Sleepwalking: Causes, Treatments, and Common Myths

By Sarah Kaminski

January 10, 2024   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

why do people sleepwalk

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about sleep? Chances are, it’s cozy beds, lazy mornings, and that pang of sadness at the thought that you’re not getting as much as you’d like.

But for so-called sleepwalkers, sleep is associated with entirely different feelings. These include mystery, adventure, and, sometimes, even danger.

Sleepwalking has been a fascinating phenomenon for centuries. Equally represented in classical art (Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Bellini’s La Sonnambula), pop culture, and thrilling news articles, it’s a captivating subject for both doctors and laymen.

But why do people sleepwalk? And is there anything you can do about it?


people sleepwalk

According to its simplest definition, sleepwalking or somnambulism is “an abnormal condition of sleep in which motor acts (such as walking) are performed.” It affects 6.9% of the world’s population but it is prevalent among children, with adults suffering much less often.

The act of sleepwalking happens in the NREM (deep) phase of sleep, approximately two hours after falling asleep. Most people affected will sit up, walk around, or talk during a sleepwalking episode. Nonetheless, there have been reports of people doing more complex actions as well, like leaving their house or even driving.

Although the condition is still a relative mystery, we know that it’s most often caused by:

  • insufficient rest
  • stress and anxiety
  • fever
  • substance abuse
  • breathing issues such as sleep apnea
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • medications like Ambien

But wait, there’s more – patients rarely remember their actions during the night, but they will often feel the consequences of poor sleep the following day. Most often, they will feel exhausted, find it difficult to focus, and suffer from a bad mood.

Some research suggests that somnambulism in adulthood could cause health issues like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive deterioration. For this reason, it needs to be understood and treated – particularly if it still occurs regularly after childhood.

The Myths

Seeing that somnambulism is a strange occurrence and relatively rare after adolescence, there are many misconceptions about it.

Perhaps the most common one is that you should never wake up a sleepwalker, as it may cause them harm.

Now, while some sleepwalkers may become agitated or show resistance when you try to help them during the night, this is nothing but a myth. If a loved one is a somnambulist and they’re performing actions that may cause them or others harm, you should always try to get them to safety.

While waking them up may be the easiest solution, it could cause disorientation. So, gently guiding them back to bed is going to be your best course of action.

Another common misconception about the condition is that it’s harmless. And, yes, in most cases, this is true. However, some patients may suffer from more severe symptoms. These could require more elaborate precautions.

If you or a person in your household has a tendency to do more complex actions in their sleep, you will need to have a few safety rituals in place:

  • Make sure that you lock all doors and windows.
  • Hide keys and put dangerous items out of reach.
  • Finally, remove tripping hazards, and do your best to make the space as safe as possible.

This way, you’ll have done your best to prevent any accidents.

Sleepwalking Treatments

Unfortunately, there is still no such thing as a 100% effective treatment for sleepwalking. Instead, for most somnambulists, the goal will be to address any underlying causes and hope that sleep patterns will return to normal as a consequence. And the most obvious place to start is taking a closer look at sleeping habits and patterns.

For most people, the cause of sleepwalking is exhaustion or a breathing problem. In these cases, taking steps to fix these issues should decrease the chances of the episodes repeating themselves. Positive sleep hygiene has multiple benefits on overall health. Not only is it an effective self-care tactic, but it could also be the only treatment required for sleepwalking.

Stress can also increase the chances of somnambulist activity. So, addressing stress levels during the day and finding effective ways to relax before bedtime can lower the likelihood of sleepwalking. Overall, it’s not a bad idea to do some light exercise during the day, take a warm bath before bed, and do some reading. All these actions may help the body and mind wind down and prepare for a good night’s sleep.

why people sleepwalk

Of course, the symptoms could be caused by medication, illness, or substance abuse. In these cases, you should consult with a medical professional. They will adjust drug dosage, prescribe medication, or introduce therapy such as anticipatory awakenings. These will help prevent unwanted nighttime activity and the chances of serious injury.

The Takeaway

As you can imagine, sleepwalking is a complicated occurrence. The medical community is still trying to figure out all the causes and best treatments. Notwithstanding, the consensus is that it tends to be a harmless habit.

If you’re a parent of a somnambulist child, start by paying closer attention to their sleeping habits and bedtime routine. Make small changes. Try to manage energy and stress levels and ensure they’re getting enough sleep during the night. This may be all the remedy they need.

If, however, the condition continues into adulthood, it’s not a bad idea to consult with a medical professional. Generally, a doctor will have a better way to diagnose and treat somnambulism. They will detect any underlying causes and prescribe the right therapy. This way, they’ll be able to keep you or your loved ones safe from unwanted nighttime adventures.

Sarah Kaminski

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