Maybe you haven't done it since you were a child, or maybe you've never done it at all. Maybe you woke up in the middle of the night in your kitchen, with no recollection of how you got there. Maybe your significant other has noticed you wandering the house, acting strange and looking glassy-eyed after you were supposed to be sleeping. If any of this sounds familiar to you, you've probably experienced sleepwalking at some point. Sleepwalking is something that can affect many different people, from kids to adults, at any point in their lives. There are numerous reasons why people sleepwalk, ranging from health conditions to medications to stress and more. Let's take a look at some of the questions surrounding sleepwalking and find out what it means for your health.
What is sleepwalking?
The National Sleep Foundation categorizes sleepwalking as a type of “parasomnia,” or an abnormality that sometimes happens to people during sleep. Sleepwalking is typically not a serious condition and is something that goes away after time, if it happens when you're a child, or it can stop after remedying any of the various factors that may contribute to it. People who sleepwalk typically do so during non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is usually in the early part of your sleep cycle. However, sleepwalking can also happen later on in your sleep, during REM, which often occurs closer to morning. Walking, wandering or performing other complicated actions in your sleep happens because your brain is neither fully awake nor fully asleep, but in between the two states. The majority of people who sleepwalk don't remember ever doing so, but there are some people who can recall their actions while unconscious. Many people who sleepwalk do harmless, minor things while unaware, like simply wandering to another room of the house or talking senselessly. However, some sleepwalkers can do major, potentially dangerous things, in their sleep like leaving the house and even getting in the car and driving somewhere while unconscious—something that is serious and can result in injury to the sleepwalker and even others.
Why do people sleepwalk?
Sleepwalking often runs in families and is genetically based, which means that if either of your parents had it, there is a good likelihood that you will experience sleepwalking as well. However, sleepwalking can also be triggered by things like stress, sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, depression, anxiety, alcohol, certain medications, seizure disorders and other health conditions. A 2012 study in the journal Neurology indicates that participants who had depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder were more than twice as likely to sleepwalk than those who had neither psychological condition. Additionally, people who use SSRI antidepressants, over-the-counter sleep aids, or have an alcohol dependency are also at an increased risk of experiencing sleepwalking.
Is it really bad to wake a sleepwalker?
The fear that waking a sleepwalker will be traumatizing or do irreversible damage is mostly unfounded. Sometimes it's better to wake the sleepwalker in order to prevent them from injuring themselves. Other times, gently guiding a sleepwalker back to bed can be effective. Most often, the worse thing that happens after waking a sleepwalker is they become disoriented, frustrated and possibly aggressive due to confusion.
How common is sleepwalking?
While sleepwalking is often regarded as a sleep disorder that affects children more than adults, which research also confirms, there is an overwhelming number of adults who sleepwalk as well. Stanford University School of Medicine reports that around 3.6 percent, or about 8.4 million, of U.S. adults are sleepwalkers.
What are some ways to deal with sleepwalking?
While occasionally waking up on the couch without remembering how you got there is not typically something to be alarmed about, frequent and severe bouts of sleepwalking should be discussed with your doctor. Since sleepwalking is often spurred by underlying factors, it's important to address these problems. Managing stress can be beneficial in helping to keep your mind and body calm and less likely to experience sleep disturbances. Additionally, since sleepwalking often occurs due to a lack of restful, sufficient sleep, it's essential to keep a normal sleep schedule. Other seemingly simple changes that can improve your sleep are reducing caffeine intake before bed, avoiding electronic use and alcohol at night and regularly exercising during the day. Natural supplements to promote healthy sleep can also have positive effects if your sleepwalking is related to insomnia, fatigue or tiredness.
Healthy sleep plays a crucial role in fostering great overall health. If you're an adult experiencing sleepwalking, or if you know someone who sleepwalks and you have concerns, talk to a doctor.
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