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Experts educate about somnambulism
Medically, sleepwalking is called somnambulism. These are repetitive episodes of complex behaviors that occur during sleep. Affected people occasionally leave their bed and start doing everyday activities such as going to the toilet, tidying up, cooking, playing an instrument - attempts to drive a car have also been reported. The sleeping people do not seem to be completely mentally involved. For example, the front door key can end up in the freezer or the morning toilet can be done in the closet.
The actions of sleepwalkers often seem bizarre and difficult to understand for relatives. At first, they don't even know that it's sleepwalking because the eyes of those affected are open and they also perceive the surroundings. In most cases, such a phase passes quickly. After a few minutes, those affected stop and either return to normal sleep behavior or wake up completely. The next morning, the sleepwalkers mostly cannot remember their nightly activities.
How many people are affected by somnambulism?
Sleepwalking is particularly common among children. According to the German Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine (DGSM), 15 to 30 percent of all children have at least one episode of sleepwalking. With three to four percent, this happens regularly. Approximately one percent maintains sleepwalking into adulthood. A first appearance in adulthood is unusual according to the DGSM.
Why do some people walk around in their sleep?
To date, the actual reasons are only partially understood. The attraction of the moon was previously held responsible for this phenomenon, which is why somnambulism is still known today under the name of moon addiction. After this assumption was outdated, the prevailing opinion was that sleepwalking people act out their dreams through real actions. This opinion could also be refuted in modern sleep laboratories. There it was found that sleepwalking does not take place during the REM sleep phase, in which intensive dreams are made. Instead, this happens in deep sleep or normal sleep.
Sleepwalking is actually a waking up disorder
Today it is believed that somnambulism occurs when the brain does not fully awaken after an alarm. These wake-up stimuli can come from inside (e.g. urge to urinate) as well as from outside (e.g. loud noise, light). The sleep laboratories showed that the typical patterns of a deep sleep phase are replaced by an easier sleep phase before sleepwalking. Sleep medicine specialist Dr. Inka Tuin measures these brain waves in sleep walkers in the sleep clinic of the University Clinic Mainz. "We know that sleepwalking begins on the threshold from deep sleep to light sleep," reports Tuin to the "Allgemeine Zeitung". Therefore, it is considered a waking up disorder.
Caught between sleep and reality
Sleep researchers assume that sleepwalkers are unable to fully awake during an acute phase and remain trapped in this intermediate state. According to the DGSM, the causes of this incomplete waking up have not yet been sufficiently clarified. However, genetic factors probably play an important role, because 80 percent of sleepwalkers have another person who sleepwalks in the family.
Not all sleepwalkers are prone to excessive activities
"A simple variant of sleep walking would be to sit up in bed and talk," explains Tuin. For many affected people, it doesn't go beyond that. With little activity, sleepwalking is not bad in and of itself, according to the expert.
Dangerous variant of walking
However, Tuin warns that in some cases it can become a dangerous sleep disorder. For example, one of her patients would have broken several bones when he fell asleep out the window on the second floor. Another of Tuin's patients suffered cuts as he walked through a glass door.
When should security measures be taken?
According to Tuin, security measures should be taken when someone is very sleepwalking. You should not be able to open windows easily, remove dangerous objects near the bed and, if necessary, lock the doors. "Sleepwalkers who endanger themselves or others should be treated," advises the expert.
How can sleepwalking be triggered?
In addition to the genetic component already mentioned, Tuin reports so-called “triggers”, ie triggers that favor such a phase. This includes lack of sleep, alcoholic beverages, certain antidepressants and great professional or private stress. Sufficient sleep and little alcohol would be the first preventive measures. According to Tuin, sleep apnea triggers nighttime restlessness in some cases. If these breathing interruptions are successfully treated while sleeping, the nightly activity will soon disappear.
REM sleep behavior disorders
A special form of nightly activity is often misinterpreted as sleepwalking. It is the so-called REM sleep behavior disorder: According to Tuin, this often occurs in neurological disorders such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or in severe psychiatric disorders. Those affected live their dreams through physical activity during sleep. This can also lead to aggressive behavior such as kicking or hitting during sleep. According to Tuin, the difference can be easily recognized by the eyes. These are closed in REM sleep behavior disorders. In addition, these often occur in the early morning.
How to deal with sleepwalkers
Can you really not wake sleepwalkers? "Surely everyone has heard that sleepwalkers should not be woken up rudely," said Tuin. This is absolutely correct, because it only leads to great confusion. It was also not necessary, since most of them find their way back to bed anyway. In some cases, the use of certain, low-dose, antidepressants can help stop sleep walking, says Tuin. (vb)