I am an extreme sleepwalker and the things I’ve done in the middle of the night frighten me

While many of us climb into bed looking forward to a good night’s sleep, Sarah Taylor dreads it. For the 32-year-old has no idea what might happen in the night: she could prepare a meal and eat it; build a pillow fort like a child; or go walking outside barefoot — all without knowing.

Sarah, from Berkshire, suffers from extreme sleepwalking. During her night episodes she has woken her husband James and argued with him, opened locked doors and even ended up out on the street.

‘Although it’s a quiet road in a quaint village, it is used by truckers looking for a break off the motorway so lorries often pass by — it’s dangerous,’ she says.

It began when Sarah was at university when she and her three housemates would often wake to find doors ajar, cupboards wide open and food everywhere.

‘We even discussed whether we had a ghost as this always happened at night,’ she recalls.

Sarah Taylor, 32, suffers from extreme sleepwalking and dreads going to sleep at night as she has no idea what might happen

Then one night Sarah woke to find herself at the kitchen counter, a loaf in one hand and the other in the cupboard reaching for something to spread on the bread.

‘It was then I knew it wasn’t ghosts,’ she says. ‘It was me — sleepwalking.’

She’s since often experienced unexplained cuts and bruises — or found her shoes in a completely different place from where she’d left them (because she’d been outside in her sleep).

‘I’d never know how far I’d been — it was really frightening,’ she says.

One night she took the pillows from under James’ head while he slept and built a pillow fort on the floor — eyes wide open but fast asleep.

She recalls: ‘Another time a tray of 12 doughnuts I’d just bought were gone by morning. I found the empty tray and crumbs in the sink.

‘James told me that one night I stood there boasting about how I’d been to a party with Batman.

‘It sounds funny, but it’s also creepy for James seeing me standing over him, eyes open, more often than not, not speaking — as if my body is mobile but there is no one home in my head.’

Stress seemed to make it worse, especially during the build-up to her wedding day in 2014.

‘I was waking up achy and sore like I’d done a huge workout at the gym. It was due to the sleep walking and stress seemed to exacerbate it,’ she says.

‘James put locks on the doors and a bolt on our bedroom but I’d find a way even in sleep to open it.’

Yet, when she sought help from her GP, she was told nothing could be done.

As Professor Guy Leschziner, a consultant neurologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, explains: ‘Sleepwalking is one of a range of conditions that are termed non-REM parasomnias — these are abnormal behaviours arising from the deepest stages of sleep.

Professor Leschziner, author of The Nocturnal Brain — Nightmares, Neuroscience And The Secret World Of Sleep, adds: ‘What we think is happening is that during these very deep stages of sleep, there is a partial awakening. But it’s not the whole brain; some parts of it remain in very deep sleep, whereas others exhibit waking activity.’

It seems that the areas of the brain that remain asleep are usually those responsible for memory, rational decision-making and planning — which may explain why people do things that aren’t entirely appropriate.

‘But the part of the brain responsible for waking also deals with vision and movement.’

An estimated 1 to 2 per cent of adults in the UK sleepwalk, he adds — around 800,000 people.

Among children, the figure is nearer 20 per cent but most grow out of it by their teens — although 1 per cent of young adults still sleepwalk regularly, according to Dr Paul Reading, a neurologist and an expert in sleep disorders at the South Tees NHS Foundation Trust.

Professor Leschziner adds: ‘We don’t fully understand why it should persist in certain adults.

‘We know there is a strong genetic contribution, but it’s probably also related to a number of environmental factors.’

These include sleep deprivation, stress and alcohol — sleepwalking is more likely to occur during deep sleep that’s in response to sleep deprivation or certain medication; but it can also arise from poor or light sleep caused by stress or alcohol.

‘For some people, alcohol is a very clear trigger — but for others it makes very little difference,’ says Professor Leschziner.

‘We also know certain conditions — such as snoring or sleep apnoea — can act as a trigger, as can periodic limb movement disorder, which is similar to restless leg syndrome but causes night-time kicks that can precipitate these partial awakenings.’

As to why most children grow out of sleepwalking this is probably because the deepest stages of sleep — those within the first hour or so — tend to be less deep with age, even in late teens, says Dr Reading.

For Sarah, key triggers are stress and dieting.

‘If I restricted food in the day, I’d go for food during sleep- walking,’ she says.

‘So I stopped all dieting. We also worked out that if my husband tapped the bed gently I would walk back around to my side and get back in.’

Professor Leschziner says: ‘For most people, sleepwalking is pretty benign and may just involve getting up or moving objects around.

‘But I’ve seen people who, for example, have found themselves naked in the lobby of a hotel, or locked out of their house in the middle of the night.

‘Then there are people who have physically injured themselves or their partners — and people who climb out of windows and get broken bones. One person stabbed themselves in the leg. For others, their injury can be related to jumping out of bed and breaking a vase or a lamp and cutting themselves.’

Dr Reading adds that one thing often overlooked is the impact sleepwalking has on the sleepwalker’s partner.

‘The sleepwalker is typically unaware and has no recall of events even if agitated — the sleep of a bed partner is often disturbed and problems can arise if sleep talking reveals names of previous partners, for example, or if there are attempts at intimate behaviour in a state of sleepwalking.’

Sarah was finally referred to a neurologist earlier this year and had an EEG test (an electroencephalogram) to monitor her brain activity, plus blood tests and an MRI scan.

She’s now on the waiting list for an overnight stay at a specialist clinic to monitor her sleep.

Sarah's key triggers for sleepwalking are stress and dieting. If she restricted food intake during the day, she would go in search of it while sleepwalking at night

Sarah’s key triggers for sleepwalking are stress and dieting. If she restricted food intake during the day, she would go in search of it while sleepwalking at night

Her real worry is how ‘able’ she is when she sleepwalks.

She says: ‘Some people just stumble around a room and talk, I can get up, get dressed and find a way to unlock a door. I worry what I might do next — drive a car? It’s terrifying.’

Professor Leschziner says sleepwalkers’ eyes are usually open, so they can see where they are going. But ‘the degree of awareness and cognitive ability is related to how much of the brain is awake and how much is asleep — I’ve got one patient who has driven a car and a motorbike: he even reverse parallel parked.

‘Another famous case is Kenneth Parks, from Canada, who [in 1987] allegedly drove miles to his in-laws’ house, murdered his mother-in-law, tried to kill his father-in-law and it was deemed to be a sleepwalking event.

‘So people can do some extraordinarily complicated things.’

Treatment begins with simple measures such as stress management, avoiding sleep deprivation and cutting down on alcohol.

Tackling sounds that may trigger an event is also important.

‘I’ve seen people have sleepwalking events because they are on a creaky bed and the noise will cause them to have a partial awakening,’ says Professor Leschziner. ‘So it’s important to ensure the environment is as controlled as possible.’

This includes taking precautions such as putting locks on windows ‘if you know one of your tendencies is to open the window’, he adds. Other interventions include identifying any medication that might be exacerbating the condition.

For more complex cases, a sleep study (in a sleep clinic) can help to identify hidden triggers, such as periodic limb movement disorder. But if all else fails, sleeping pills or certain types of antidepressants can help, says Professor Leschziner.

He adds that if your partner is a sleepwalker, the ‘best thing is to very gently lead them back to bed and get them out of danger’ — shouting or screaming at someone in ‘a confused state might risk aggression’.

Sarah, while pleased finally to be on a diagnostic path, feels it took a long time for GPs to take her seriously.

‘I know some people find sleepwalking funny but it’s actually really scary both for the sleepwalker and whoever shares their bed,’ she says.

Rude health 

You’ll have heard about the gut microbiome — the community of bacteria and other microbes — and its influence on wellbeing. Now researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have found that the microbiome in semen may be linked to male infertility. 

They identified one microbe in particular, Lactobacillus iners, which appears to have a direct impact on sperm motility for instance, reported the journal Scientific Reports. 

Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have found that the microbiome in semen may be linked to male infertility

Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have found that the microbiome in semen may be linked to male infertility

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk