As college students, we typically suffer a conflict of interests when it comes to sleep. Between puberty and the late twenties, we have a higher sleep requirement than adults or children, and yet we also have more active social lives, which keep us out late before our early morning classes. Sleep is a necessary evil, and something many of us stave off with near-LD50-quantities of caffeine and other stimulants.
But sleep isn’t nearly as boring as we might think. In fact, our minds conduct vital housekeeping while we sleep, such as memory processing. Sleep deprivation has been linked to the onset of obesity, diabetes and reduced immune function. Thankfully, most of us remain paralysed whilst asleep – our brain’s way of keeping us safe from acting out our dreams. Some of us, however, are a bit more animated in our sleep. Parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related disorders that can occur during arousals from both REM and non-REM sleep.
Ambien, used to treat insomnia, has been implicated in causing sleep-eating, resulting in one case of a woman gaining 45kg
Sleepwalking (somnabulism) is the one with which we’re most familiar. From Shakespeare to Stephen King, sleepwalking has long been associated with stress and troubled minds. It occurs when individuals exhibit otherwise normal physiological activity at an inappropriate time – during sleep. People can perform a variety of activities whilst asleep, from sitting up in bed to more complex behaviours such as cleaning, painting or driving a car. If awoken they are often disoriented and confused by their actions; however, there is no evidence to suggest that waking a sleepwalker is dangerous.
Sleep-eating is another unusual parasomnia. The prescription drug zolpidem [also known as Ambien], used to treat insomnia, has been implicated in causing sleep-eating, resulting in one case of a woman gaining 45kg due to her nightly binges!
Somniloquy refers to talking aloud in one’s sleep, as a result of a motor breakthrough of dream speech. Sleep talking is commonly reported in children and as a side-effect of fever. There are many websites dedicated to recordings of sleep speech, as it can be comically incoherent and nonsensical. Somniloquists can also reveal information that they wouldn’t in their waking hours – the Lady Macbeth effect.
But not all the parasomnias are so benign. Consider sexsomnia – the sleep sex disorder. Sufferers engage in a range of sexual activities whilst they sleep, and have no memory on waking. The statistics are patchy, as the condition is understandably under-reported, but it affects far fewer people than sleepwalking itself does. Sexsomniacs can be extremely aggressive and violent in their pursuit of sex, it can destroy relationships, and frequently results in prosecution.
Though usually conducted on partners, sexsomniacs have been known to molest strangers and members of their own family. It is a medical condition – sleep research has shown the same unusual brainwave activity characteristic of other parasomnias, such as sleepwalking.