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Why Do We Sleepwalk?

Some get up and drive to work. Others prepare a five-course feast. A few even put the moves on a bedmate. Thirty percent of Americans have sleepwalked at least once. Could you be one of them?
Why Do We Sleepwalk?

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There’s spaghetti in the bathroom sink, the laptop’s in the laundry basket, and please tell me that is not urine dripping down the refrigerator door.

Either a group of college kids took over the house for the night or there’s a sleepwalker on the loose. Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a disorder that happens when people do some activity besides snoozing while they’re still asleep. There are lots of potential causes of sleepwalking, from depression to overdoing it on the booze [1]. But sleepwalking isn’t always disastrous, and sleep specialists have devised some different techniques to keep nighttime wandering to a minimum [2] [3] [4].

Illustration by Tanya Burr


Sleepwalk This Way — Why It Matters

Sleepwalking is a kind of parasomnia, the fancy term for abnormal sleep behavior. A recent study estimates that about 30 percent of American adults have sleepwalked at least once in their life, and about four percent have sleepwalked once or more in the past year [1]. Besides snoozing and strolling, other telltale signs of sleepwalking include opening the eyes without seeming awake and saying nonsensical things. (Sleeptalking, anyone?) And while sleepwalkers usually do unremarkable things like fiddle with the covers, others have been known to drive a car, go Julia Child in the kitchen, or even have sex [5]! Most sleepwalking episodes last about 10 minutes or less. But whether they mumble about fairies or drive across the country and back, sleepwalkers generally don’t remember anything about the episode once they wake up.

While most sleepwalkers are kids, adults can definitely take 2 a.m. strolls around the house, too. This latest study on sleepwalking found Americans are more likely to sleepwalk today than they were in the 1970s [1]. That’s possibly because more Americans take antidepressants now than 30 years ago, and certain medications can make people more likely to sleepwalk. (It’s also worth noting that people who suffer from major depressive disorder are more likely to sleepwalk in the first place.)

Studies have found men tend to sleepwalk more often than women, and we’re a lot more likely to roam the house after midnight if someone else in the family does. Alcohol can affect sleepwalking behavior, too, so ditch that last martini to avoid nighttime prowling. Even lifestyle changes like psychological stress and switching up a sleep schedule can contribute to sleepwalking [6]. A lot of the factors involved in sleepwalking may have to do with malfunctions in the GABA system, which prevents movement during sleep [7]. Depending on how significant the problem is, there are some different strategies to combat sleepwalking.

Dangerous Dozing — The Answer/Debate

Despite the common wisdom that it’s dangerous to wake a sleepwalker, most sleepwalkers will just look pretty confused when someone rouses them. Still, for some people, sleepwalking poses more of a problem than just giving spectators a midnight laugh. In about two percent of cases, sleepwalkers will exhibit violent behavior, though the cause of the aggression still isn’t clear. Even for relatively peaceful sleepwalkers, wandering around the bedroom like a zombie can disrupt the sleepwalkers’ rest, not to mention their bedmates’ snooze-time.

But it’s not always necessary to seek treatment for sleepwalking, other than removing any dangerous objects in the sleepwalker’s path. When sleepwalking episodes are a result of other sleep disorders like sleep-disordered breathing, it’s important to treat those issues first [2]. Some sleepwalkers may benefit from psychotherapy, which can help them resolve the psychological stressors contributing to the sleep disorder [3]. Another possible treatment involves anticipatory awakenings, or waking the patient up right before their usual sleepwalking time for several nights in a row until they eventually lose the habit. (Sounds fun, right?) Hypnosis is also an option for treating sleepwalking and other parasomnias [4]. (You are getting very sleepy… but stay still!)

If sleepwalking is a serious issue, consider seeing a doctor or a sleep specialist for personalized advice. Until then, throw on some Billy Joel and snooze away.

This article was approved by Greatist Experts Dr. John Sharp and Jason Edmonds. 

  • About 30 percent of American adults have sleepwalked at least once in their lifetime.
  • Sleepwalking happens when people do something else besides sleeping while conked out.
  • Sleepwalkers can do anything from mumbling about the weather to having sex, but they rarely remember the episodes.
  • Stress, depression, certain medications, and changes in a sleep schedule can all contribute to sleepwalking.
  • Treatments for midnight wandering include hypnosis, psychotherapy, and consistently waking sleepwalkers in the middle of the night.

Have you ever sleepwalked? Share your crazy stories in the comments section below!

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Works Cited +

  1. Prevalence and comorbidity of nocturnal wandering in the US adult general population. Ohayon, M.M., Mahowald, M.W., Dauvilliers, Y., et al. Neurology 2012;78(20):1583-9.
  2. Factors that predispose, prime, and precipitate NREM parasomnias in adults: clinical and forensic implications. Pressman, M.R. Sleep Medicine Services, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Department of Medicine, the Lankenau Hospital, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania and Paoli Hospital, Paoli, PA. Sleep Medicine Reviews 2007;11(1):5-30.
  3. Psychological treatment for sleepwalking: two case reports. Conway, S.G., Castro, L., Lopes-Conceicao, M.C., et al. Department of Psychology, Universidade Federal de Sao Paolo, Brazil. Clinics (Sao Paolo) 2011;66(3):517-20.
  4. The Treatment of Parasomnias With Hypnosis: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study. Hauri, P.J., Silber, M.H., Boeve, B.F. Sleep Disorders Center, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, MN. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2007;3(4):369-73.
  5. Sexsomnia: an uncommon variety of parasomnia. Bejot, Y., Juenet, N., Garrouty, R., et al. Department of Neurology, University Hospital of Dijon, France. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery 2010;112(1):72-75.
  6. Sleepwalking and night terrors: psychopathological and psychophysiological correlates. Szelenberger, W., Niemcewicz, C., Dabrowska, A.J. Medical University of Warsaw, Department of Psychiatry, Poland. International Review of Psychiatry 2005;17(4):263-70.
  7. GABA release in posterior hypothalamus across sleep-wake cycle. Nitz, D., Siegel, J.M. Department of Neuroscience, University of California at Los Angeles. The American Journal of Physiology 1996;271(6 Pt 2):R1707-12.