People do weird things in their sleep. They walk, talk, flail about, can even become intimately amorous, and have no recollection of it. Collectively, these behaviors are known as “parasomnias," and that’s the subject of today’s installment in ideastream’s multi-media series on sleep. Anne Glausser prepared our report (a part of which may not be considered appropriate for small children).
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GIALLUCA: I was a passenger in a car driving down the railroad tracks in the dead of winter and it felt like a suicide kind of thing. Someone else was driving--I have no idea who--but I'm in the passenger seat and we're going by all this deep snow and I don't like being there and I feel I gotta get outta here and I remember thinking well the snow will break my fall, and I dived out of the car.
And what I did was dive out of the bed.
That's Tony Gialluca, a 62 year old from Canton Ohio and he has a sleep disorder where he acts out his dreams. Physically. So when he’s dreamed of punching attackers in an alleyway, he’s woken up with very sore fist, from slamming it into the headboard. The first instance of this happened four years ago, when he dove off his bed into the supposed "snow pile" and it scared him.
GIALLUCA: And that was a rude awakening. I hit my head on the nightstand, plus the floor and that shook me up, cause it's like what the heck, what's going on here. Rattled.
During sleep, it’s almost as if we're caught in-between reality and another world. And for people like Gialluca, this sensation is a physical reality.
Gialluca's disorder--called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder--is one of a category of occurrences called parasomnias.
KOO: Well a parasomnia literally "para" from latin means "next to" and "somnia" meaning sleep, so literally "next to sleep."
Dr. Brian Koo, a neurologist at University Hospitals specializing in sleep disorders
KOO: And a parasomnia is anything that occurs in or around sleep that interferes with sleep, and it usually involves some sort of abnormal behavior.
The list of parasomnias is long and rather amazing –
MONTAGE: sleepwalking, sleep-talking, sleep-driving, sleep-eating, sleep-cake-baking, sleep-carpet-crawling, sleep-gunfire, sleep-punching your husband who is a Staff Sergeant in the US Marine Corps, sleep-karate-chopping your TiVo thinking it's a jackal...
Just to name a few, actual, examples.
There are two broad types of parasomnias: those that occur when we dream--in a phase of sleep called REM, which stands for rapid eye movement--and those that happen in our non-dreaming stages of sleep.
Tony Gialluca's parasomnia occurs when he dreams, in REM sleep. Dr. Koo.
KOO: During REM sleep in a normal person, the body is paralyzed except for the eye muscles--hence the rapid eye movements and the diaphragm, because we need to keep breathing of course--and so the rest of the muscles are paralyzed in a normal person but in REM sleep behavior disorder, people lose this paralysis of the body so they will actually act out what they're dreaming about.
One patient of Dr. Koo's used to harness himself to his bed each night, so he wouldn't hit the wall when he ran from the villains of his dream.
Often the condition can be treated with sleep meds, which help the body maintain paralysis during those vivid dreams. Lifestyle changes can also help, like bolting your bedroom door, and locking away dangerous items.
KOO: I saw a young female police officer probably in her late 20s or so and she reported having no recollection but there were events where she would get up from sleep and she would get her firearm, her pistol, and she actually fired it several times out the window. She got to the point where she had to lock her pistol under several levels of guard so that she couldn't get to it.
Just about any behavior that you can conceive of while awake could be enacted during sleep, says Koo. For instance, sleep-eating.
KOO: Sleep-eating is kind of an interesting one--or a funny one too--in that people can try to prepare foods but they prepare it in an incomplete way, or they can add ingredients that are not really edible. So if someone is baking a cake, they could kind of make the cake and throw the eggs in there, and keep the egg shells in there and not realize what they're doing. They might throw in strange things like cigarette butts. And they might put it in the oven and forget to turn it on.
Parasomnias like this can sometimes be triggered by certain sleeping pills, says Koo. Ambien is the most common provoker. One daughter captured her father's experience in her You Tube video titled "Ambien is a helluva drug."
CLIP: Daddy this is you eating.
We see an older man, his eyes mostly closed, digging into a bowl of salad, with dressing dribbling down his chin.
CLIP: You aren't going to remember this in the morning so maybe you should wave at the camera. No? Ok watch what happens when I try to take it away from you, watch what happens.
As she takes the bowl away, he clangs his fork in protest.
And as strange as it is, late night salad munching pales in comparison to the story of Sharon Whipple from Tallmadge Ohio. Warning: some listeners might think this next example inappropriate for small children. So, we’ll take just a moment here for ears to be covered. And now I'll just cut to the chase: Whipple’s husband has sex with her, in his sleep.
We talked at a local café.
WHIPPLE: Within five minutes of falling asleep, he literally disrobes himself completely in his sleep. And stretches. Just stretches, just like anyone else would. And that's the first sign. And then usually I'd say within 20 minutes of that he would roll over and rub my back a little, and then try to disrobe me in a rather aggressive manner.
Whipple, charismatic and not shy, tells me more.
WHIPPLE: If I let it continue, it moves right on through some foreplay. It continues right on through to the whole shebang and usually he wakes up I guess at the good part and then falls right back asleep. And has really vague vague recollections in the morning. Just knows he had a good night.
Dr. Koo confirms that sleep sex is indeed a parasomnia that a small percent of people experience--and as you can imagine, in the wrong circumstances it can spell big trouble in terms of sexual assault.
Whipple, who has been married to her husband for 8 years, has learned to control whether or not to let the "sleep sex" happen. Using a very loud and deep voice she says, “No”…and he usually just rolls over and continues to sleep.
Sleep sex and the host of other parasomnias can be strange, in that we may be doing things without deciding to do them, things that are not part of our personality when awake, and then not remembering it in the morning. Thankfully parasomnias are relatively rare; most are benign; and those that are harmful can usually be treated.