Thursday, May 29, 2014

All about sleepwalking

This article discusses sleepwalking, including the science behind sleepwalking.

Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking has been described in medical literature as a type of parasomnia. It is an abnormal and disruptive sleeping behaviour. Other examples of this sleep disorder are bed-wetting, teeth grinding (Bruxism) and talking while sleeping.

Parasomnias are imbalances in the brain that cause a transition between the waking and the sleeping stages. This is not difficult to comprehend when one takes into account the kind of complex organ that the human brain is, along with the complexity of the sleeping cycle.

What is Sleepwalking?
To be able to categorise someone's sleeping behavior as somnambulism, one needs to notice the following symptoms:

● The person leaves the bed while sleeping (usually in the first one-third of the sleep cycle)
● Others find it difficult to wake him up while he is sleepwalking
● The sufferer has no memory of what happened while he was sleepwalking
● After waking up he displays confusion
● The individual is not suffering from dementia or any other such ailment
● The person's social life is suffering

Sleepwalkers have been battling different theories on their problem, such as, acting out their dreams, being patients of epilepsy, suffering from hysteria, carrying other dissociative disorders or acting under the compulsion of their secret desires.

The truth is that these are just theories. Research is still underway to completely understand the science behind sleepwalking, however, there are some distinct possibilities associated with sleepwalking that carry merit.

The Link between Sleep Stage and Sleepwalking 

The human body, during the first third of the night, is in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage of sleep, which is also called thedeepest stage of sleep. At this stage, the brain is very quiet, there are no dreams and yet the body is active. You will often see people in NREM sleep tossing and turning on the bed, changing positions, etc. This is followed by the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, where the reverse happens - your body is still and inactive but your brain is full of activity. All your dreams generally occur during the REM stage.

Sleepwalking is associated with the NREM stage - which explains why a sleepwalker, who is physically active, finds it so difficult to snap out of his sleep, even when others urge him to wake up. And once awake, the sufferer is usually incoherent for a while and has no recall of what happened. This also strikes down the theory that sleepwalking is a result of acting out your dreams - for in the NREM stage there are no dreams.

Sleepwalking Triggers in Children

It is important to note that most sleepwalkers are children - who usually grow out of it. This association is explained through the following argument:

The brains of children develop speedily, as they imbibe scores of stimuli each day. Such development in brain takes place in the initial years. Human beings never experience that rapidity of brain changes ever again in life.

Some experts say, these quick alterations are responsible for creating temporary imbalances - where one part of the brain may outpace another in development - due to which sleepwalking can be triggered.

Another theory that seeks to explain sleepwalking in children says, the brains of kids are too immature to comprehend and handle the different stages of the complex human sleep cycle. Therefore, it gets temporarily muddled. Later, this leads to episodes of somnambulism.

Yet another theory says, NREM sleep is the time when the body repairs itself and releases hormones, including growth hormones. As the release of growth hormone is appreciably higher in children, it is possible that these hormonal surges are what eventually lead to episodes of sleepwalking in kids.

Sleepwalking Episodes in Adults

In grown-ups, sleepwalking has been linked to seizures, sleep disorders and neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. As a result, sleepwalking episodes in adults need to be taken much more seriously as compared to those in kids.

Professional medical help becomes very important in cases of adult sleepwalking episodes.

Other triggers of somnambulism in grown-ups can be excessive fatigue, chronic stress, the effect of certain medications, alcohol intake and illnesses like fever.

Dangers of Somnambulism and Managing the Condition

Sleepwalking episodes can last from just about a few seconds to, as long as say, half an hour. Sleepwalkers usually have glazed eyes and faces devoid of all expressions. The tricky point is that while they may look awake, they are actually asleep and can be quite clumsy.

However, sleepwalkers are capable of performing various activities, ranging from getting up and walking around the bedroom to driving a car, playing a musical instrument, and in very rare cases, even getting into a violent act!

To have a body that can move and function along with a mind that is sleepy and dazed is quite an inflammable combination one would say. It can be very dangerous, even fatal.

Mentioned here are some tips on how to handle a sleepwalker during an episode as well as how to manage and fight off the condition in the long run:

● Do not startle the sleepwalker
● Do not try to forcefully wake him up
● Gently guide the suffer back to the bedroom. It is highly unlikely that the person will have a repeat episode in the course of the same night
● Try and talk to him about his condition to make him aware. On his own, he may not realize that he is a somnambulist
● In case of a child, you should get him to start sleeping in your room. You can bolt the door from inside while going to bed. Take care to get the bolt positioned where the child can't reach it
● For adults, it is advisable to encourage them to consult specialist at the earliest. This will not only help manage their sleepwalking but can also result in the discovery of other related medical conditions
● Reducing stress levels through a good lifestyle is also recommended 

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