If you have ever acted out sexually while sleeping, you’re not alone. Here is a closer look into the rare and largely unknown sleep disorder know as sexsomnia.
Most people are familiar with sleepwalking, in which a person in deep sleep will get up and begin walking around the house. Another condition that occurs during the same phase of the sleep cycle is sexsomnia, in which the sleeping individual acts out sexually. Unlike sleepwalking, sexsomnia is largely unknown and misunderstood.
The condition recently made headlines because of a study at the Toronto Western Hospital in Canada. Results from questionnaires filled out by 832 sleep center patients revealed that 62 participants, or 7.6 percent, experienced sexsomnias — 11 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women. The researchers expected the percentage of those with sexsomnia to be lower in the general population, and these results made them realize that the condition might be more common than previously believed.
What Is Sexsomnia?
Like sleepwalking, sexsomnia is known as a parasomnia, an abnormal activity that occurs during a specific kind of sleep. But unlike other forms of parasomnia, the condition is sexually aggressive in nature.
“Sleep sex or sexsomnia is a form of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) parasomnia, similar to sleepwalking, that causes people to engage in sexual acts such as masturbation, fondling, intercourse, and sometimes rape while they are asleep,” says Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Mo. “This is similar to sleepwalking in that it occurs during NREM sleep, but medically it is a separate condition.”
Since the sexsomniac is experiencing a deep sleep phenomenon, he usually won’t even remember it the following day. “Most cases involve no recall and even a denial that the event occurred,” says Russell Rosenberg, PhD, vice chairman of the National Sleep Foundation in Atlanta.
What Causes Sexsomnia?
Many parasomnias, including sexsomnia, are poorly understood. As a result, experts aren’t exactly sure what causes them. However, there are clearly some risk factors that make sexsomnia more likely to occur in some people than in others.
“Many of these types of behaviors during sleep occur secondary to other sleep disorders such as sleep deprivation or obstructive sleep apnea,” says Raman Malhotra, MD, co-director of the Saint Louis University Sleep Disorders Center. “Certain medications can induce these types of behaviors. There also seems to be a genetic component to NREM sleep parasomnias, usually running through families.” Drug and alcohol abuse are other risk factors for sexsomnia, adds Rosenberg.
According to the data from the Toronto Western Hospital, men are more likely to experience sleep sex than women, though both can be affected. Rosenberg also believes sexsomnia might be more common than people realize. “There is shame involved with the disorder, so I believe that it is underreported in the general population,” he says.
How Sexsomniacs Can Be Helped
Currently, there are no FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of sexsomnia, but doctors have had success using some common sedatives and antidepressants off-label for treating the condition. “If we try these medications, we will closely monitor the patient for a few months to make sure they are working,” says Rosenberg.
Another important approach to treating sexsomnia is creating a safe environment for those affected by the condition. This might include sleeping in a separate bedroom, locking doors, or even putting alarms on doors to wake people up and make them aware of what is happening. “It is important that safety measures be put in place immediately in order to keep both the patient and anyone else in the house secure,” says Dr. Malhotra.
Finally, if an underlying sleep disorder or drug and alcohol abuse might be causing the sexsomnia, it’s important to treat those conditions, too. “Making sure patients are getting adequate amounts of sleep, avoiding certain medications, or treating any underlying sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea may be the only treatment necessary to make the behaviors disappear,” says Malhotra.
By Wyatt Myers – Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH