Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Romeo Vitelli


Do You Know About This Mysterious Sleeping Epidemic?

Posted: 06/05/2014 6:00 pm

I was milking cows, as usual, early in the morning, and fell asleep. 'I remember nothing at all, only that when I came round I was in a hospital ward, and the nurses smiled and me, and said: "Welcome back sleeping princess, you've finally woken up.What else do I remember? Nothing. I slept for two days and two nights.

In an interview she gave to the Siberian Times, Marina Felk, a 50-year-old resident of Kalachi, Kazakstan shared her own experience with a bizarre sleeping epidemic that has been periodically striking residents of two neighbouring towns on the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

The first outbreak is believed to have occurred in March, 2013 and over sixty cases have been diagnosed to date. There is also widespread fear that one elderly resident may have been buried alive because his symptoms occurred before the sleeping condition was first identified.

Along with the inhabitants of Kalachi, the few remaining residents of the nearby town of Krasnogorsk, Russia have also been reporting sleeping episodes lasting as long as six days in some cases. Krasnogorsk, which was once home to more than 6500 people during the boom period during the U.S.S.R., when the nearby uranium mine was operated in secret by the Soviet government. At present, the 130 who still live there are struggling to survive the mine's closure. That struggle was made even worse by the recent onset of the still-unexplained sleeping epidemic affecting children and adults alike.

Children have been reporting symptoms such as weakness, hallucinations, dizziness, and memory loss while adults are simply blacking out. The epidemic has been coming in waves with the most recent occurring just weeks ago.

According to Dr. Kabdrashit Almagambetov in nearby Esil, the symptoms are often the same. "When the patient wakes up, he will remember nothing. The story is one and the same each time -- weakness, slow reactions, then fast asleep. 'Sadly, the nature of this condition is still not known. We have excluded infections, we checked blood and spine liquid, nothing is there. We categorised it as toxic encephalopathy, but 'toxic' is just a guess here, and encephalopathy is just the title of the set of brain diseases."

Why some patients are being affected when others living in the same house remain unaffected is still a mystery. While local residents have speculated that the outbreaks are most likely to occur following a sudden rise in temperature, no evidence of environmental causes have been found to date.

Although the abandoned uranium mine is the presumed cause of the epidemic, health officials have conducted more than 7,000 tests which have found no apparent link. Other hypotheses, including radon gas leakage, infection, and contamination of the local water supply have all been ruled out. People affected by the sleeping epidemic appear to respond well to general treatment and some health officials at the Moscow Institute have openly speculated that the cases may be psychogenic in nature.

For now, residents are uncertain whether they will be affected next. Many have packed overnight bags to take with them in case they need to be rushed to hospital. Until health authorities can find a definite cause, all they can do is wait.


Loading Slideshow...
  • Lullabies

    Soothing music before bedtime can really do the trick. A 2005 study found that older people who listened to 45 minutes of soft tunes before hitting the hay reported a <a href="http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/nursing/news/news.asp?id=124" target="_hplink">35 percent improvement in their sleep problems</a>. But it doesn't have to be Brahms, if that's not your style. As long as the music was soft and slow -- around 60 to 80 beats per minute -- it can spur <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4228707.stm" target="_hplink">physical changes known to promote sleep</a>, like a slower heart rate and breathing, the BBC reported. "We know that when a person closes their eyes they induce a certain frequency of brain waves," says Decker. Slow music may have a similar effect, he surmises, leading to sleep onset. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/llimaorosa/112246369/" target="_hplink">Llima</a></em>

  • Warm Milk

    It was once thought that a glass of warm milk at bedtime would help send you off to dreamland because of the tryptophan, <em>The New York Times</em> reported, but milk and other protein-rich foods actually <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/health/04real.html" target="_hplink">block tryptophan's sleepiness-inducing effects</a>. However, there might still be a psychological benefit to that warm milk, the <em>Times</em> concluded, calling it "as soothing as a favorite old blanket." "There have been some studies showing that when infants receive warm milk before bed, they'll dream a little bit more," says Decker, but the results don't hold true in adults. "It may be one of those myths that because it happens in children, adults think it may be true for them, too," he explains. However, many adults are actually at least slightly lactose intolerant, he says, meaning a warm mlik at bedtime may just lead to discomfort. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/julianrod/152930252/" target="_hplink">julianrod</a></em>

  • Counting Sheep

    If your goal is to bore yourself to sleep, you might try counting sheep, or counting backwards by multiples of three or any of a number of other counting-related mind-numbers. But a 2002 study found that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11863237" target="_hplink">imagining a more relaxing scene might be more effective</a>. The study observed 41 people with insomnia over a number of nights and asked them to try a variety of different sleep-inducing techniques, like counting sheep. On the nights they were told to imagine relaxing scenes like a beach, a massage or a walk in the woods, <a href="http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/53137" target="_hplink">they fell asleep an average of 20 minutes sooner</a> than on the nights they were told to count sheep or were given no instructions, Mental Floss reported. Decker agrees. "Counting sheep in and of itself may not help," but can act as a ritual that prepares us for sleep, making it not unlike meditation. Counting sheep -- or more relaxing guided imagery -- helps us "focus on something other than life's stressors," he says. "Thinking about a soothing environment may be more restful than the way you spent the last eight hours!" <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/narciss/3716241331/" target="_hplink">Kr. B.</a></em>

  • Breathing Exercises

    Focusing on the breath, whether it's as part of a pre-bed yoga sequence or just a tuned-in awareness, can also have meditation-like effects in preparing for bed, says Decker, like lowering the heart rate. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/perfectoinsecto/2363255713/" target="_hplink">Perfecto Insecto</a></em>

  • Warm Bath

    Your body temp <a href="http://www.health.com/health/condition-article/0,,20189095,00.html" target="_hplink">dips about two hours before bedtime</a>, <em>Health </em>magazine reported, a natural change that "triggers our brain for sleep onset", says Decker. Soaking in a warm bath beforehand boosts your temperature temporarily, but results in a dramatic, rapid cooldown after you get out that relaxes you and eases you into sleep. It's not necessarily the bath that lulls you to sleep, it's that resulting cooling of your body temperature, Decker emphasizes. Research shows that people who take a warm bath before bed not only <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2578367" target="_hplink">fall asleep more quickly</a>, but also report better quality of sleep, he says.

  • Alcohol

    Many people swear by a drink to unwind at the end of the day, but alcohol before bed can actually <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/fourth-of-july-sleep_n_1644627.html#slide=1176662" target="_hplink">disrupt your sleep</a>. You'll be more likely to wake up more often in the early-morning hours, wake up and not be to fall back to sleep or have disturbing dreams. "As alcohol is metabolized by the liver, it has a disruptive effect," says Decker. It takes a few hours to metabolize, he says, so a drink with dinner shouldn't be a problem, but anything too close to bedtime can be counterproductive. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rob-qld/2889139445/" target="_hplink">Rob Qld</a></em>

  • Get Out Of Bed

    It sounds crazy -- how will you ever get to sleep if you're not even in bed?! -- but it works, says Decker. "When a person stays in bed and they can't sleep, the bedroom can induce a certain level of anxiety," he says. "We say after 15 or 20 minutes, get out of bed, sit in another part of the house until you feel a little groggy, then go back to sleep," he says. "Staying in bed can condition you to become anxious in bed." A small 2011 study published in the <em>Archives of Internal Medicine</em> found that among the <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/27/cant-sleep-it-may-help-to-get-out-of-bed/" target="_hplink">adults studied who reported trouble sleeping</a>, those who spent <a href="http://www.thirdage.com/news/insomnia-cant-sleep-get-out-bed_1-26-2011 " target="_hplink">less time in bed had better sleeping habits</a>. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/perfectoinsecto/3948115802/" target="_hplink">Perfecto Insecto</a></em>

  • Related Video


Follow Romeo Vitelli on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rvitelli