Sleepwalking affects nearly a third of us—here’s what causes it


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Common sense would tell you that being asleep and being awake are mutually exclusive. But in the case of sleepwalking—somnambulism, if you’re nasty— they’re not. Sleepwalking is a condition that affects nearly 30 percent of us, according to a 2012 study. Let that sink in: 30 percent.

Backing up for a sec: Sleepwalking is a type of parasomnia, which is a fancy way of saying “abnormal things that happen in your sleep.” And aside from sleepwalking, the disorder is also characterized by talking, disorientation, and even leaving the house and driving, says Terry Cralle, RN and certified clinical sleep educator with The Better Sleep Council, a consumer education organization of leaders and experts in the mattress industryIt’s most common in children, according to the Mayo Clinic, although adults can be affected, too.

Sleepwalking generally happens during deep, non-REM sleep, Cralle says. There are four phases of sleep that you cycle through while you snooze. REM—standing for rapid eye movement—is the phase where most of your dreaming occurs. Sleepwalking generally occurs during the third phase of sleep, right before REM, says Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach (someone who works with people to improve their sleep habits and routines) and co-founder of Tuck.com.

This is definitely a worrisome thing. Obviously, you’re walking around in your sleep (and could potentially hurt yourself!).  And sleepwalkers typically don’t remember their sleepwalking episodes. Such was the case with one woman, who went on an entire motorcycle ride in her sleep. Or the man who allegedly murdered a family in his sleep (he was acquitted). Most cases, thankfully, aren’t as serious as that, but the disorder also messes with your circadian rhythm, says Fish, and seriously disrupts your healthy sleep cycle—meaning your body isn’t recharging the way it’s supposed to.

woman sitting up in bed sleepwalking
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But what causes sleepwalking?

Even though sleepwalking is relatively common, there’s no cut-and-dry answer to the question. A variety of factors can influence sleepwalking, though, according to Fish and Cralle:

  1. Genetics
  2. Sleep deprivation
  3. Stress (Note: lol of course)
  4. Alcohol
  5. Mental health disorders (one study found that people taking SSRIs were more likely to be sleepwalkers; same goes for people with obsessive compulsive disorder and major depressive disorder who weren’t taking medications)
  6. Changes in your sleep routine

Okay, so you discover that you’re one of the approximately 30 percent of people who sleepwalk, and you’ve been taking romps around your apartment while you’re asleep. Cool. What now? “Sleepwalking may seem harmless or even comical, but if it persists, the sleepwalker should seek the help of a doctor,” Fish says, especially if it happens once a week or more, causes major sleep disruption, or escalates to dangerous activities.

One strategy to help with sleepwalking is called “anticipatory awakenings.” However, this practice is most often targeted toward children, Fish says. “If a child had nightmares or sleep walks at roughly the same time each night, a parent can go in to their bedroom 10-15 minutes prior to the normal time of the event and nudge the child to disrupt their sleeping,” he says. However, he notes that it’s definitely not an exact science and he recommends seeing your doctor before trying this.

Cralle adds that eliminating or limiting alcohol can help with sleepwalking in adults. She adds that consistently upping your snooze time by 30-60 minutes a night can also be beneficial, as lack of sleep can be attributed to stress, which can cause sleepwalking, which disrupts your sleep… you get the idea. It’s a cycle.

One last note: It’s a common misconception that you should never wake a sleepwalker because they might get confused, violent, or lash out, Cralle says. But realistically, only two percent of sleepwalkers will react in this way.  You should definitely wake them up because they could hurt themselves. But try and do it gently without touching them, says Fish, since that can be super startling. If you do need to touch them, do it gently and try to guide them back to bed, Fish says. Hopefully they’ll be back to counting sheep (sans chasing after them) in no time.

Ready to take your bedtime routine to the next level? Try one of these expert-approved tips for deeper sleep, then check out the 5 foods you should never eat before snoozing.

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