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Sleepwalking writer uncovers the mysteries of slumber

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Consider yourself lucky people if you’re one of those people who fall asleep easily, and stay asleep until the alarm goes off. Not so for David K. Randall, author of the new book "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep."

Three years ago he woke up one night and instead of rolling over in his bed, he found himself in his hallway with a bruised knee and back.  It’s not like Randall’s loving wife kicked him out of the sack. Instead, he’s among the one in seven Americans with a long-term sleep disorder. Randall talks to NBCNews.com about the state of sleep research, why some of us just can’t seem to get enough  Zzzzzs, and also about those sometimes humorous, but more often dangerous, nighttime rambles.

Q: It stands to reason that finding yourself in your hallway instead of your bed was pretty much of a “eureka” moment in terms that something was wrong with you.

A: Absolutely. I went to my doctor and basically said that I didn’t want to run into another wall, so what can be done to help me. He said that they really didn’t know much about sleep, so just try and take it easy. This was the summer of 2009, and was the first sleepwalking episode that I had that I was actually aware of. I probably had more.

I know I used to laugh and sing and talk in my sleep all the time. But being mobile really freaked me out. I wanted to find out more about sleep, and after I started working on the book I found that sleepwalking could be due to stress, depression, accumulated lack of sleep, or even have a genetic component. I realized my dad told me that he was a sleepwalker. He grew up on a farm in Kansas and once found himself in a corn field, which sounds more like an alien abduction, but it was a sleepwalking episode. So it’s probably in my genes.

Q: Science recognizes some 75 sleep disorders, yet you say science really doesn’t know that much about sleep.

A: Well, actually, most studies are actually focused on sleep deprivation, rather than just sleep itself. We know that lack of sleep, for example, can cause a lot of issues from high blood pressure and diabetes to poor work or athletic performance, among other problems. But science still can’t answer the basic question on why we need to sleep. I was really surprised by that.

Q: So what do we know about sleep deprivation?

One study showed that rats will die from sleep deprivation after 11 days. That’s a terrible way to go. The most extensively documented study on a human was done in the 1960s when a subject went without sleep for 11 days. He developed paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and problems with short-term memory.

Q: But most of us don’t go without sleep for 11 days. We turn to medications even if we have one lousy night of sleep. What’s your take on pharmaceuticals?

A: I think there’s a two-part issue. First, with over-the-counter aids, some people take them every night, when they are supposed to be used short-term. Then, while there may not be a physical dependency, there is a mental dependency.  Prescription drugs, like Ambien and Lunesta, really don’t have that great of an effect. Studies show they may make you go to sleep 10 minutes earlier and sleep 10 minutes longer. That’s it. Plus, potential drug side effects like sleep eating and sleep driving, for example, aren’t a lot of fun.

Q: Everyone blames a sleepless night on modern-day stressors like a bad economy, a bad job, a bad fill-in-the-blank. So did our ancestors sleep better?

A: Maybe. But it’s kind of hard to say how sleep was for people in 500 A.D. when they probably slept on straw or were afraid of being eaten by some animal. But what we do know in pre-industrial times, people would sleep for a few hours, wake for an hour around midnight, and then go back to sleep until daybreak. Studies show that if people are deprived of artificial lighting, they will naturally sleep in this pattern. There’s been some work that shows that our gadgets like TV’s, computers, cell phones, and computer tablets are helping to destroy our sleep patterns.

Q: What about dreams? Is that still looked at as voodoo science?

A: I had a dream researcher tell me that he still gets weird glances from colleagues who think the work is a little to “new agey.”  I never used to think dreams meant anything, now I’m not so sure.

Q: Why not?

A: There are some studies showing our dreams are pretty true to life, minus the logic of the dream world, which can be very strange.

Researchers know that we tend to dream of things that make us anxious, and most dreams are unpleasant. That could be due to the fact that nothing else is competing for our attention when we’re dreaming. And letting our minds experience some anxious moment while dreaming could possibly function as a dress rehearsal for life. Plus, there is some work showing that that dreams could possibly play a role in how we pick up a new skill or come up with a solution to a problem.

Q: How are you sleeping now?

A: I think sleepwalking will be with me my whole life. But then again, I also have a two-month old son. So I’m not sure I’m going to get a good night’s sleep until he’s about 18.

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