By Jean Balchin 09/01/2018

Part One in this Sleepwalking Saga can be read here.

The Sleep Centre

Thinking I’d benefit from a hands-on experience of sleep studies, I contacted a sleep clinic. According to their website, the clinic staff perform a “wide range of home sleep tests for snoring, sleep apnoea, sleep/wake cycles, restless legs, and other sleep disorders.” The kind folk at the clinic kindly agreed to give me a tour of their facilities, and off I went. I arrived at the Sleep Centre, feeling slightly nervous. Tales of alien abductions and midnight probings unwittingly entered my head as I gazed at the building’s shiny metallic exterior. Readying myself with a few deep breaths, I walked inside, where I was met by a suspiciously friendly nurse.

After initial introductions, the nurse showed me the clinical diagnosis room, where patients meet with the doctor for their initial consultation. Here, they are poked, and prodded, measured and weighed. The doctor asks the patient how much they sleep at night, and examines their nose and throat. If necessary, sleep disorder testing is conducted overnight. I was lead through a series of clinically clean rooms that included a queen-size bed, a flat screen TV, a strange-looking breathing apparatus and an en-suite bathroom. I felt like I was walking through a Travelodge, or a second-rate hotel. “How are these sleep tests run?” I ask, almost dreading the answer. “Well, the sleep technicians measure the patient’s head, and attaches small electrodes, which measure the brain’s activity during sleeping,” says the nurse, smiling, “we also attach sensors to different parts of your body to measure bodily movement.” “Our patients are also monitored constantly by sleep certified technicians,” she added, “You sleepwalk right? Why don’t you come see us for a proper consultation?” I hightailed it out of there.  

Andrew helps me understand sleepwalking

Feeling that chatting with a friend might be safer, I reached out to a psychologist friend of mine. Bribed with a coffee and the promise of of chocolate bar if he was extra helpful, Andrew agreed to meet with me one rainy Friday afternoon. Being my usual scatterbrained self, I arrived ten minutes late and had to placate him with an extra large mocha. We finally got down to business. Andrew explained to me how several experts believe that sleepwalking in childhood is due to a delay in maturation. “High-voltage delta waves have also been found in many sleepwalkers up to the age of seventeen,” said Andrew, disregarding the look of confusion on my face, “which suggests that these people’s central nervous systems haven’t developed properly.” He went on “Or, sleepwalking could be caused by other factors which increase the length of the slow wave sleep stage, such as fever, stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation, hypnotics and drug and alcohol use.” I can certainly relate to the stress factor – come exam time each year, you can probably find me stumbling around the laundry cupboard, convinced I’m late for my maths exam.

“Is there a heredity component in sleepwalking?” I asked Andrew, thinking about my father’s own predisposition towards sleepwalking in his childhood. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s definitely clustered in families, and the percentage of childhood sleepwalking increases to 45% if one parent was affected, and 60% if both parents were affected.” Sensing I might not fully understand the answer, I enquired as to the potential genetic components of this disorder. “We’re not fully sure yet, but sleepwalking may be inherited as an autosomal dominant disorder with reduced penetrance.” With a shudder, I imagined the chaos if all nine of my siblings had inherited my predisposition for night-time wanderings. Time (and extensive scientific analysis) will tell, I guess.

There is a hereditary component to sleepwalking.

Although “there’s no one way to absolutely prevent sleepwalking,” said Andrew, absentmindedly crushing sugar crystals with his spoon, “a number of steps can be taken.” My ears pricked up; I sat up straighter in my chair. “Firstly, you’d want to get enough sleep – tiredness and fatigue is certainly a factor.” Fat chance – the life of a university student revolves around binge-watching Netflix and cramming for exams in the wee hours of the morning. “Secondly,” he continued, “you should try and decrease your stress levels. Try meditation, or do relaxing exercises.” I grimaced. “And most importantly, avoid any kind of stimulation before you head to bed!” So long cell phone, sayonara laptop! Andrew went on: “You can also do secure your environment to prevent harm if and when you do sleepwalk, such as removing all harmful or sharp objects from your bedroom, and sleeping on the ground floor. Lock the doors and windows, and if you’re really worried, install an alarm or bell on the bedroom door.” I have to admit, these tips sound a tad nicer than tying my leg to a bedfellow, or undergoing an exorcism.

“Medications are sometimes necessary,” adds Andrew, “because sometimes sleepwalking is caused by underlying medical conditions, such as seizures, restless legs syndrome, or obstructive sleep apnoea.” In such cases, the sleepwalking can cause injuries or significant family disruption, and medicines such as ProSom, Klonopin, and Trazodone can help. “In other cases,” says Andrew “anticipatory awakenings are useful.” “What on earth are anticipatory awakenings?” I ask, imagining someone poking me with a stick every few hours at night. Turns out, that’s pretty much what it is. Anticipatory awakenings involve waking the child about 20 minutes before the usual sleepwalking episode, and keeping them awake for the time during which the episodes usually occur. Thankfully, my sleepwalking has decreased in frequency and intensity over the last couple of years, so I’ll be staying far away from people with sticks.

Stay tuned for Part Three of the sleepwalking saga…