What are ‘sexsomnia’ and ‘sleep eating’ and can they be treated?

What are 'sexsomnia' and 'sleep eating' and can they be treated?

The Unusual World of Sleep Disorders: From Sleepwalking to Sexsomnia

Sleep Disorders

We’ve all seen the classic sleepwalking scenes in movies or TV shows. The protagonist stumbles around, eyes half-lidded, occasionally tripping over furniture. But did you know sleepwalkers are capable of more than just wandering aimlessly? According to a new study, sleepwalkers can engage in a range of complex behaviors during their restless slumber, including sex, cooking, and even driving.

Lead researcher Jennifer Mundt, an assistant professor of sleep medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, explains, “There’s really a full spectrum here where sometimes it is just harmless and doesn’t need treatment and then sometimes it can be on the other end of that and can be quite dangerous.”

Unfortunately, unlike other sleep disorders like sleep apnea or insomnia, there are no consensus guidelines for treating what are called “arousal disorders” or “parasomnias,” as revealed in a new evidence review in the journal Sleep Medicine. Mundt and her colleagues conducted this review to gain insights into the current treatment landscape.

The review, encompassing a wide range of publications from 1909 to 2023, revealed that most of the studies were either case reports or uncontrolled clinical trials. These findings shed light on the need for more systematic research and the development of treatment guidelines for these disorders. But what exactly are parasomnias?

Parasomnias occur during deep sleep when parts of the brain are awake while others are asleep. As a result, individuals can engage in behaviors that resemble wakefulness. Sleepwalkers, for example, appear awake as they walk, talk, cook, or drive. However, they are not fully conscious and often have no recollection of these activities.

These disorders are more common than you might think. The report suggests that nearly one in five people will experience simple confusional arousal at some point, characterized by stirring or sitting up in bed in a state of confusion. “It might be something as minor as maybe the person just kind of sits up and looks around and seems to be confused and maybe mumbles, and then they go back to sleep,” explains Mundt. If these incidents occur infrequently and do not disrupt sleep quality, they might not require treatment.

However, other forms of parasomnia can be riskier. Sleepwalking, sleep terrors, sexsomnia (engaging in sexual behavior during sleep), and sleep-related eating affect significant percentages of the population. Mundt warns that individuals who sleepwalk might endanger themselves if they attempt to cook, potentially handling dangerous tools or eating unsafe foods.

But what leads to the development of parasomnias? Researchers suggest that a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors plays a role. Certain genes have been associated with sleepwalking, and external triggers such as stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol, medications, or even a loud noise can evoke parasomnia episodes.

Dr. Virginia Skiba, a sleep medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit, notes that parasomnias are often triggered by stress, insufficient sleep (most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night), illness or fever, and the use of substances like alcohol, caffeine, marijuana, or sleep medications such as Ambien.

Fortunately, treatments for parasomnia exist. While medications like clonazepam are commonly prescribed for sleepwalking and sleep terrors, most cases do not require drug interventions. The treatments with the most evidence-backed effectiveness include cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnosis, sleep hygiene, and scheduled awakenings.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, consisting of multiple components, has shown benefits for individuals with parasomnias. This approach focuses on improving sleep hygiene, relaxation, and stress management. Establishing a regular sleep routine and waking the sleeper shortly before the expected time of a parasomnia episode, known as scheduled awakenings, have proven to be effective strategies as well.

It is essential for medical practitioners to consider other potential underlying health conditions that may contribute to parasomnias. Treating conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and acid reflux can also have a positive impact on reducing parasomnia episodes.

Moreover, Skiba emphasizes the importance of taking necessary safety precautions for individuals with parasomnias. Suggestions include avoiding sleeping on top bunk beds, installing alarms on doors and windows to awaken others in the household if opened, and keeping car keys, knives, and other potentially harmful objects out of reach.

Mundt urges anyone who engages in potentially dangerous behaviors while sleepwalking to consult a sleep clinic. These behaviors might actually be caused by epilepsy or other underlying conditions, requiring specialized treatment.

Understanding and addressing the world of parasomnias is vital for the well-being of individuals experiencing these disorders. With further research and the development of treatment guidelines, we can ensure that those affected by parasomnias receive the necessary support and resources to manage their sleep disorders effectively.

Sources:HealthDaySleep Medicine Journal