Everything You Need to Know About Sleep Drunkenness

How this common sleep problem causes confusion and strange behavior upon waking
man too spleepy for work

You’re sound asleep when your alarm goes off or your partner tries to wake you. You open your eyes and get out of bed, but you’re not fully awake. You wander around, say strange things or give blunt answers when someone talks to you.

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And when your partner mentions your behavior later, you have no memory of it. What happened? You were probably sleep drunk. And you’re not alone — this condition affects at least 1 in 7 people.

Sleep specialist Juancarlo Martinez-Gonzalez, MD, explains this common condition and what you can do about it.

What is sleep drunkenness?

Sleep drunkenness is a casual term for confusional arousal, which is a type of parasomnia. A parasomnia is an unusual behavior that happens while you’re asleep or just waking up.

Confusional arousal is a problem with sleep inertia when your brain transitions between sleeping and waking up. When you’re sleep drunk, your brain doesn’t make the transition to wakefulness. Your conscious mind isn’t fully awake, but your body can get up, walk and talk.

“People who have confusional arousal might act confused or have trouble speaking,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez. “They might appear to be drunk, but they’re not.”

Sleep drunk episodes may last for just a few minutes or up to an hour. It can affect people of all ages, from children to adults.

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Is being sleep drunk dangerous?

If you’ve ever been sleep drunk, your partner or family member may have gotten a laugh out of your unusual behavior. “If it happens once a year and no one gets hurt, you probably don’t need treatment,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez.

But don’t take this condition lightly if it happens frequently. In rare cases, people have harmed themselves or others while sleep drunk. Some people have tried jumping out of a window, and others have shown violent or aggressive behavior.

It can also interfere with your relationships if it bothers your partner or family members. “Some people end up sleeping in separate rooms, and that can have a negative impact on you and your partner,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez.

What causes sleep drunkenness?

In many cases, there is no obvious cause. But you may be more likely to experience sleep drunkenness if you:

Diagnosing sleep drunkenness

Most people have no memory of sleep drunk episodes, so they probably don’t know to seek help. “Usually, people find out about this issue through their partner or family member,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez. “If your family member tells you that you act strange when you wake up, and you don’t remember it, see your doctor.”

There is no specific test to diagnose sleep drunkenness. But your doctor may review your medical history, including any health conditions you have and medicines you take. A medical history helps your doctor determine an underlying cause for the issue.

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Some people may need a sleep study, which can diagnose sleep disorders. During a sleep study, you’ll wear special sensors that measure your brain waves, movements, heart rate and other health indicators while you sleep.

How is sleep drunkenness treated?

For some people, healthy sleep habits can eliminate sleep drunk episodes. “A regular sleep schedule is one of the best ways to improve your sleep and reduce the chance of having confusional arousal,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez. “Have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time and stick to it every day. Most adults need at least seven hours of quality sleep each night on a regular schedule.”

Other ways to get better sleep (and avoid sleep drunkenness):

  • Avoid alcoholic beverages, especially close to bedtime.
  • Turn off tablets, smartphones, computers and other screens at least an hour before bed.
  • Keep your room dark, quiet and cool.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages several hours before bed.

If these steps aren’t enough and you’re still having sleep drunk episodes, talk to your doctor. Some people may need medication to reduce or eliminate the issue. Or you might have an undiagnosed sleep disorder or other health condition that needs care.

“Confusional arousal is common, but you don’t have to live with it,” says Dr. Martinez-Gonzalez. “Treatment can help you get better sleep and wake up feeling like yourself again.”  

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