Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Most children outgrow frequent nocturnal wandering, but adults who have this parasomnia should get checked out.
Most children outgrow frequent nocturnal wandering, but adults who have this parasomnia should get checked out.

The mystery of sleepwalking Add to ...

I blame this whole thing on The Good Wife. Since devouring five seasons in two months, all my dreams have featured lawsuits, depositions and Will Gardner.

In one recent dream, I needed to deliver a subpoena. It was late at night, and because everything makes perfect sense in dreams, it seemed normal to march into a dark bedroom and serve justice. A woman – the subpoena’s intended recipient – lay sleeping. This being an important legal matter, I had to be certain she was who I assumed her to be. I walked to her bed and leaned in close.

More Related to this Story

“Regan?” my mother asked, startled.

That’s when I woke up.

I was peering over my confused mom with my purse slung over my shoulder. (Presumably it contained the subpoena.)

I had been sleepwalking. Again.

Throughout my life I’ve been known to sleeptalk, sleepwalk and even sleeprun. I used to think of my nighttime activities as a harmless and amusing quirk.

But sleepwalking as an adult is fairly uncommon. A 2012 Stanford University School of Medicine study found that roughly 3.6 per cent of American adults reported having sleepwalked in the previous year, and only 1 per cent said they had sleepwalked twice or more in a month.

I’m in that small percentage of adults who frequently wander during sleep. While I’d like to think of this as a unique personal trait, it could be a sign of other problems. And what’s certain is that it needs to be checked out.

“[Sleepwalking] usually is an indication that something is not quite right,” says Dr. Atul Khullar, medical director of the Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic. “If you have one [episode] once a year it’s probably not a big deal. But if they’re frequent or bizarre or dangerous they need urgent assessment.”

Sleepwalking is a parasomnia. It’s a sleep disorder that generally occurs during non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which is also known as deep sleep. Essentially, parts of the sleepwalker’s brain remain asleep, but others wake up.

“The part of your brain that gets you to move around is awake, but the part of your brain that is conscious when it is awake is off,” explains Dr. John Peever, an associate professor in the Department of Cell and Systems Biology and the Department of Physiology, at University of Toronto. Most never remember having sleepwalked.

Sleepwalking is far more prevalent in childhood when the brain is still developing and isn’t yet able to fully transition from sleep to wakefulness. Most kids grow out of sleepwalking. But not me.

Though doctors have a good handle on its triggers – including sleep apnea, sleep deprivation and stress – they are still unsure why it occurs. “That is still a mystery,” says Dr. Harvey Moldofsky, a professor emeritus in the faculty of medicine at University of Toronto.

Though most sleepwalkers perform relatively automatic actions (such as walking downstairs), there are other types of parasomnias that cause people to act out in potentially more dangerous ways.

“There is a blood-curdling scream that erupts out of sleep and their heart is racing and they’re really sweating and they make a dash and they may go for a window or a door, or they may do something that’s potentially harmful,” says Moldofsky.

Another way that I act out: I wake up suddenly to see the blurred outline of a spider hovering in front of my face. Panicking, I throw the blankets off (while screaming) and hurl myself out of bed. I then run to the living room where my partner, who has become accustomed to this, is still up and is patiently waiting for me to “come to.” But before I have a chance to explain my outburst, I realize what’s occurred and head back to my bug-free bed.

Luckily, there is a remedy for all this: a sleep specialist. Khullar stresses that sleep clinics vary and it’s important to go to a clinic that specializes in parasomnias. Here, a doctor will assess whether patients should participate in a sleep study, which can help identify triggers.

Through an electroencephalogram (EEG), a technician will monitor your brain waves while you sleep and look for any fragmentation. “It will also monitor your breathing, your leg movements, your oxygen and your heart rate,” says Khullar. Monitoring when and where these disruptions occur helps doctors determine the trigger. “It could be sleep apnea or leg twitches, or it can be something external to your sleep – it could be the medications you’re taking.” In some rare cases, people are found to have a seizure disorder.

The important thing is to investigate, discover what the triggers are and work to reduce them.

For me, seeking treatment is the next step. Until then, I’ll be screaming at invisible spiders and trying to sue loved ones in my sleep.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Health

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular