By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Oftentimes the stories about sleepwalking are presented as funny, but doctors say the dangers of sleepwalking are no laughing matter.

WCCO’s Kim Johnson knew she needed help after a scary sleepwalking incident last year. She talked with Jason DeRusha about what she discovered and what others can do if they or someone they love sleepwalks too.

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“There are very few things that are scarier than waking up in a room and not remembering how you got there,” Johnson said.

Sleepwalkers are known to do bizarre stuff. Videos on YouTube show sleepers standing, playing the piano and traveling from room to room, behaviors Johnson knows all too well.

“I think I have been sleepwalking my whole life; I’ve just been in denial,” she said. “Every once in a while I’d wake up and there would be the light on or I would think, ‘Oh I must have forgot to turn that light off,’ or ‘Oh I must have forgot to close that cupboard door.'”

Johnson’s wake-up call though did finally come last May when a sleepwalking incident caused concern for her and the rest of the morning team.

“I woke up to the sound of my producer coming into my house and I had no idea where I was,” she said.

Kim sleepwalked away from her alarm and phone unable to hear the station’s calls to see if she was OK.

“That was the moment I knew I am a sleepwalker and I need help,” she said.

Dr. Andrew Stiehm with the Allina Health Lung and Sleep Clinic says the number one cause of sleepwalking is sleep deprivation.

“When the brain is fighting for sleep and something else is fighting to wake you up, in that battle is when sleepwalking happens,” he said.

The brain’s need for sleep is so powerful it can over ride pain, dangers that could even be deadly.

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“Injure their hand by hitting something, breaking glass windows, they wake up and there is glass everywhere and they’re bleeding,” Stiehm said. “People die sleepwalking, there are stories of people walking out of balconies of hotels and falling to their death.”

DeRusha told Johnson, “As your friend, we were worried you were going to open your door in the middle of the night and go outside in 10 below.”

For sleepwalkers at risk of injury, the first course of action doctors recommend is undergoing a sleep study to rule out any medical conditions that may be interfering with sleep such as apnea or restless leg syndrome.

Fortunately Johnson’s results came back normal, but the doctor gave her a prescription that wasn’t so easy to fill — get more sleep.

“Sometimes it’s a difficult recommendation to get more sleep because there is a reason people don’t get enough sleep. They’re making sacrifices for their career or for their family, and people don’t value sleep the way that they should,” Stiehm said.

Doctors also recommend sleepwalkers reduce stress.

“When you are under physical stress or emotional stress, any distress, your brain is trying to prepare for that so you’re more alert,” Stiehm said.

It was the perfect storm for Kim.

“At the time, I was going through a divorce. Anybody can tell you that is a very stressful situation. I wasn’t sleeping well because of that and I was also sleep deprived because of my career schedule,” she said.

Stiehm says just adding one extra hour of sleep each night can make all the difference. Over the last year, it did for Johnson, making her whole team rest a little easier.

“I know I can go to bed and wake up in my bed and that is a wonderful feeling,” she said.

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If you have a sleepwalker in your home, doctors suggest locking windows and doors and having them sleep on the ground floor. Remove any guns or weapons from the house. And to prevent sleep driving, don’t keep your keys in your car.

Jason DeRusha