Parasomnias Often Under-Recognized, Misunderstood

Research points way to new treatments for sleepwalking, sleep sex, and other parasomnias.

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Shapiro and Guilleminault have each published research describing 11 patients with symptoms of sexsomnia that ranged from loud, disruptive moaning to sexual assault. Regardless of how unusual or violent the behavior, Guilleminault says his patients had no memory of the events the next morning.

He notes that often, people who engage in sleep sex have a history of sleepwalking, REM behavior disorders, apnea, bed-wetting, or other sleep-related problems, to name a few. Some even have seizure disorders.

"That's a big find," Guilleminault says. "It suggests we can treat the seizures and eliminate the problem."

Shapiro urges people to have an open dialogue about any abnormal sexual behavior during sleep with their doctors. "Just recognizing that sexsomnia is a sleep disorder is a step in the right direction," he says. "Now that we know it is possible and doctors start to ask the right questions, we will start to learn more about it."

The medical community has also been slow to recognize sleep eating as a medical condition, says Lea Montgomery, RN, MS, an instructor at Texas Christian University Harris School of Nursing in Fort Worth, who has written review articles on the disorder. "I had one woman frantic to get help; she had been sleep eating for 13 years. She tried to get help but wasn't taken seriously."

Sleep eaters get up to nosh as many as 12 times a night, Montgomery tells WebMD. "It's messy, primitive eating -- butter right out of the butter dish, salt out of the saltshaker -- not what they would normally eat during the day," she says.

A Good Night's Sleep

Doctors still don't know the cause of sleep sex or sleep eating. But, experts agree, the best way to combat any sleep woe is to practice good sleep habits:

If symptoms of parasomnia persist, you may want to seek help at an accredited sleep center, the specialists say. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine maintains a list of accredited sleep centers around the country.

WebMD Feature


SOURCES: Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, June 2003. Neurology, July 2003. Pediatrics, January 2003. Psychosomatic Medicine, March/April 2002. Colin M. Shapiro, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry, University of Toronto. Carlos H. Schenck, MD, senior staff psychiatrist, Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, Hennepin County Medical Center; associate professor of psychiatry, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Christian Guilleminault, MD, professor of sleep medicine, Stanford University Medical Center. Mark W. Mahowald, MD, director, Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, Hennepin County Medical Center; professor of neurology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Lea Montgomery, RN, MS, instructor, Texas Christian University Harris School of Nursing, Fort Worth.

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