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What is sleep drunkenness and how can I combat it?

27-03-2015

What is sleep drunkenness and how can I combat it?

Have you ever been woken up and reached out for the alarm clock only to find that you are trying to turn your book off? Or did you go to the bathroom and try to brush your teeth with eyeliner instead of tooth paste? Sounds like you may have experienced ‘sleep drunkenness’. This is not drunken sleeping, but rather the act of waking in a groggy manner where you act and feel like you are drunk, or at least very dopey. It happens to many of us and while it does pass it can leave you somewhat hindered as your brain just is not able to make the normal connections, associations and decisions.

So what is sleep drunkenness?

While many have experienced this phenomenon at some point the scientific community are only just now getting a handle on exactly what is going on when we wake up in this state. A recent study found that about 1 in 7 people have this disorder. The study, which has just been published in the journal Neurology, also found that 84 per cent of people who suffer from sleep drunkenness disorder also have a related sleep disorder, a mental health disorder or were taking psychotropic drugs, generally antidepressants.

Generally speaking the sufferers while experience an episode of sleep drunkenness when they are woken from their sleep, rather than when they wake naturally of their own accord, either in the middle of the night or when they have to get up in the morning. In the same manner that sleep  walkers are often not aware of what is occurring when they sleep walk, people who suffer from this disorder will frequently have no memory of what happens when they have sleep drunkenness. This can be particularly problematic if their behaviour was violent or dangerous (which can often occur when people are sleep drunk).

The study

The study author, Dr. Maurice M. Ohayon, of Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, explains that “These episodes of waking up confused have received considerably less attention than sleepwalking even though the consequences can be just as serious”. The study was massive for a sleep project, with researchers interviewing almost 20,000 people who were 18 and older. They asked the participants if they had ever experienced any of the symptoms that are associated with sleep drunkenness as well as a range of other questions regarding mental health, medications etc. They found that 15 per cent of the participants had experienced sleep drunkenness in the past year.

Connections between sleep drunkenness and other disorders

They also discovered that there are a number of factors that all link together, they whether these are simply correlations or causations is not yet known. One of the most interesting of these connected factors was that 71 per cent of people who suffer from sleep drunkenness disorder also have sleep apnea, which is another very common sleep disorder. 37.4 per cent of the sufferers of sleep drunkenness also had a mental health disorder, which the researchers found extremely illuminating. This 37.4 per cent of study participants had a range of disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, panic, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. They also found that 31 per cent of suffers were currently on psychotropic medications including antidepressants.

Sleep drunkenness and sleep quantity

As well as having a disorder, the researchers also found connections between the sleep quality of participants and the incidence of sleep drunkenness. They found that people who were getting more or less than the average sleep amount (which is between 6.5 and 8 hours) indicated a higher chance of suffering from sleep drunkenness with around 20 per cent of people who sleep for less than six hours a night suffering from it and about 15 per cent of people who sleep for more than nine hours suffering from it.

The other side of the coin

On the other side of the coin, those people who did not suffer from any other disorder and were sleeping for between 6.5 and 8 hours each night only had a 1 per cent chance of suffering from sleep drunkenness. In other words, while the causational links are not yet confirmed it seems that the connections seem fairly clear, it is likely that these disorders (or sleep quantity) are exacerbating the chances of sleep drunkenness.

Why does it happen?

Ohayon explains that “These episodes of confused awakening have not gotten much attention, but given that they occur at a high rate in the general population, more research should be done on when they occur and whether they can be treated. People with sleep disorders or mental health issues should also be aware that they may be at greater risk of these episodes.”

While it is now considered a disorder the researchers believe that its origins are actually an evolutionary benefit rather than a hindrance. They think that it may be associated with human’s ability to react to a possible threat, noting that when animals are woken suddenly from their sleep by something that is threatening the inhibition of their startle reflex is often reduced. The study explains that “This mechanism has a protective role for the survival of the animal, which needs to respond quickly to potential threats when it is suddenly aroused. A similar protective mechanism probably exists in humans, and therefore techniques that are used to suddenly awake a person in the morning, such as using the alarm clock, can trigger this defense mechanism and provoke episodes of the disorder.”

What can you do if you suffer from it?

While they are not exactly sure why it happens, Ohayon and colleagues refer to sleep drunkenness as a kind of “severe sleep inertia”—it is as though the brain decides to stay asleep while the body gets up. Though in most cases it is not dangerous, Ohayon believes people should talk to a medical expert if they suffer from it regularly, “Getting more sleep, setting a more regular sleep-wake schedule, and avoiding alcohol in the evening might help to reduce the number of sleep drunkenness episodes you experience”.


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