Med thumb sleepwalking

It’s not quite the zombie apocalypse, but close to four percent of adults in this country are prone to sleepwalking, according to Stanford University School of Medicine research. That’s upwards of 8.4 million grownup nocturnal wanderers who are going bump in the night.

Though sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) is fairly common in kids — according to a 2015 study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, as many as 17 percent do it regularly — researchers noted that this “underscores the fact that sleepwalking is much more prevalent in adults than previously appreciated.”

Do we sleepwalk as part of dreams? Like, maybe I’m dreaming about going for a hike?

There are two schools of thought. Traditionally, sleep experts believe sleepwalking occurs during deep, non-REM (that is, non-dreaming) stages of sleep, which come early in the night. During an episode of sleepwalking, most experts say, the brain is partially awake, resulting in complex behaviors, and partially in NREM sleep, which means there’s no conscious awareness of any actions.

However, researchers out of the University of Montreal’s Centre for Advanced Studies in Sleep Medicine believe that’s a misconception. They claim their studies show that sleepwalkers’ actions can, in fact, be motivated by a dream. The study leader, Antonio Zadra, offers the case of a sleepwalking man who took his dog to the bathroom and sprayed it with water, believing (in his sleepwalking state) that his dog was on fire.

Sleep specialists agree people can act out a vivid dream during their REM sleep, but that’s usually considered a difference type of disturbance, called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. One difference: With this disorder, the sleeper can usually be awakened fairly easily, and they usually recall their dream. With true sleepwalking, as with kid’s night terrors, the sleeper, if awakened, will be confused, disoriented and agitated.

Why so many sleepwalkers these days?

Experts aren’t sure, but they did find links to certain (modern-day?) physiological and mental conditions.

  • People diagnosed with depression were 3.5 times more likely to sleepwalk than those who hadn’t been.
  • Those with alcohol abuse or dependence were more likely to have episodes.
  • People with obsessive-compulsive disorders, or those taking SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressants were three times more likely to sleepwalk.
  • Users of over-the-counter sleeping pills had a higher likelihood of reporting episodes.
  • People who got less than seven hours of sleep per night were also at higher risk, as were those who had a family history of the disorder.

Let’s not forget stress — the root of so many evils. Many sleep disorder episodes come during periods of stress and anxiety, say sleep specialists. The good news: There are medications that can help. But also keep in mind that the unwanted behavior often resolves once the stressful situation goes away.

Do people really do crazy things when they sleepwalk?

People have been known to drive cars, eat, prepare meals and write checks. In rare cases, episodes can injure bed partners or harm the sleeper. Several years ago, a New Jersey woman with a history of sleepwalking left her house, walked across a train trestle, fell into a lake and drowned.

And then there’s Mike Birbiglia, actor, comedian and famous sleepwalker. While dreaming, Birbiglia jumped out a second story hotel window and survived with just 33 stitches for gashes in his legs. After years of refusing to see a doctor, he finally sought medical help, spending a night in a sleep lab, and was diagnosed with REM Behavior Disorder. He chronicled his sleepwalking adventures, and recovery from cancer, in the memoir Sleepwalk With Me.

Fortunately, such serious consequences are rare.