Why do we sometimes chat and walk while we’re asleep? Here’s an introduction to parasomnia and how it affects our sleep habits — and actions
Editor’s note: Savvy mattress retailers want to do everything they can to help their customers sleep better, including offering them sound advice and tips. Feel free to share this great guidance from Better Sleep Council spokeswoman Lissa Coffey with your shoppers (with credit given, of course). The BSC is the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.
You’ve probably heard of insomnia, the inability to sleep or habitual sleeplessness. But have you heard of parasomnia? It’s a disorder in which the nervous system behaves unusually during sleep. There are several different sleep abnormalities that fall into this category, including sleep talking and sleep walking.
I hear the secrets that you keep
When you’re talking in your sleep.
— The Romantics
Talking in your sleep actually is pretty common. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 5% of adults are sleep talkers. In addition, about 50% of young children sleep talk. The older we get, the less frequently it happens. More men sleep talk than women.
While there is a genetic component to sleep talking, it also can be caused by lack of sleep, drugs or alcohol, stress, anxiety, depression or even a fever. Sleep talking, also called somniloquy, may happen during both the REM and non-REM sleep. We dream during REM sleep. So, when we talk during this phase, it’s because the action in the dream has switched on our mouth and vocal cords. What we speak in the dream, we actually say out loud. During the transitory arousals, when we switch from one stage of non-REM sleep to another, we awake just enough to vocalize but not necessarily make any sense.
Sleep talk often relates to the circumstances of the day, but the content also can be completely random and nonsensical. Because sleep talking occurs when there is no conscious awareness, anything we say in our sleep cannot be held against us in a court of law.
Blogger Karen Slavick-Lennard often was woken up by the ramblings of her husband, Adam, while asleep. Instead of putting in earplugs, she turned on the audio recorder. From there, she created a blog, Sleep Talkin’ Man, about Adam’s irreverent sleep talking. It became an internet sensation, and she collected enough material to write a book. Maybe her blog is popular because so many of us can relate to her experience or maybe it’s because Adam is hilarious in his sleep.
Many of his rants are expletive-filled and indiscriminate. Here’s a sampling of Slavick-Lennard’s recordings that are printable:
O “You can’t be a pirate if you don’t have a beard. I said so. My boat, my rules.”
O “Yes, I’m sad, but if you stood farther away, I’d be happier. No, farther away.”
O “I haven’t put on weight. Your eyes are fat.”
Most of the time, sleep talking is a result of brain activity during sleep. We don’t remember what we said, and those listening usually can’t understand what we say. Studies have shown that sleep talking typically lasts just a few seconds, after which the person falls back into silence. There’s usually no need for any treatment. Sleep talking is not a problem unless it is chronic and disturbs your life.
If you find that you, or the person sleeping next to you, is having continually disrupted sleep because of sleep talking, be mindful of following proper sleep hygiene to minimize stress and promote a good night’s sleep to reduce the likelihood of sleep talking episodes. This includes keeping a regular bedtime and wake time; avoiding caffeine; keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet; and making sure you are sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress.
Wasting my time,
Hoping you’ll stop by,
’Cuz I’m sleepwalking,
— Modest Mouse
Sleep talking is sometimes accompanied by sleepwalking, although either can occur independently. Sleepwalking is known as somnambulism. It happens when people get out of bed and walk around, even though they are asleep. Typically, the person’s eyes are open and may appear confused or glazed over. All kinds of actions, many strange or crude, may take place as a person sleepwalks. Some people sleepwalk to the kitchen and eat. Some leave the house and walk around the neighborhood. And in some rare cases, a sleepwalker may even go for a drive!
One in three Americans may sleepwalk at some point in their lives, according to a Stanford University study. The study also showed 3.6% of people sleepwalk on a regular basis, meaning more than twice a month. Men and women are equally prone to sleepwalking. People with depression or with obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to sleepwalk. Sleepwalking is more common in childhood, as the child heads toward a light or a parent’s room. If your child sleepwalks, make sure the doors and windows are secure so she doesn’t go outside. Most children outgrow sleep walking in their early teens.
Sleepwalkers are sensitive to pain while awake, and tend to have a history of headaches. In fact, they are 10 times more likely to report having a migraine headache. However, while sleepwalking, they perceive no pain. In one study, when sleepwalkers reported getting injured during a sleepwalking episode, only about 20% woke up right away because of the pain. The rest felt no pain at the time but felt the pain later when they woke up.
Waking up sleepwalkers can be difficult. When they do wake up, they can be disoriented because they have no memory of what they did or how they got to where they are. And sometimes they do remember, as if it were a dream. If you need to wake up a sleepwalker, be careful because some people, men in particular, may become violent during these episodes. Sleepwalkers might wake up on their own, in a strange place, confused about what just happened. Or, they might go right back to bed by themselves, sleeping through the whole experience. Then, in the morning, they awake to find the room in disarray or dishes on the counter — evidence of their sleepwalking episode.
Sleepwalking most often is caused by sleep deprivation or sleep schedule disruptions, such as travel and stress. The Better Sleep Council offers solutions to help you get a better night’s sleep so you stay in your own bed! However, if you or your sleep partner is experiencing complications caused by sleepwalking, such as injuries, eating something inappropriate or wandering outdoors, it’s a good idea to see a sleep specialist.
Lissa Coffey is a relationship expert, author of several books and broadcast journalist. A spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council, she stars in several videos that offer sleep and mattress-shopping tips for consumers.