Talking in Your Sleep - Featured

Facts About Talking in Your Sleep: Causes and Treatment

by Dr. Lina Velikova, MD

Talking in your sleep, known in medicine as somniloquy, is a sleep disorder in which a person talks while asleep without realizing or recalling it. This talking can involve complex dialogues and monologues or complete nonsense and grunting. The excellent news is that for most people, the condition is a rare and short-lived phenomenon.

What Is Somniloquy?

During this phenomenon, a person can utter words or entire sentences while they’re asleep. It’s usually harmless, but sometimes people who talk in their sleep can swear or make insults without realizing what they’re saying.

Usually, this occurrence doesn’t last more than 30 seconds per episode. Sometimes people have several events per night. In most cases, the person speaks incomprehensibly, merges their words, or just grunts. However, the sleeping person may also have a conversation with someone, even asking and answering questions.

Somniloquy, by definition, also means that the sleeper likely won’t remember their words or their meaning—this is not conscious speech. Some statements make no sense; others may relate to past events, experiences, and relationships that no longer affect one’s emotional state.

 The stage of sleep will impact how a person talks in their sleep:

  • Stages 1 and 2: The sleep talker isn’t in the deep phase of sleep, and their speech is easier to understand. Often, an entire comprehensible conversation can take place. During these stages of sleep talking, true feelings might be expressed.
  • Stages 3 and 4: The affected person is in the phase of deep sleep. In these stages, speech is usually incomprehensible. It sounds more like moaning or nonsense.

The severity of one’s sleep talking is determined by how frequently it occurs, thus how it impacts the sleep talker’s quality of sleep and life:

  • Mild form: The sleep talk occurs less than once a month.
  • Moderate form: Sleep talking symptoms appear once a week. This sleep talking doesn’t harm a partner’s sleep or that of anyone else in the room.
  • Severe form: Episodes of sleep talking happen every night. It also disturbs the quality of sleep of others in the room.

However, the criteria for the severity of the disorder are as follows: If it happened one month ago or less, the condition is acute. If the duration is between one month and one year, subacute. And if it lasts a year or longer, the state is classified as chronic.

Is Talking in Your Sleep Normal?

The facts about sleep show that many people experience this phenomenon. Everyone can talk in their sleep, but it’s more common in younger children than it is in adults. In fact, while about 5% of adults talk in their sleep, the rate is much higher in children. From toddlers talking in their sleep to ten-year-olds, there’s around a 50% chance it will happen at least once. As for adults over 25 years of age, the condition is more frequently seen when it’s connected to a mental or medical illness.

Because individuals are not aware of their behavior when they talk in their sleep, their voice and the words they speak may sound different. Talking during sleep can be spontaneous or triggered by another person talking to a sleeping person. Although it’s physically safe, sleep psychology warns that it can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment. 

Although external factors usually trigger it, in many cases, it can be hereditary or a sign of illness. It often arises together with other sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, sleep terrors, and any other disturbance in the REM phase of sleep. For sleep talking, treatment in these cases requires that the underlying condition be addressed. As noted previously, there are certain physical and mental conditions that can induce sleep talking in adulthood.

It’s difficult to know whether you’re talking in your sleep or not. If you’re worried about sharing all your secrets while you sleep, you better ask the loved one who shares your bed.

Is Talking in Your Sleep a Sign of Stress?

Talking in Your Sleep - Stress

Many people think that talking in your sleep is part of the dreaming process. However, experts doubt this. It may instead signal a problem or sleep disorder that’s preventing your brain from getting enough rest. The most significant external causes are stress or the conditions related to it: anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, or alcohol abuse.

There are certain types of sleep disorders that affect the REM phase associated with sleep talking. These include REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) and sleep terrors. They both can lead to people, usually children, screaming in their sleep.

RBD is a disorder in which people aggressively yell, shout, grunt, and even often violently punch and kick in their sleep. People with RBD don’t experience the muscle paralysis that usually occurs during REM sleep. Because of this, there’s a risk of them harming themselves or their sleep partners.

The second condition—called sleep terrors, or night terrors—is rare, affecting fewer than 7% of children and 1% of adults. The disorder involves beating, kicking, screaming, and yelling in sleep.

Episodes involve suddenly waking up, usually scared and confused, and are accompanied by physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat and sweating. The latter is the difference between night terrors and nightmares, along with not remembering the episode. The other difference is that during nightmares, the muscles remain paralyzed in REM sleep.

Children with sleep terrors are prone to sleep talking with their eyes open as well as sleepwalking (somnambulism). Much like to RBD, people scream and kick around when a night terror happens, and it’s difficult to wake someone having a sleep terror episode.

A nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder is also associated with sleep talking. It refers to a condition in which a person eats while they’re asleep. Much like similar sleep problems, the person who eats while asleep seldom remembers it the following day.

What Causes Talking in Your Sleep

In sleep, the region of the brain responsible for controlling wakefulness is the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is also involved in the transition between wakefulness and sleeping. This happens by decreasing the RAS’s activity in favor of the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus. During this functional transition, unconscious movements of the limbs are observed.

During sleep, the brain secretes two neurotransmitters, glycine and GABA, which have suppressive functions. The latter mechanism prevents you from talking during sleep. These two molecules keep the muscles in your limbs, mouth, and vocal cords inactive once you fall asleep—the same state described in sleep paralysis.

When entering sleep, your brain goes through five stages, one of which is the well-known REM phase, characterized by rapid eye movement and active sleeping. Scientists have not yet elucidated the subject of what causes sleep talking, but they know that this phenomenon is observed both during and outside REM cycles, meaning that what’s said is not necessarily referring to a dream—it may be something completely different and unknown.

Genetic predisposition should also be taken into account, where some alterations in the genome linked to somniloquy have been identified. And finally, there’s a theory known as “transient arousal,” which states that talking can occur when the brain switches between different phases of sleep. 

The most common causes of sleep talking in children and adults are as follows:

  • Physiological conditions, like fever and infections
  • Stress
  • Sleep-related problems, including sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea, nightmares, or a sleep disorder associated with the REM phase
  • Hereditary factors
  • Mental disorders, like depression, or physical illness
  • Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, medications, etc.)

Whatever the cause of the condition, it isn’t considered a health threat.

How to Stop Talking in Your Sleep

There are no specific tests available to diagnose sleep talking. However, some methods, such as a sleep study or polysomnogram (sleep recording), may be performed.

In general, there’s no need to treat this condition as long as it doesn’t seriously interfere with your sleep. If the condition makes it difficult to get a full night’s rest, and it disturbs you and your loved ones, you should see a doctor. A specialist will perform the necessary study of your sleep behavior and evaluate the quality of your sleep. Your doctor should be able to advise you on how to stop sleep talking.

Before going to a specialist, you could also keep a sleep diary—make sure you start recording information at least two weeks prior to going in. Write down information regarding the time you go to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep on average, and when you wake up.

The doctor will also appreciate if you provide information regarding the medicines you take and what time of day you take them; your diet and what drinks you consume, particularly caffeinated drinks (tea, soda, and coffee) and alcohol; and whether you exercise and how often. These notes can help define your sleep patterns.

It’s vital that your doctor identify any underlying sleep talking causes, i.e., any accompanying health or sleep problems. Talking in your sleep may be a symptom of a hidden medical condition. This is why the specialists from the National Sleep Foundation (USA) recommend consulting a doctor.

The condition isn’t always related to mental disorders. Although the amount of stress a person experiences can often impact sleep talking. According to the foundation’s studies, severe stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and strong sleep medications were factors that should be avoided.

Useful Tips

Talking in Your Sleep - Useful Tips

You can avoid the primary somniloquy causes by following some simple rules:

  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern. Go to bed and get up at the same time. This makes the body feel alert and rested.
  • Try to get the right amount of sleep. Eight hours are considered an average healthy rest time.
  • Reduce or minimize stress in your life. Relaxation techniques could be the perfect somniloquy treatment. Try implementing activities that decrease stress levels during your bedtime routine, such as light yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises. 
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: remove any irritants that would interfere with sleep or even wake you up. This will reduce the severity and frequency of speaking in your sleep.
  • Avoid smoking or consuming alcohol, caffeine, sodas, and fatty foods before bed.

Whatever the causes of talking in your sleep are, adequate rest is important to your sleep partner too. Therefore, here are some ideas on how to improve their quality of sleep:

  • Get a mattress that’s quieter than your current one. The motion isolation provided by materials like memory foam or latex can help reduce your chances of waking up. And if you’re a light sleeper, this kind of mattress is excellent at drowning out movement as you or your sleep partner shift positions.
  • Spend some money in qualitative noise-reducing sleep products. Even just basic earplugs can help. The advanced option is to use white noise, which has been used as a sleep aid for years. There also are noise-makers or white noise apps for your smartphone available for purchase.

FAQs

Is it bad to wake up a sleep talker?

Sleep talking can occur in any stage of sleep and is most often harmless. Sure enough, it may be difficult to wake someone talking in their sleep, especially if they’re having a sleep terror. Unlike sleepwalking, however, it isn’t considered wrong or dangerous to wake someone who is talking in their sleep.

Why do toddlers talk in their sleep?

Sleep talking is common for toddlers—it’s observed in over half of all children. However, with increasing age, the incidences significantly reduce. Most likely, toddlers use sleep talking to process the day’s high emotional load, not to mention processing the joy of learning new words and sentences.

Considered a standalone condition, it has no medical significance and requires no therapy. The episodes can become less frequent if you practice good sleep hygiene. Keep regular bedtime and waking habits, sleep in a quiet and ventilated room, have a light dinner, avoid energizing drinks, and reduce TV time, especially before bed.

Why do people laugh in their sleep?

Laughing during sleep, or so-called hypnogely, is a relatively common thing and not a disorder. In most cases, the source of laughter is a dream during the REM phase of sleep. This phenomenon may or may not be related to talking in one’s sleep. It’s considered entirely harmless unless it’s a symptom of a neurological disorder.

Conclusion

You might worry about what you say when you’re talking in your sleep. It’s like losing control of your personal filter, saying whatever’s on your mind. However, even though you might say the wrong words or phrases, these statements aren’t necessarily connected to your consciousness or reality. Happily, you probably won’t remember anything anyway. Instead, focus on trying to eliminate the risk factors that are causing this disorder, and take care of your partner’s sleep. Those are the best ways to overcome the condition.

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