3 minute read

Why do people sleepwalk?

By Manas Kubal | Medically reviewed by Lauren Sien

When you think of sleepwalking, images of late-night fridge raids or half-naked street wanderings might come to mind. But in reality, sleepwalking can be a serious condition

Why does it happen? Let’s take a look at some of the theories.

Why do people sleepwalk?

Unfortunately, we don’t have all the answers. The reason for sleepwalking remains a mystery. Some studies say it could run in families. As with many things that involve deeper functions of the brain, it’s a complicated operation. And it affects more people than you might think - recent research shows that about 7 out of every 100 people have sleepwalked at some point in their lives.

When sleepwalking people were studied, scientists found that certain parts of their brain keep on going while they're asleep. There's the memory part (called the limbic system) and the part that handles complex movements. This suggests that natural brakes stopping these actions are off when we sleepwalk.

Is sleepwalking evolutionary? 

Recent research suggests that sleepwalking may also be an evolutionary concept gone rogue. When we're in a new place, part of our brain stays alert while we sleep, ready to react to any unusual sounds or dangers. This might have helped our ancestors survive in the past.

However, sometimes this system goes haywire, which results in sleepwalking. As well as being alert, our body starts moving around as if we're awake. This can happen when something triggers our brain to react.

In reality, many things contribute to sleepwalking: stress, anxiety, drug misuse, sedatives, alcohol misuse, and poor sleeping habits. Sleepwalking is not necessarily a dangerous thing - often it’s limited to your own house but in some cases people can seriously hurt themselves.

How do you wake up a sleepwalker?

The old adage, never wake a sleepwalker, has some truth to it. Imagine suddenly being woken up feeling disorientated. Now combine this with waking up upright whilst staring vacantly at a wall. Not an ideal situation. 

Sleepwalkers might also have a fight or flight response when awoken. You don’t want your kind gesture to be rewarded by a punch in the face. 

To safely wake a sleepwalker it’s important not to touch them or restrain them in any way as this can induce this response. Instead, make a sharp loud noise from a safe distance and be prepared to support them if they lose balance. It’s also important to guide them back to bed as they may not be able to walk safely back.

The numan take

Sleepwalking remains a mystery - but it’s more than just frightening for your family. If it’s a problem, take action by speaking to a healthcare professional.