13 Surprising Habits That Lead to Sleepwalking
Millions of children and adults sleepwalk, putting their sleep and their safety at risk. Dr. Michael J. Breus, PhD, aka The Sleep Doctor, takes a look at some of the unexpected reasons why.
Up at night, still asleep
Have you ever awakened to find yourself bumping around the house, or flipping through a magazine at your kitchen table, with no memory of getting out of bed? You’re not alone. Sleepwalking—the medical term is somnambulism—is more common than many people think. The National Sleep Foundation estimates between 1 to 15 percent of the general population sleepwalks—and a 2016 study put its prevalence right in the middle of that range, at just under 7 percent.
Check out some funny stories of sleepwalkers’ activity.
Sleepwalking can be scary
Most people have no memory of what they do during episodes of somnambulism. Still, it’s highly disconcerting to wake and find yourself not in bed where you expect to be. It can be especially disorienting for kids—and the parents who find their glassy-eyed children up but unresponsive during in the middle of the night. Children are more likely to sleepwalk than adults: Between the ages of 4-12, it’s estimated that 15 percent of children will have episodes of somnambulism. This may be because younger children spend greater amounts of time in the deepest stages of non-REM sleep. If you encounter a member of your household sleepwalking, whether child or adult, the best thing to do is to guide them gently back to bed.
Why do people sleepwalk?
Scientists are still figuring this one out. One of the primary reasons appears to be genetic. Somnambulism is an inherited trait—a 2015 study found children have three to seven times the risk of walking in sleep if one, or both, parents have a history of the sleep disorder. (Learn about how your mother’s health can affect your own.) But genes aren’t the only factor: There are many everyday habits and common conditions that increase the chances you’ll rise from bed to sleepwalk starting with the following.
You don’t stick to a regular sleep schedule
Sleepwalking is an arousal disorder that takes place most commonly in the first third of the night when you’re in the deepest stages of non-REM sleep. When you sleepwalk, you’re in a mixed state of consciousness, experiencing an incomplete awakening that occurs as you move through non-REM sleep. A regular sleep schedule reinforces circadian rhythms, which regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Irregular sleeping patterns undermine your circadian sleep rhythms and can change the flow of sleep among the different stages. You can reduce your risk for this parasomnia—and improve your health and performance—by sticking to a regular sleep routine. Check out these tips for sleeping better on a regular basis.
You’re sleep deprived
Cutting your snooze-time short also raises your risks. Sleep deprivation also can lead to more complex behaviors during an episode: People may eat, drive a car, or attempt to undertake all sorts of activities. I’ve had patients report they’ve done laundry, re-arranged living room furniture, and cooked food on the stove. The most significant danger from walking in your sleep? Injury to yourself, or to your bed partner. On relatively rare occasions, sleepwalkers can be violent. Learn how your sleep problems might be interfering with your good health.
You have a magnesium deficiency
Lots of my patients are unaware of the importance of magnesium to health—and its connection to better sleep. This essential macro-mineral supports physical relaxation and deep, restorative sleep. A lack of magnesium can lead to insomnia and is also associated with somnambulism. Magnesium deficiency is all-too-common, unfortunately: Research shows nearly half of U.S. adults don’t get enough magnesium in their diets. Here are some other natural supplements that can boost sleep.
You get stressed out
That nagging anxiety you carry with you during the day? It undermines healthy sleep in general—and it also can increase your risk of walking in your sleep. Research shows psychological stress alters the physiological characteristics of non-REM sleep, including raising your heart rate. If you’re falling asleep agitated by stress, it can affect how your body moves through the different stages of sleep. Stress and sleep have a complex relationship—stress disrupts sound sleep, and poor quality or insufficient amounts of sleep make you more prone to stress. Read about how stress negatively affects the brain.
You’re drinking at night
Alcohol is the most common sleep aid—research suggests 20 percent of American adults use alcohol to help them sleep. Drinking at night might make you nod off more quickly, but the truth is alcohol is a potent sleep disrupter. Alcohol interferes with your circadian rhythms and nightly sleep architecture—the natural flow of sleep through different stages. Drinking moderately—and occasionally—is the all-around wisest choice for sound sleep. Find out how alcohol can mess with your hormones.
You’re snoozing in a noisy environment
A loud sleep environment doesn’t just make it harder to fall asleep, it also makes you more likely to sleepwalk. We’re highly sensitive to noise, even after we’ve fallen asleep. Think about how quickly new parents wake to the sound of their babies crying, or how fast your eyes pop open at the sound of the bedroom door creaking open. Maintaining strong sleep hygiene habits will help you fall asleep more easily and stay both asleep and in bed throughout the night. Keep in mind, not all noise is disruptive to sleep. The key is to eliminate disruptive sounds and introduce soothing ones to your sleep environment. Check out these eight sounds that can help you snooze better.
You travel a lot
Traveling can wreak havoc with your normal rhythms, increasing your risk of somnambulism. The irregular sleep schedule, the unfamiliar sleep environments, and the unusual noises all contribute. Travelers are also more likely to be sleep deprived than stay-at-home types who have a regular bedtime. If you’re logging massive numbers of frequent flier miles, you could find yourself more likely to be a sleepwalker. Be on the lookout for these uncomfortable effects that flying can have on your body.
You take medication
You’ve probably heard stories of people on sleeping pills doing bizarre things. Sedatives are one type of drug that can trigger somnambulism—but there are others. Antihistamines, stimulants, medications with tranquilizing and antipsychotic effects all can increase the risks of walking in your sleep. Any changes to your sleep patterns are important to discuss with your doctor, especially if you’re taking over-the-counter or prescription pills. Read up on the mistakes people make with their medications that you might not know about.
You go to bed with a full bladder
My patients are often surprised to hear this habit can increase the chances they’ll sleepwalk during the night. The physical urge to relieve yourself while in a state of deep, non-REM sleep may lead to the mixed state of consciousness—active, but not awake—that characterizes somnambulism. Don’t load up on beverages near to bedtime, and don’t skip the final trip to the bathroom before lights out. It just might keep you safely in bed, sleeping soundly, for the duration of the night. Find out what other common nighttime habits might be ruining your sleep.
You’re sick with a fever
As if being ill weren’t enough, your fever can lead to strolling while snoozing. Other medical conditions can contribute as well, such as arrhythmia, nighttime asthma, and disorders that involve nighttime seizures, such as epilepsy. Find out what doctors really recommend you do when you think you’re coming down with the flu.
You have sleep apnea
A 2009 study found 1 in 10 people with obstructive sleep apnea may experience somnambulism or other parasomnias, including acting out in response to their dreams. Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated interruptions to normal breathing, which can lead to micro-arousals from sleep. This is a serious sleep disorder that requires treatment through your physician. The most common symptom is snoring—particularly if it’s loud and accompanied by gasping or choking. Want to know what kind of snoring problem you might have? Take this quiz. Read about the symptoms of sleep apnea and what they might be saying about your health.
You have acid reflux
This one catches lots of people by surprise, but it’s true. If you suffer from regular heartburn—a.k.a gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)—you’re at greater risk for being a sleepwalker. (Learn about the diet that’s more effective than medication in relieving acid reflux.) I see a lot of patients with sleep problems stemming from GERD—it’s one of the most common causes of poor sleep in adults. GERD isn’t only linked to somnambulism. People with GERD are also more likely to experience insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome. The symptoms of GERD tend to worsen at night when you’re lying down. If you have nighttime GERD symptoms, it’s important to talk with your doctor—and ask specifically to be screened for sleep apnea.
You have a psychological condition
Emotional stress and trauma can disrupt healthy sleep patterns and the circadian rhythms that support them, making sleepwalking more likely. Post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks are two psychological conditions associated with more frequent occurrence of somnambulism. Depression and anxiety are also linked to this parasomnia. Sleep can play a critical role in helping to treat and improve psychological distress. If you’re experiencing emotional strain or upheaval, don’t try to “tough” your way through it. Reach out to your physician or to a counselor to get the help you deserve.
Don’t miss these tips for sleeping better directly from sleep doctors.