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A Look at Unusual Sleep Disorders

Sleep should be a time for peaceful rest and rejuvenation. But the truth is that many Americans don’t get the sleep they need. This rings especially true for those who suffer from sleep disorders.

Although some types of sleep disorders are common, like insomnia or sleep apnea, you’d be surprised to know the variety of out-of-the-ordinary sleep disorders that exist.

Here are just a few that you might not have heard of:

Eating While You Sleep

Sleepwalking is common — especially with young children — however, a small percentage of people will continue to sleepwalk into their adult life. An even smaller percentage of adults will sleepwalk right into the kitchen and begin eating. The official name for this is “sleep-related eating disorder” and those that suffer from this problem actually eat while asleep and will not recall the experience in the morning.

This disorder can be dangerous for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly not good for your health to consume food in the middle of the night since your body does not need any extra calories. Even more problematic is that people with the condition aren’t aware of what they are eating and may try to eat things that are harmful. There are reports of people burning themselves from drinking scalding hot drinks, making sandwiches made entirely of salt or even breaking teeth trying to eat frozen foods straight out of the freezer.

Active Dreaming

To protect us while we dream, our brain sends a signal down the spinal cord that tells our muscles to stop moving. The body is essentially paralyzed while we dream. The only voluntary muscles that work are the diaphragm (which helps us breath) and the eye muscles.

This “paralysis” ensures that we don’t start acting out what is happening in our dreams. There is a rare disorder that prohibits this from happening. Imagine dreaming about running and then actually getting out of your bed to run while you sleep?

In a disorder known as “Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder,” this is exactly what happens. The normal signal to stop moving the body is not sent, so people will physically act out their dreams, whether it be running, hitting, or trying to fly. Clearly, this has its inherent dangers and it is not unusual for people to break bones and injure bed partners with this disorder.

Waking Up Paralyzed

As I mentioned, it’s normal for our bodies to be paralyzed while we dream. However, in another rare sleep disorder, that paralysis persists for a few seconds or minutes after waking up. The eyes can open and are able to look around, but nothing else in the body can be voluntarily moved. This is known as sleep paralysis.

Although the experience is typically quite short, it can be frightening. Sleep paralysis generally occurs in people who are experiencing symptoms of sleep deprivation, and when well rested, it should not occur. In rare cases, sleep paralysis can be a sign of another sleep disorder called narcolepsy, in which the person feels excessive sleepiness during the daytime.

These sleep disorders are incredibly rare and the majority of us are unlikely to experience any of these in our lifetime. However, if you do experience any of disorders, know that you are not alone, and that help is not far away. Bring it up to your regular physician and consider a referral to a sleep specialist that can help improve your sleep quality.

About The Author

Dr. Sujay Kansagra Sujay Kansagra, MD is an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center and is Mattress Firm's Sleep Health Expert. He is also the Program Director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program and Director of the Duke Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program. Dr. Kansagra is double board certified in both Child Neurology and Sleep Medicine. He has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals and is the author of numerous book chapters and books on the topic of sleep, including My Child Won’t Sleep. He’s been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Bustle, SheKnows, Thrillist, CNN, and Reader’s Digest, among others and can be found regularly discussing sleep, medicine and education with his 129K+ Twitter followers via his accounts, @medschooladvice and @PedsSleepDoc. Best Night’s Sleep: Not just a sleep expert, but also an expert sleeper, Dr. Kansagra can sleep almost anywhere, thanks to years of sleep deprivation during medical school and residency call nights. But his best sleep is at home with his family, on a mattress he purchased at Mattress Firm long before he joined our team. He recently upgraded it with an adjustable base.

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