What happens when the line between sleeping and awakening becomes blurred? You may start doing different things like walking, cleaning, texting, and even driving while asleep. The interesting part is, by the time you wake up, you wouldn’t remember you did any of these things.
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep arousal disorder (a disorder initiated by disturbance during slow-wave sleep)—where a person walks or engages in other motor activities while asleep.
It usually happens at the first hours of the night during deep nonrapid eye movement sleep (stage 3 sleep). A sleepwalking episode may last from just a few minutes to an hour, with the sleepwalker having no memory of the episode when they wake up.
Studies suggest that sleepwalking is associated with other sleep disorders like sleep talking, night terrors in children, teeth grinding, and sleep related movement disorders.
Sleepwalking may happen to anyone at any age, but it’s more common in children. Still, many who started sleepwalking before age 10 usually outgrow it. However, research shows that at least 25% continue sleepwalking into adulthood.
Up to 4% of adults sleepwalk. If you’re one of them, you may be wondering: Why do I sleepwalk? How do I stop sleepwalking? Do I need to see a doctor?
Let’s answer your questions.
Why Do We Sleepwalk?
During a sleepwalking episode, the brain is partly awake—enough to make a person walk and do other things—and partially asleep. What puts a person in this state is still unknown. But evidence suggests that it may run in families.
56.6% of participants of a 2013 study exploring sleep quality and daytime functioning in people who sleepwalk had a family history of sleepwalking. A 2015 study found that children are three times more likely to be sleepwalkers if one of their parents had a history of sleepwalking. The likelihood is seven times more if both parents had a sleepwalking history.
Other factors that may influence a person to have sleepwalking episodes include:
Some medications like sleep-inducing drugs may trigger a sleepwalking episode. An article published in Sleep Medicine Reviews identified four classes of drugs that may induce sleepwalking. These classes of drugs are:
- Benzodiazepine receptor agonists and other gamma-aminobutyric acids (GABA) modulators (like Xanax, Valium, or Ambien).
- Antidepressants and other serotonergic drugs
Physical exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of emotional distress may trigger sleepwalking. Generally, stress impacts well-rested sleep. And research suggests that it also contributes to sleepwalking.
According to two case reports published in the journal Clinics emotional stress may trigger sleepwalking, and appropriate interventions for managing it may also help treat sleepwalking.
3. Sleep deprivation
Not getting enough sleep may also put you at risk of sleepwalking. According to one study, insufficient sleep may trigger sleepwalking episodes in people predisposed to sleepwalking. Similarly, the MRI findings of a neuroimaging study that scanned the brains of ten adult sleepwalkers found that they exhibit abnormal daytime brain activity when sleep deprived which may increase the risk of sleepwalking episodes.
For this reason, maintaining proper sleep hygiene may help prevent or treat sleepwalking.
4. Obstructive sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that happens when the upper airway falls intermittently and interrupts breathing at different intervals during sleep.
It is a common sleep-related breathing disorder and is also associated with sleepwalking, unlike other forms of sleep arousal disorders, according to a study.
5. Brain injury
According to a 2015 study, 30%–70% of people may experience various forms of sleep disturbances after a head injury.
The study suggests that brain injury may trigger parasomnias, including sleep terrors, sleepwalking, and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder.
Fever or a high body temperature may also trigger sleepwalking and sleep terrors (intense fear and panic, usually followed by screaming and crying during stage 3), especially in children.
Other circumstances that may interfere with deep sleep and influence sleepwalking include sudden loud noise, enlarged bladder (which may increase a person’s urge to urinate at night), and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.
Potential Risks of Sleepwalking
Sleepwalking may put the sleepwalker at risk of accidents and injury, along with having migraines, drowsiness, and fatigue during the day.
According to a 2013 study, sleepwalking can potentially impair a person’s wellbeing and may cause:
- Self-injury or injury to bed partners or roommates during sleep
- Violent behaviors during a sleepwalking episode
- Poor sleep
- Emotional distress
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
Another study suggests an association between sleepwalking and reduced pain tolerance, along with an increased frequency of chronic pain, headache, and migraine while awake.
When to Speak to a Physician
Children who sleepwalk usually outgrow this sleep disorder, and it’s usually not a cause for concern when it infrequently happens in adulthood.
However, consider consulting a doctor if:
- The sleepwalking episodes happen frequently.
- It puts you at risk of injuring yourself or someone else living with you.
- It affects your sleep health.
- It starts in or continues into adulthood to check for an underlying health condition that may have triggered it.
Ideas to Reduce Sleepwalking Episodes
Sleepwalking usually goes away with time, but you can also take specific steps to reduce its frequency. Here are some tips that may work for your case:
1. Speak to your doctor for treatment
You may also consult a doctor about your sleepwalking, and they may prescribe medications that may help treat it.
Research suggests that low doses of benzodiazepine, tricyclic antidepressants, and trazodone may help treat sleepwalking. Always consult your doctor before trying any new medication.
Sleepwalking may also be a sign of an underlying condition. When this is the case, treating the condition under your doctor’s supervision may also help reduce the frequency of sleepwalking episodes.
Some underlying health conditions that provoke sleepwalking include obstructive sleep apnea, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, fever, and a head injury.
2. Follow proper sleep hygiene
Sleep deprivation is a significant contributor to sleepwalking. So, to prevent a sleepwalking episode from happening, reduce how often it happens, or ultimately end it, try to follow healthy sleep habits like:
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bedtime
- Staying hydrated during the day
- Limiting bright lights and screen time at night
- Maintaining a consistent sleep-wake time every day
- Getting the recommended 7 or more hours of sleep
- Exercising before evening time
3. Manage stress levels
Stress may also trigger sleepwalking. Setting your daily routine in a way that helps your body effectively handle stressors is essential to reducing or eliminating sleepwalking.
Here are some self-care practices that may help you reduce your stress levels:
- Daily activity or exercise
- Go for a walk
- Practice mindfulness or meditation
- Try yoga
- Practice journaling
- Listen to music
- Spend time in nature
- Nurture your hobbies
Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder that may impact sleep quality and physical and mental functioning during the day. Plus, you may also be at risk of harming yourself or someone else during a sleepwalking episode. It’s essential to understand what may be triggering your case. You may speak with a doctor to help you identify your triggers and work with you to eliminate them.