Sunday December 9 2012

Weird things that people get up to in their sleep

By Gerry Loughran

Some people send texts while they are asleep (they’re mostly rubbish), others raid the larder, some have sex and one man carefully dismantled a grandfather clock. More than 30 per cent of the British population suffers from insomnia or some other sleep disorder, according to the Mental Health Foundation, as reported by the BBC.

Clinics which deal with such problems say they are getting up to 50 new referrals a week, a fivefold increase in a decade. These figures do not signal an unstable nation, more that there is a raised awareness of sleep disorders and experts to advise on them.

Ninety-two per cent of Britons now own mobile phones, so it is probably not surprising that people take them to bed and some send text messages while asleep. “It is very common for people to do things in their sleep that they do repeatedly during the day,” said Dr Kirstie Sanderson, who runs the NHS Neurology Sleep Service.

Unwanted behaviour during sleep is known as parasomnia. It can be as mild as opening your eyes while asleep to getting up and driving a car.

Empty food wrappers and a messy kitchen will tell some sleepwalkers that they have been up during the night and gone searching for snacks, though they have no recollection of this when they wake. “Often sleepwalkers will do things that make some kind of sense,” said Dr Anderson. “They might eat when they have gone to bed hungry or are dieting during the day.”

The mimicking actions they perform in sleep, however, are done more clumsily or inaccurately, thus the texts they send rarely make sense. Sexsomnia is a condition where people have sex in their sleep, ranging from minor embracing to full intercourse. It can become more frequent during times of stress or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“It is instinctive behaviour, people are not conscious at the time,” said Dr Chris Idzikowski, who gives expert evidence at trials that involve serious sexual assault. “It happens usually in the ‘deep sleep’ phase. When you are in deep sleep, moral and rational decision-making do not occur.”
One of the scariest of sleep disorders which is certainly on the rise, probably due in part to obesity, is Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, when the sleeper stops breathing.

Usually accompanied by very loud snoring, this occurs when the throat muscles collapse and block the airways. Monitored in test conditions, Paul Asbury, 47, was found to stop breathing in his sleep, sometimes for as long as 26 seconds. And since he is a lorry driver, the condition worried him deeply.

“I was really scared when I was told,” said Asbury. “I just thought I had a snoring problem.”
Tests showed that the breaks in his breathing occurred as many as 50 times an hour. Each time, his body woke up and he started breathing again, but he remembered nothing about it in the morning.
Asbury’s condition is being treated with a special face mask, which is working so far.

Perhaps the strangest disorder is exploding head syndrome. You are peacefully falling asleep and suddenly it’s like a bomb goes off in your head. Sufferers have compared it to a bomb explosion, a gunshot or a clap of thunder. It is painless but distressing.

Dr Anderson said it is the sensory equivalent of the sudden jerk that many people experience while falling sleep. “It is entirely benign but can be alarming and mostly we simply reassure sufferers,” she said.

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When I was a small boy in the Cub Scouts, we used to gather in a circle and recite the Scout oath, promising “to do our duty to God and the King (now Queen), to help other people at all times and to obey Scout law.”

That may now be coming to an end, at least the bit about God. The UK movement is considering a version of its oath that would drop the reference to the deity and thus allow atheists to become members. How many atheists there are among Britain’s little boys I would not care to guess.

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I wrote here recently about the advisability of comparing prices when shopping. Maybe I should pay closer attention to my own advice. Last week at a popular chain store, I bought two handkerchiefs for £6 (about Shs26,000). Next day at a market stall, I bought six handkerchiefs for £2 (Shs8,678).
Waiting to board a train for one of those rail journeys I wrote about, I decided to have a cup of tea. I neglected to check the price and for a cup of hot water and a tea bag I was charged an outrageous £2.15 (Shs9,329).

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Silly newspaper ads:
LOST: Three-legged cat, has only one ear and no tail. Answers to “Lucky.”
FOR SALE: Friendly dog, eats anything, fond of children.
SERVICES: While on vacation, have your home exterminated.

Mr Loughran is a UK-based correspondent.