The condition of sleepwalking, formally known as somnambulism, is estimated to affect up to 15% of the general population. And although 1 in 3 people are likely to experience it at some point in their lives, most of us are still unsure what the condition really entails . . . or how to deal with it.
Introduction to sleepwalking
The disorder of sleepwalking is part of the parasomnia family, a group of sleep disorders relating to unusual nocturnal feelings or behaviours during sleep. It typically occurs during the deepest parts of sleep, this is usually the first few hours.
The disorder can occur at any time and at any age, though it is most common amongst children. People suffering from depression are also thought to be three and a half times more likely to experience the condition and people with OCD are four times more likely.
Primary symptoms include:
- Little or no memory of the event
- Inappropriate behaviour
- Screaming during the episode
- Difficulty being brought out of the episode
Why do we sleepwalk?
The exact causes of sleepwalking remain unknown, but certain triggers have been closely linked to the condition:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep deprivation
- The use of recreational drugs
- Consuming alcohol
- Going to bed with a full bladder
- Genetic links
- Some medications i.e. hypnotics
The science behind sleepwalking
Scientists have found strong evidence linking sleepwalking and hormone activity. Similarly to most parasomnia conditions, sleepwalking is induced when particular physiological systems or hormones become active at the wrong time.
Recent research at the University of Toronto identified two chemicals – glycine and GABA – which are responsible for paralysis during sleep. It is this paralysis that inhibits the literal acting out of our dreams. From here, scientists concluded that it is the absence of at least one of these chemicals that is responsible for sleepwalking.
The research is supported by the fact that children are still developing the neurons responsible for the release of GABA, thus they have less control over their actions during sleep. This would therefore explain why children are more likely to experience the condition.
Treating sleepwalking and preventing accidents
There is no one specific treatment used for sleepwalking. But there are some more general precautionary actions which can be carried out to reduce the likelihood of parasomnia:
- Get more sleep
- Establish a regular sleep pattern
- Establish a regular night-time routine
- Try to keep stress and anxiety under control
- In some cases hypnotherapy may be used
If you or a family member is prone to episodes of sleepwalking it is vital to do what you can to prevent accidents from occurring. This may include:
- Locking all windows and doors
- Keeping breakable objects out of close reach
- Removing items which could be tripped over
- Preventing children prone to sleepwalking from sleeping on a bunk bed
- Fitting safety gates to the top of stairs
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