Parasomnias: The Science of Unhealthy Sleep

11/27/2007 ?? – Mike Doyle is a meek bank manager by day who lives with his wife in the Minneapolis suburbs.

At night he wanders through the house in deep sleep, living out his strangest and wildest dreams.

“I ran down the hall and jumped off the top step and landed somewhere downstairs,” said Doyle. “I got up and went back to bed and the next morning I didn’t realize what I had done until I sat on the wooden chair in the kitchen. And I thought I was going to die because it hurt so much to sit. “

Doyle is one of the millions of Americans – up to 4 percent – who suffer from parasomnias: uncomfortable and undesirable behaviors during deep sleep.

“What happens with parasomnias is the brain tells the body to move, walk, have , eat, get aggressive, and get violent,” Dr. Carlos Schenck, specialist in sleep disorders and author of “Sleep: The Secrets, the Problems and the Solutions.” “It is the brain that directs the muscles in the rest of the body to take part in these activities.” (For more information on sleep disorders and on Dr. Schecnk’s new book on parasomnias, please visit

Bizarre behavior

In the documentation “Sleep Runners”, Schenck cataloged a number of parasomnias, including those that eat while sleeping.

“A woman with sleep-eating, every time she eats a bit of her brownie, she sticks out her little finger and nibbles on it and there is no way she would do that during the day,” said Schenck. “The sleep-eaters are generally partially aware of what they are doing, but they don’t know the full extent until the next morning, when they see everything they consume with horror, and they are really very disgusted with the way they ate. like spaghetti and meatballs with their bare hands or they make a tuna sandwich with salt and pepper or they even make a cat food sandwich. “

A cat food sandwich? It turns out that’s the bare minimum.

“You butter cigarettes. You put coffee grounds, Coca-Cola, eggshells in a blender and mix everything together and drink it,” he said. “It’s bizarre.”

Sometimes the behavior can be quite violent.

“You will see a Japanese living out a samurai warrior dream,” said Schenck.

Another man in the documentary is terrified of sleep and responds by hitting his pillow and growling.

“I think it’s the fight-or-flight reaction that suddenly from deep sleep you come across a great threat and either run away or fight the threat,” said Schenck.

REM interference

The parasomnias are considered to be a brain dysfunction, not a mental illness. Schenck said that “most parasomnias can be diagnosed and treated effectively, and most parasomnias are not a function of a daytime psychiatric disorder.”

Some people with the condition are reluctant to seek treatment because they fear the stigma, he added.

The more violent episodes – that occur during the dream phase of sleep known as rapid eye movement, or REM – may be a precursor to brain diseases such as Parkinson’s.

“We have identified a disorder, the so-called Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD), which mainly affects men over 50 who lived violent dreams with unfamiliar people or animals,” said Schenck. “After following these men for a decade or more, we found that at least two-thirds of these men developed Parkinson’s disease, a traditional neurological disorder involving tremors and rigidity.”

Such potential complications are one of the reasons Doyle eventually signed up for a sleep study at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. He was wired so that researchers could monitor his brain and body.

Doyle’s wife, Cheryl, said that during their eight-year marriage, her husband would walk around, talk about, and occasionally madden her in his sleep.

“He jumped right out of bed, screaming, shouting like a night shock,” Cheryl said. “Sometimes he yelled that the house was on fire. Sometimes it was just nonsense – there were dogs in the house and we had to get the dogs out of the front door open or the garage door open. “

Doyle said the episodes would happen “three, four, sometimes five, six times a night”.

“A completely different person”

One of his last night episodes was for the film “Cape Fear”. In the film, Robert De Niro plays an ex-inmate who persecutes the family of a lawyer played by Nick Nolte.

“There is one scene where the family is on the boat in the river and the family is trying to escape Robert De Niro and everyone jumped in the river and I dreamed that I was on that boat and out of bed got up, got a try and went into our living room, “said Doyle. “Basically, I just got up and went back to bed and didn’t wonder why the bed was wet until a few hours later, and when I turned on the light, I noticed my knees were bleeding because I had scraped my knees. “

“He’s not himself at night when he’s having these episodes,” Cheryl said. “He’s a completely different person.”

In his nocturnal personality, Doyle injured himself and behaved aggressively – albeit never violently – towards his wife. But sleep disorders have played a prominent role in crime.

Ten years ago, Scott Falater, a devout and devoted family man with no criminal record, stabbed his wife and held her under their pool. He claimed he was sleepwalking. A jury convicted him of murder.

In 1987, however, the Canadian Kenneth Parks was found not guilty of killing his mother-in-law after experts testified that he was asleep.

“Someone with parasomnia can commit a murder and has no idea what he or she is doing. So on that basis you should be considered innocent,” said Schenck.

Dream of sleep

During his sleep study, Doyle was monitored overnight and during a series of naps totaling nearly 24 hours. In the morning, Dr. Schenk and Dr. Mark Mahowald – a neurologist – reviews the results.

“His REM sleep appeared to be ,” said Mahowald.

Doyle and Cheryl got good news: sleepwalking didn’t appear to be the more serious REM behavior disorder (RBD), the red flag for Parkinson’s disease.

“The bottom line is that you have sleep apnea that overshadows your sleepwalking,” Schenck. “You had an episode of confusing arousal with marbles from slow wave sleep, which is very much in line with the sleepwalking story. But you had mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea, 25 episodes an hour.”

The prescribed treatment included a ventilator to prevent sleep apnea and possibly a common sedative. Doyle hopes this will help him “achieve what I would consider a night’s sleep”.

Cheryl also said she was looking forward to “getting a good night’s sleep on your own. Uninterrupted sleep would be nice.”

For the Doyles this is the ultimate dream: a healthy sleep, unencumbered by the horrors of the night.

The following websites provide more information about parasomnias and sleep disorders:

Parasomnias: The Science Of Unhealthy SleepParasomnias-RBD (website of Dr. Carlos Schenck)

Parasomnias: The Science Of Unhealthy SleepThe National Sleep Foundation

Parasomnias: The Science Of Unhealthy SleepSleep Runners: The Stories Behind Parasomnias In Everyday Life

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