Does Alcohol Addiction Lead To Dangerous Sleepwalking?

By: 
Steve Trevino
May 24, 2022
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Alcohol addiction can lead to many health problems, including liver diseases, heart disease, and pancreatitis. It can also increase the risk of accidents and injuries and contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. One less well-known effect of alcohol dependence is sleepwalking.

While there is no direct experimental evidence that alcohol predisposes one to sleepwalk, some literature indicates that it can trigger sleepwalking or increase its risk by increasing the quantity of slow-wave sleep (SWS). Alcohol also alters total sleep time and affects the time required to fall asleep.

Although researchers still don't have a grasp of all the complex processes that occur during sleep, what's known is that lack of sleep could predispose one to depressive disorders and sleep disorders. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, people who drink before sleeping often experience insomnia symptoms and feel sleepy the next day.

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What is a Normal Sleep Pattern?

A normal sleep pattern consists of two types of sleep: slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM).

  • SWS is a deep, restorative sleep during which the body repairs and heals itself.
  • REM is a lighter, dream sleep during which the brain processes information and consolidates memories.

Most people cycle through both types of sleep several times during the night. A typical sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes and consists of four or five periods of REM followed by a period of SWS.

However, the exact duration and timing of sleep cycles vary from person to person. Some people may have longer or shorter cycles, and some may spend more time in REM than SWS.

How the Brain Controls Sleep

Sleep is a complex and fascinating process that scientists are still working to understand. However, we do know that the brain controls sleep. The brain stem, responsible for basic functions like heart rate and breathing, also regulates sleep.

When we are awake, the brain stem sends signals to the rest of the brain that keeps us alert and active. And when we sleep, it signals the brain to slow down and relax. This process is known as sleep initiation.

Scientists believe that sleep is important for restoring energy levels, lowering stress levels, and improving moods. It is also thought to play a role in memory formation and learning.

The Relationship between Alcohol and Sleep

Although moderate alcohol consumption before bedtime may help you fall asleep, it significantly affects sleep continuity and quality. Normally, sleep is divided into three non-REM stages and a REM stage.

During the first two non-REM stages, your heartbeat and breathing slow, and your body temperature decreases. You progress from light sleep in stage 1 to deep sleep in stage 2. In the third stage of non-REM sleep, delta waves (slow brainwaves) begin to appear. This is the deepest and most restorative stage of sleep.

Finally, during REM sleep, your heartbeat quickens, your breathing becomes shallow and irregular, your eyes dart back and forth under closed eyelids, and your arm and leg muscles are temporarily paralyzed.

Alcohol consumption before bedtime can adversely affect all four stages of sleep. Although alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it disrupts subsequent REM sleep. As a result, you may wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed. Moderate to heavy drinkers are more likely to experience these effects than light drinkers.

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According to a survey published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, Alcohol affects sleep initiation and sleep maintenance during the 1st and 2nd half of the nighttime sleeping period.

Furthermore, alcohol withdrawal can also lead to insomnia. If you regularly drink alcohol to excess and then experience insomnia when you suddenly stop drinking, you may be experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Insomnia is one of the most common withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol and Sleep Disorders

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and it can cause a range of sleep disorders, including:

Insomnia

The most common sleep disorder caused by alcohol use is insomnia, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep. When you are addicted to alcohol, you are more likely to experience periods of binge drinking followed by periods of abstinence. This can lead to a condition called rebound insomnia, which can, in turn, lead to sleepwalking.

Sleep Apnea

Alcohol can also cause disruptions in the normal sleep cycle, leading to problems such as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition in which people stop breathing repeatedly during the night. It can cause fatigue during the day and increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Night Terrors

Alcohol use can increase the risk of developing night terrors. Sleep terrors usually occur during the first few hours of sleep when alcohol inhibits REM sleep, which is when most dreams occur. This increased dreaming can lead to night terrors, characterized by suddenly waking up in a state of panic.

Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is a type of parasomnia, defined as an unwanted behavior or event that occurs during sleep. It is most likely to occur after several hours of deep sleep. Alcohol decreases the level of glucose in the brain, which can lead to micro-awakenings that disrupt deep sleep and increase the likelihood of sleepwalking.

Alcohol-Induced Sleepwalking

No research has established a direct connection between alcohol consumption and sleepwalking. What we know is that alcohol can interfere with sleep patterns and can trigger sleep conditions like sleep apnea.

Untreated sleep apnea can increase sleepwalking risk, especially when enhanced with alcohol use. Alcohol relaxes the upper airways, causing the same effects to sleep apnea when someone stops breathing when sleeping. When this happens, the body may wake someone up from sleep, but there may be confusion in the consciousness level that could raise the chances of alcohol-induced sleepwalking.

How to Prevent Sleepwalking and Stay Safe

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Sleepwalking occurs when you are in a state of semi-consciousness, and you walk or perform other activities while you are asleep. Although sleepwalking episodes are usually brief and harmless, they can sometimes be dangerous. In rare cases, sleepwalkers have been known to injure themselves or others.

Sleepwalking is most common in children, including those with fetal alcohol syndrome. But it can also occur in adults. The condition is usually triggered by fatigue, stress, sleep deprivation, or alcohol use and may expose one to risks.

During sleepwalking episodes, people are often unaware of their surroundings and may put themselves in danger by walking into traffic or falling downstairs. It gets even worse as sleepwalkers may attempt to drive or operate machinery while sleepwalking and end up hurting themselves and others.

If you are addicted to alcohol, it is important to get treatment to avoid the risks associated with sleepwalking. You can also do the following to help with sleepwalking:

  1. First, stop drinking alcohol or avoid it before bed as it can disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to parasomnias.
  2. Second, make sure you get enough rest by following a regular sleep schedule and creating a calm environment in your bedroom.
  3. Finally, if you have a history of sleepwalking, your doctor may prescribe sleep medicine to help prevent future episodes.

Alcohol addiction can lead to some dangerous sleepwalking behavior. If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol addiction, it's important to seek treatment to address the alcohol use issue. There are also many resources available online from the Department of Health and Human Services that you can check out.

888-249-2191

About The Author: 
Steve Trevino
Steve Trevino is married to Julie, his high school sweetheart and they have two daughters. He is the founder and executive director of CrossCentral Church and Recovery Center. With experience in both non-profit and for-profit treatment, he has helped thousands find freedom from addiction through residential programs, recovery workshops and consulting around the world.

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