 times more likely for sleepwalking to occur if a parent has a sleepwalking trait. Environmental factors like sleep deprivation, irregular sleeping patterns, fever and stress are linked to sleepwalking. Medical factors like drugs can also be the culprit. Alcohol, sedatives, neuroleptics, tranquilizers, stimulants and antihistamines are all linked to an increased potential for sleepwalking. Physiologic factors can also chip in to this equation in a very wide variety. Such conditions are but are not limited to:

    • Pregnancy and menstruation
    • Arrhythmias
    • Fever
    • Gastro esophageal reflux (acid reflux)
    • Asthma
    • Seizures
    • Sleep apnea
    • Psychiatric conditions (PTSD, panic attacks, dissociative states)

    How can I treat it?

    Sleepwalking usually isn’t a big deal, at least for most people. The symptoms are light and the behavior in most cases is benign, even amusing to some. If the disorder becomes a nuisance there are steps that you can take to cure it. Getting a healthy sleeping pattern with sufficient amounts of sleep is a great start. That should be followed up with meditative/relaxation exercises, avoiding stimuli prior to bedtime and creating a welcoming sleeping room.

    an image of a man sleeping in a bed

    Conclusion

    Sleeping is something we do for a third of our lives and shouldn’t take lightly. To some people sleepwalking is a manifest of a very unhealthy sleeping lifestyle that can user in a lot of additional medical problems. This is why it is very important to feel satisfied with the quality of your sleep and if your feel like there is room for improvement you should make the extra mile towards that goal

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