What is Sleepwalking (Somnambulism) and What Causes it?

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If you think sleepwalking is an ideal way to get your steps in, think again.

All joking aside, frequent sleepwalking episodes could be your body’s way of warning you that something in your life needs to change.

In this article, I’ll outline the causes and potential dangers of sleepwalking.

What is Sleep Walking?

It’s a relatively straightforward explanation. According to WebMD, it’s a disorder that causes us to walk, even though we’re not awake. We can perform a variety of complex tasks during this state of sleep, including driving (!), cooking, and getting dressed, but the most reported action is just getting up and walking around.

You may also hear it referred to as “somnambulism” or “noctambulism,” and it’s all the same thing.

During a sleepwalking incident, the person is fast asleep and often has no idea that they got up in the middle of the night, even if you tell them all about it the next day.

In fact, in college, I had a roommate who was working her tail off to get a Britney Spears body (during the Oops! I did it again phase, not the drug-induced VMAs). Anyway, she had a trainer, she worked out every day, ran for miles, and even weighed her food. Yet, she didn’t lose weight. If anything, she continued to gain. Finally, I caught her devouring an entire bag of hot Cheetos at night, and the mystery was solved.

The most common time to experience sleepwalking is during deep sleep, but it can also happen during lighter stages and within the first few hours of being asleep.

Symptoms

Roams around

The classic display of this symptom is walking. If the person roams far enough, they may just make it into their vehicle. There are numerous accounts of people who have driven their car in their sleep before coming home an returning to bed.

There was even a case in 1992 of a man who got in his car, drove to his in-laws’ house and killed him. His lawyer successfully used sleepwalking as a defense. Don’t get any ideas, folks! No matter how annoying your in-laws might be.

Sleeptalking

People may also talk during a sleepwalking incident. In some cases they’ll have a conversation with you; in other cases, it may seem like they’re in another dimension and won’t pay attention to you if you try to interact. Other times, they’ll babble about something that makes no sense at all.

No memory of the event

Most of the time, the sleepwalker won’t remember getting up and walking around. This because they’re actually in a deep sleep. If you ask them if they remember anything out of the ordinary from the night before, they’ll almost always answer no.

Difficulty in waking up

Confused

As you can imagine, there’s likely to be some confusion if the person who sleepwalks happens to wake up during an episode. They’ll likely have no idea how they got where they are, why, or where they’re going.

confused woman

Sleep terrors

Also referred to as night terrors, this is more prevalent in children. It involves waking up suddenly and being scared, as the name suggests. Sleep terrors don’t always involve getting out of bed, though.

Often, you’ll notice the person spring into what appears to be an awake state while sitting up in bed. They may thrash around, be agitated, scream or cry, and claim there are people in the room. The person will often be sweating, breathing quickly or have a rapid heart rate.

The length of a sleep terror varies but typically lasts around 10 to 20 minutes. Like sleepwalking, the person won’t remember what happened.

Glassy stare

You’ll notice that sleepwalkers’ eyes are open, which fools us into thinking they’re awake. But if you look closely you’ll notice that something’s a little off. For example, their eyes will take on a glassy stare and may not appear to be completely taking in their surroundings.

Causes

Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough rest is strongly associated with sleepwalking. This alone won’t necessarily cause it, but if one of your immediate family members has a tendency for nocturnal wanderings, you’re ten times more likely to experience the same.

Messy Sleep Schedule

A messy or erratic schedule can cause it as well, for similar reasons as sleep deprivation. People on irregular schedules are often sleep deprived, leading to the same disorders and conditions.

Stress

Again, when we’re stressed we’re not as likely to get an adequate amount of rest, and the quality of that time is also going to suffer.

Alcohol

The science isn’t 100% clear on this one, but it’s believed that alcohol decreases, and can even eliminate, the amount of time we spend in Slow Wave Sleep (SWS). The SWS cycle is what we experience in the first two to four hours of going unconscious, prime time for sleepwalking.

friends drinking alcohol

Medication

A variety of medications have been linked to sleepwalking, particularly sleep-aids. Before taking any prescriptions, check the insert for side effects, as this will be listed as one of them if it’s been reported.

Medical Conditions Linked to Somnambulism

Heart Problems

People with heart problems, especially irregular heartbeats, will find that their sleep cycles are disturbed, a key cause of somnambulism.

Fever

Having a fever can induce episodes of sleep terrors and somnambulism. This is especially true in children who have an exceptionally high fever.

Sleep Apnea

Approximately 1 in 10 sleep apnea sufferers also experience parasomnia episodes like sleepwalking and hallucinations. This is mostly due to the fact that people with this condition wake up several times throughout the night, disrupting the quality and quantity of their rest. And we already know that one of the key triggers of somnambulism is not getting enough rest.

Restless Leg Syndrome

There’s a theory that people with the uncontrollable and involuntary twitching and movement of their legs (a classic symptom of RLS, or Restless Leg Syndrome) can cause them get up and move around. However, studies show there is no direct link between the two.

man climbs up the stairs

Mental Disorders

There’s not a direct to somnambulism and people with mental disorders. However, people with this type of disorder tend to have interrupted, erratic, and limited sleep, which all trigger sleepwalking episodes.

Heart Burn

The discomfort associated with heartburn can affect the sleep cycles and prevent our body from Slow Wave Sleep. Episodes of somnambulism are present in the absence of this sleep cycle.

Asthma

People with asthma are more prone to experience this disorder. Likely it is due again to interrupted and disruptive sleeping patterns.

Dangers of Sleepwalking

When thinking about the potential dangers, the only limit is your imagination. People who get up and walk around in the middle of the night can seriously harm themselves or others. Remember, they’re not alert and have no idea what they’re doing.

People may walk into the middle of a street, totally unaware of oncoming traffic. They might get into their car and drive, start cooking something and walk away from the stove, access a gun that’s in the home, or fall down stairs or off a balcony.

A way to keep your loved ones safe is to use some type of prevention device or sleepwalking alarm system. Whether it’s a motion detector at the bedroom door or an alarm system at the front of your home, being alerted when someone in your family is having an episode could save a life.

A common myth that’s persisted is that it’s dangerous to wake up a sleepwalker. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s dangerous not to wake them up!

Treatment

There’s no official protocol here, but usually putting the person on a regular schedule with plenty of rest will help. Ceasing medications that are known to trigger episodes is also important. Reducing stress also helps, though that’s easier said than done.

One methodology with documented successes is hypnosis.

If the sleepwalker is a child, note that they tend to outgrow these tendencies by their teenage years, if not sooner.

the woman hypnotises herself

Frequently Asked Questions

Can somnambulism be considered a disorder?

Yes, somnambulism is considered a behavioral disorder. The reason is that it’s disruptive, so somnambulism fits this definition.

Do adults experience somnambulism?

Yes. Sleepwalking statistics show that nearly four percent of adults can experience regular episodes. Adults who are experiencing deprivation, prolonged stress, and excessive alcohol intake are much more likely to experience this disorder.

Is this normal in kids?

An interesting fact about sleepwalking is that is more common in children than adults, and the number of children who experience it may be as high as 17%! There doesn’t appear to be a significant difference in occurrences between boys and girls.

If you haven’t baby-proofed your house yet, now’s the time because as soon as your little one can walk, they can theoretically start walking around in their sleep. If your child tends to wander during the night, this could happen for years, and finally peak and diminish at around eight to 12 years old.

Conclusion


While sleepwalking itself as a condition isn’t critical, it can lead to devastating effects if ignored without addressing the root cause. Again, because sleepwalkers tend to perform complex tasks without even being aware of what they’re doing, they can cause harm to themselves or others.

Sleep disorders are on the rise, and the first avenue people tend to take is seeking out prescription medication. Be aware, however, that medication can exacerbate the issue. Before making any drastic lifestyle or medication changes, please remember to consult with a licensed physician.

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Author: Sleep Advisor

Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.

Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.

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