What Causes Sleep Walking?

Chances are you know the symptoms of sleep walking. Even those of us who’ve never experienced this unique sleep disorder have heard stories about friends or family members getting up in the middle of the night and opening their refrigerators or walking out their front door—without ever waking up! However, those dealing with sleep walking know that at best, sleep walking is a detriment to your quality of sleep, and at worst can create quite dangerous (and embarrassing) situations.

Although sleep walking occurs most often in children and young adolescents, the disorder can develop later in life. An estimated one in fifty adults experience some degree of sleep walking. In order to understand and effectively treat the disorder one must first ask oneself the question, “Why am I sleep walking?”

What Causes Sleep Walking

Image courtesy of Just Coffee Art

Unfortunately, there isn’t likely to be one simple answer to this question. The reasons for sleep walking can be divided into three categories: genetic, environmental, and medical. Here is a look at some of the most common causes of sleep walking in those categories.

Genetic Causes for Sleep Walking

Although there is less than a surplus of research about the inheritance factor of sleep walking, it is known that the disorder is ten times more likely to occur if a first-degree relative has a history of sleep walking. Because of this, it has been concluded that a predisposition to sleep walking is linked to genetics. Sleep walking also occurs much more frequently in identical twins.

Recently, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have proposed that sleep walkers share a faulty chromosome, specifically, a section of chromosome 20. According to researcher Christina Gurnett in an interview with BBC news, “We do not know yet which of the genes in this linkage region of chromosome 20 will be responsible…But discovering these genes could help with identifying and treating the condition.”

Environmental Causes for Sleep Walking

Factors pertaining to the sleep walker’s environment are some of the most common and treatable sleep walking causes. The following is a list of factors known to enhance the chances of sleep walking:

  • sleep deprivation
  • chaotic sleep schedules
  • stress
  • alcohol intoxication
  • medications (particularly sedatives/hypnotics, antidepressants, and antihistamines)
  • magnesium deficiency

If you are a sleep walker and think that any of these factors could be contributing to your condition, there are steps you can take to eliminate most of these factors. Practicing yoga, for instance, can be a good way to relieve stress. Before changing any of your medications, you should talk to your doctor to determine the best alternatives.

Medical Causes for Sleep Walking

Finally, there are some medical conditions that have been associated with sleep walking. In some cases, treating these underlying conditions that may be the cause of sleep walking can be the best way to reduce your sleep walking episodes. Here is a list of conditions linked to sleep walking:

  • Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)
  • Gastrosphageal reflux (regurgitation of food and liquid from stomach into food pipe)
  • Nighttime asthma
  • Nighttime seizures
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Psychiatric disorders, like posttraumatic stress disorder or multiple personality disorder
  • Fever

If you have been diagnosed with any of these conditions, or even think it’s possible you might be suffering from one of them, you should definitely talk to your doctor to work out the best way to handle the disorder.

Talk While You (Sleep) Walk

Although most people have a basic understanding of what sleep walking is, many don’t realize that walking isn’t the only action that can be involved in somnambulism (the medical term for sleep walking). The most common complex behavior experienced with walking is nonsensical sleep talking. In many cases the answer to what causes sleep walking and talking is one in the same. However, since episodes of sleep walking and talking are usually not remembered upon waking, sleep talking is less likely to be an issue unless accompanied by sleep walking.

About Mariele Ventrice

I am a writer, reader, and expert napper. Sometimes, I sleep with the lights on.