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Sexsomnia - is your partner really awake when they disturb you during your sleep for some affection?

Sexsomnia - is your partner really awake when they disturb you during your sleep for some affection?

Many people are familiar with what sleep walking, sleep talking and nightmares are but there are certain parasomnias (a type of sleep disorder which involves abnormal and unnatural movements, behaviours etc…) are less well-known and spoke about. One such condition is known as “sexsomnia”.

What is sexsomnia?

Sexsomnia, also known as sleep sex is a type of parasomnia similar to sleep walking and night terrors; the sleeping individual acts out sexually either towards their partner or on themselves. The proposed medical term of this disorder is NREM arousal parasomnia – sexual behaviour in sleep. Sexsomnia is often misunderstood as it is quite a new term; according to One Paper the condition of sexsomnia has been around for 15 years in some medical journals yet it was only officially recognised as a sleep disorder in 2005 in the International Classification of Sleep Disorders.

Dr Matthew Walker, a scientist in neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London states that sexsomnia usually occurs within the first few hours of sleep during the deep sleep stages. The cerebral cortex (the part of the brain which is involved with thinking, awareness and planning) slowly starts to switch off during these stages whereas the brain stem (which controls the basic functions and urges i.e. to eat, drive or move) is still functioning. By these stages the sexsomnia will be taking place unbeknown to the individual; even in the morning they are unaware of their actions.

The definite cause of sexsomnia is still unknown, just like other parasomnias, as they are still not fully understood, however there are certain risk factors which contribute towards this disorder. Sexsomnia can be triggered by sleep deprivation, stress, heavy use of alcohol/drugs and it can also run in the family; NREM parasomnias are found to have genetic components according to Russell Rosenberg, PhD, vice chairman of the National Sleep Foundation in Atlanta (Everyday Health)

Sexsomnia is more common than thought a study reveals

A 2010 study conducted by Dr Sharon A. Chung and her team from the sleep research laboratory at the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada found that sexsomnia is a real self-reported sleep disorder. The results were presented to SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) in San Antonio, Texas.

The study, which has not been published, consisted of 832 patients seeking help at a sleep clinic with 428 of the patients being male and the remaining 404 participants being female. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire which asked them of their sleep disorder symptoms, behaviours during sleep and their mood, fatigue and sleepiness levels.

The results had shown that 7.6% suffered from sexsomnia. Chung explained to LiveScience that “There have been no previous studies of how frequently sexsomnia occurs. While our finding of 8% of people reporting sexsomnia seems really a high number, it should be stressed that we only studied patients referred to a sleep clinic. So we would expect the numbers to be much lower in the general population.” Only 4 out of the 832 patients spoke of the distress with sexsomnia during consultations with a sleep specialist and the survey had shown that men (11%) are affected more by this disorder than women (4%).

Chung and her team may have found a factor that is behind sexsomnia; illegal drugs. The patients who reported sexsomnia were also twice as likely to admit to using illegal drugs compared to those who suffered from other sleep disorders. However both groups consumed caffeine and smoked at similar rates.

The effects of sexsomnia

As the study suggests it seems as though sexsomnia is being recognised more by the public especially with the amount of people claiming to suffer from this disorder. However the physical and emotional side for those that do suffer from this disorder can be damaging; relationships can end as couples can’t deal with the regularity of the sufferers actions, the sufferer can feel embarrassed, frustrated and be ridden with guilt and in worse case scenarios they can even face legal action especially if a sexual act was upon a stranger.

There are currently no clinically approved drugs to help cure sexsomnia but doctors have found that certain common sedatives and antidepressants can help reduce this disorder. Simple lifestyle changes can help diminish this disorder such as avoiding alcohol, drugs and smoking and also finding a way to reduce to stress and anxiety; attending therapy may help with this too. Lastly sexsomnia may be the cause of another underlying sleep disorder so it is very important to consult your doctor if you notice any possible symptoms or you are told by your partner about your actions; if left untreated it can lead to further complications in the future. 

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