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The Facts Behind Sleepwalking
Written By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 
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One of the keys to good health is getting plenty of sleep. We all know it's hard to stay on our toes at work or with our families when we we're exhausted from too little shut-eye. I tried to instill the importance of getting adequate sleep to all my patients. My recommendation is at least between 7 and 9 hours for most people but as we all know there are many problems that interfere with sleep despite our best efforts.

Sleepwalking which surprisingly is one of the most well-known sleep disorders, is also one of the least understood. Let's take a closer look at the causes and healthy solutions for this curious condition.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

One common notion about sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is that an individual sleepwalks because the subconscious mind is consumed with negative emotions like shame, guilt or fear. While sleepwalkers are not necessarily burdened by painful feelings, stress and anxiety are known to cause sleepwalking disorder. The source of stress may be related to anything, from trouble on the job to taking care of a sick family member. Stress may lead to sleepwalking simply because it is often more difficult to sleep soundly during stressful times.

Other causes of sleepwalking include fever, which interferes with normal sleep cycles. Drinking alcohol excessively has a similar effect. Another lesser known cause is a magnesium deficiency. The average woman needs 310 to 360 mg of this nutrient and the average man needs 400 to 420 mg each day.

Green vegetables and nuts are good sources of magnesium, but many people have a difficult time getting an adequate amount of this essential mineral in their diets. Look for a multi-vitamin that includes 100% of the recommended daily allowance for magnesium.

Some medications, especially those known to disrupt sleep, may cause sleepwalking in some individuals. Some common culprits are sedative/hypnotics, neuroleptics (drugs used to treat psychosis), tranquilizers, stimulants and antihistamines. If you take one of these drugs and experience sleepwalking, tell your doctor. He or she may be able to alter your dosage or prescribe a different type of drug that result in fewer side effects.

Who is at Risk?

People may experience sleepwalking at any age, but my patients are often surprised to hear that children between the ages of 8 and 12 have the highest incidence of sleepwalking. The length of slow wave sleep is longer in children, which may be a contributing factor. If a child has a parent or sibling who has experienced sleepwalking, the child has a greater risk. Another little known fact is that sleepwalking is more likely to occur in identical twins, though the reason is uncertain.

If your child sleepwalks, that does not necessarily mean he or she is under stress. In most cases, if it's a random occurrence the child will probably grow out of it. It is estimated that 15% of healthy children sleepwalk occasionally.

At-Home Treatment

In adult sleepwalkers, it is important to find the underlying cause. If you are under stress, addressing the situation with meditation, relaxation techniques or exercise can help. Another solution is to promote a relaxing and safe sleep environment. This may require a soothing nighttime ritual such as a hot bath and a calming activity like reading before bed.

Make sure your bed is a comfortable haven for sleep by investing in soft linens and a comfortable pillow. Remove distractions from the bedroom. This includes TV's, stereos, telephones and even clutter. A messy, unorganized environment can cause feeling of stress.

Whether an adult or child is sleepwalking, safety is an immediate concern. Clear away anything that the person might trip over. Many parents feel more comfortable using gates to obstruct staircases so the child does not fall. Some sleepwalkers have been known to leave the house or even drive, so it may be wise to lock exterior doors and keep keys out of reach.

Many people think it is unsafe to wake a sleepwalker, but this is untrue. The person may be disoriented and groggy, but nothing more. The best remedy is to lead the sleepwalker back to bed so he or she may safely resume a normal sleep cycle.

Watching a family member sleepwalk may be alarming at first, but it is usually easy to treat. If the condition does not go away on its own, your doctor can examine other causes like medications or related sleep disorders. Often, sleepwalking serves as a "wake-up call" for people to address a source of stress or anxiety. When you sleep soundly, you'll find that all aspects of your health will improve.

Stay well,

Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging

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