Sleepwalking is one of the strangest unexplained phenomenons that everyone is aware of. It is odd to think that something so well known can not be explained. Recently the largest study of sleepwalking habits was published. It tried to learn more about sleepwalking, its causes and who it affected.
The study was conducted in the USA and found that a surprising 30% of Americans had experienced sleepwalking at some stage in their lives. As sleepwalking is far more common in children it is no surprise to see that the number drops considerably for adults in recent times. The study showed that 3.6% of adults had experienced sleepwalking in the last year. While this may sound small, researchers said it far exceeded their expectations. This number means that over 8 million Americans sleepwalked in the last year. If you compare this to the .04% of those suffering from narcolepsy you can start to understand why 3.6% is seen as such a large number.
The study was not able to determine why people sleepwalk. In the profile of the person that sleepwalks compared to the average person, there is clearly a higher rate of certain conditions. There was a correlation between those who sleepwalk and those who suffer from clinical depression, alcoholism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, as the study was only able to find a correlation it is not clear whether those who suffer from these conditions suffer from sleepwalking as a result, or if sleepwalking is a cause of their illness, or of course if some other third factor could explain both.
Most scientists seem to agree that sleepwalking comes down to the percentage of time you spend in a deep sleep. They found that those who use sleeping pills are more likely to suffer from sleepwalking and believe it is because of how deep of a sleep they are put into. Many people who suffer from the mental illnesses mentioned above take sleeping pills to help them get some rest.
There are two types of sleep states; REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). When REM is occurring our dreams are most vivid as our brain functions most like when it is awake. Surprisingly sleepwalking happens during NREM. The body goes through sleep cycles form light NREM to heavy NREM to light REM etc. It is believed that sleepwalking happens during heavy NREM when the body tries to wake up from this heavy sleep state. The theory is that usually if we want to wake up we transition through the cycles but if we try and awaken during heavy NREM it may result in sleepwalking.
The theory sounds plausible but as everyone is woken during this stage of sleep at some point in their lives, you would imagine there must be another contributing factor that remains unknown. Those who suffer from sleepwalking in adult life are usually chronic sufferers, with 80% falling into this category.
One of the main questions about sleepwalking is if it is ok to wake someone up when they are in this state. According to doctors, there is no risk of trauma or brain damage but the deep NREM stage is when people sleepwalk and if woken up in this stage it can leave you feeling really groggy. With this in mind, it is better to just try and steer someone back to bed. The most important thing is to ensure they are safe. They have no idea what they are doing so it is best to lock their doors and windows. After all, there have been some pretty strange cases of sleepwalking where people have used it as a defense in a murder case and one woman used it as an explanation for sleeping with strangers for months.
While we are not sure how believable those stories are, one thing is clear, sleepwalking impacts a large number of people in our society. The strange phenomenon although unexplained is something we need to watch out for and ensure we are there to help anyone who does suffer from it.