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We all are probably aware of common sleeping disorders such as insomnia, the inability to fall asleep easily. However, there are some very rare sleep disorders that affect only a few. These are usually hereditary. The rare sleeping disorders discussed here can cause problems such as excessive sleeping, lack of sleep, or engaging in different acts while asleep. Here's an overview of some such disorders. Take a look.

1. Narcolepsy

What is it?
Narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system characterized by bouts of napping at any time of the day. Anyone suffering from this disorder feels the need to sleep every 3-4 hours in a day with a nap of say 15-20 minutes. Though a disorder, a short nap that occurs with this condition may have them waking up fresh. It is likely that one may experience hallucinations in the periods between naps. These bouts of napping may occur at any time, say while eating, during a meeting, or even while driving, thus making it extremely dangerous. Narcolepsy may affect one of every 2000 people.

What causes it?
It may or may not be caused by fatigue, though conditions such as insomnia may intensify its effect. It is known to be caused by the lack of a brain chemical known as hypocretin that regulates the REM sleep cycle.

How can it be treated?
While there is no specific treatment for this condition, there are methods by which it can be controlled. One way is to schedule naps every few hours to avoid falling asleep in the midst of something. Undergoing treatment with a sleep expert who will identify and treat the cause of this disorder will also help.

2. Kleine-Levin Syndrome - Hypersomnia

What is it?
The Kleine-Levin syndrome is identified by bouts of excessive daytime sleeping for long durations, from hours to weeks, days and months. There have been instances of people sleeping for up to 23 hours in a day when suffering from this condition. It has been found that when a person is about to get into an episode of this syndrome, she/he may display flu-like symptoms. After an episode of excessive sleeping, the affected individual may display symptoms such as irritation, confusion, hypersexuality (the heightened need to have sex), and the desire to binge uncontrollably. Studies show that this condition affects males more than females. About 200 people in the world suffer from this condition, as has been found recently.

What causes it?
There is no definitive cause for this condition, though the symptoms may be displayed due to irregularities in the function of the thalamus and the hypothalamus. Some individuals may experience this due to overdose of alcohol and drugs, excess fatigue, heavy levels or stress, or even health problems such as brain tumors.

How can it be treated?
Consulting a sleep expert is the first step toward treating this condition. Most sleep experts are known to recommend lifestyle changes to take care of this problem. Sleeping at a set time every day, reducing the intake of caffeine, engaging in activities such as yoga and meditation, are all known to help treat this problem.

3. Somnambulism - Sleepwalking

What is it?
As the name suggests, a sleepwalker is someone who walks while in the deep stages of sleep. This condition is common in children in the age group of 4-12 years. Usually, children outgrow this behavior that is known to run in the family. This condition can get dangerous because a person is likely to appear awake (though with a blank look on her/his face) and even walk around, drive, climb up and downstairs, or do things such as dress up to go somewhere, all of which may pose a danger. If undisturbed, a sleepwalker will eventually go back to sleep. However, they will not remember the episode of sleepwalking upon waking up the next morning, and may even tend to get very aggressive if they are woken up in the midst of an episode. This condition is rare, as only 15% of children of the aforementioned age group are known to be suffering from it.

What causes it?
This condition may occur due to fatigue, stress, and even lack of sleep. Even adults may be victims of this condition, and in such cases, the causes may be narrowed down to a mental condition, or a reaction to a particular medicine. Underlying medical conditions such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or gastroesophageal reflux may also cause this condition.

How can it be treated?
Treating the underlying medical conditions mentioned above may be able to stop episodes of sleepwalking. Again, consulting a sleep expert and taking medication for this condition will help. In some cases, hypnotherapy may be required to detect the cause of and treat sleepwalking.

4. Non 24-hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome

What is it?
Every human body ideally has a 24-hour sleep cycle that slightly varies from one person to another. However, those who suffer from the non 24-hour sleep-wake syndrome have longer cycles, say 25-26 hours, and in extreme cases, 72 hours too. The internal biological clock that regulates sleep patterns is disrupted causing this condition. In a shocking case, it was found that some individuals with this condition remained awake for 48 hours, and then slept for 24 hours at a stretch. Those affected by this condition find it difficult to stay on a job because their sleep patterns keep changing and become vague. Both children and adults may be affected by this condition.

What causes it?
This condition is associated with stress and depression, along with excessive fatigue. It has been more apparent in the visually impaired due to the lack of cues that indicate sleeping hours.

How can it be treated?
There is no specific treatment for this condition. Efforts can be made to try to induce sleep at specific hours by maintaining a sleep diary, taking certain medications, and making lifestyle changes to enhance sleep quality.

5. REM-Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD)

What is it?
During the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, a person's body gets paralyzed, breathing becomes irregular, and blood sugar levels rise. However, those who suffer from RBD do not get affected by what is known as sleep paralysis, so their bodies remain active. As such, these individuals see vivid dreams and enact them with actions that may include screaming, thrashing, and even throwing things around. This rare disorder occurs mostly in middle-aged and older adults, particularly males. This can be a dangerous condition as the person suffering can injure himself along with the one sleeping next to him. It is likely that the person enacting the dream may awaken in its midst and have a fresh memory of the dream with his corresponding actions.

What causes it?
The cause of this condition has been associated with other neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease and dementia.

How can it be treated?
While there is no specific treatment for this disorder, it is possible to somewhat treat the symptoms of the associated conditions.

6. Nocturnal Sleep-related Eating Disorder (NS-RED)

What is it?
Affecting 1%-3% of the general population, this is a condition that makes an individual eat while asleep. In a state somewhere between sleep and being awake, people tend to walk to the kitchen and eat high-sugar, comfort foods that they avoid eating while awake. They may also eat things that are inedible, like soap. People who suffer from this condition have no recollection of their nocturnal eating. The act of nocturnal eating along with the realization that they are victims of such a condition may cause people to gain weight, and result in depression.

What causes it?
NS-RED may affect those who have placed strict restrictions that they have put on themselves while on a diet. Individuals who are anxious or are suffering from extreme stress may also develop this condition.

How can it be treated?
This condition may be treated with medical and psychiatric intervention. Some people tend to take sleeping pills to ensure that they sleep through the night. However, this is dangerous because their condition may overpower the pills and cause further confusion and result in injury.

7. Sexsomnia

What is it?
Believed to be more common than people think, this disorder results in engaging in sex while asleep. 1% of the total population may suffer from this disorder. Those who engage in sexual acts as a result of sexsomnia often have no recollection of the event. In this case, their brain is able enough to process actions like walking, but not able enough to activate memory or judgment. On observing such individuals, it appears as though they are awake and fully aware of what they are doing. Most individuals who realize they suffer from this condition are overcome with shame and embarrassment, and may not be able to speak about it. Hence, the documented number of people suffering from it is less.

What causes it?
One of the major causes of this condition is believed to be suppressed emotions or psychological issues. However, even in the absence of these, this condition may occur, thus categorizing it as a medical problem rather than an emotional one. Fatigue, overdose of drugs or alcohol, stress, lack of sexual activity, and sexual arousal before sleeping may also contribute to the development of this condition.

How can it be treated?
Consultation with a psychiatrist and intake of prescription medication is known to help reduce such events and eventually eliminate them.

8. Fatal Familial Insomnia

What is it?
This is an extremely rare sleeping disorder that is hereditary, and has so far occurred only in 40 families throughout the world. The onset of FFI may occur at any stage, though it is usually seen at an older age. However, in some cases, the condition has affected individuals as young as 20. Fatal familial insomnia has been classified as a prion disease, which causes abnormalities and results in sponge-like holes in the brain, similar to abnormalities associated with mad-cow disease. The symptoms may vary as follows.
  • It may begin like insomnia, with lack of sleep. This may increase over time, along with the development of certain phobias.
  • The condition worsens and there are hallucinations, both visual and auditory. These may intensify the panic attacks and cause sweating and other such discomfort.
  • Those afflicted may appear to be sleeping all the time but are actually not sleeping. Incontinence may be another symptom at this stage of FFI.
  • They may experience symptoms akin to dementia.
  • Finally, the dementia may worsen and they may lose speech. A coma may be the next stage, followed by death simply out of sheer exhaustion.
What causes it?
This is a hereditary disorder. One may have a 50% chance of developing it if one parent carries this gene mutation.

How is it treated?
Fatal familial insomnia is untreatable and always fatal, and even the symptoms of FFI are not treatable. One may survive for up to a year with the condition.

These are very rare sleep disorders, but can affect almost anyone, particularly if it runs in the family. If any of these symptoms are noted, they should be reported to a doctor immediately, so that the condition may be diagnosed and treated as early as possible without disrupting activities in normal life.