Sleep seems like such a passive, quiet time. But sleep can actually be filled with activity, some of it amusing, some hazardous. A parasomnia is an unusual behaviour during sleep and can range from simply sitting up in bed or mumbling incoherently to making a sandwich or driving a car – all while asleep.
Do you eat in your sleep? If you've noticed tell-tale signs of nighttime eating – no appetite for breakfast, an unexplained mess in the kitchen – you may have a nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED).
Like sleepwalking, sleep eating usually occurs during non-REM, slow-wave sleep. And like a sleepwalker, a sleep eater will get up out of a deep sleep and wander, in this case, toward food. While still dozing with eyes open, sleep eaters can prepare, cook, and eat meals or snacks. This obviously poses some risks! Stoves could be left on and knives could be involved. But unintended weight gain and risk for diet-related conditions like type 2 diabetes are other dangers.
Do you talk in your sleep? Sleep-talking, or somniloquy, is fairly common. Utterances may come out as isolated statements, grunts, or recurring streams of random gibberish. What is said is often forgotten or misunderstood by anyone hearing it. The babbling can be heard during any stage of sleep and is more common in children.
The cause of sleep talk is yet unknown, but it may be connected to dreams. Sometimes the chatter may be a symptom of a broader sleep or mental disorder, but most talk is harmless.
Do you scream in your sleep? With a sharp scream or howling bellow, a person in the midst of a night terror leaps out from under the covers. The heart races and the eyes are open wide. But the person is still fast asleep. In fact, it can be very difficult to awaken someone having a night terror. Once conscious, they will be disoriented.
Night terrors surface from deep, non-REM sleep, distinguishing them from nightmares, which are dreams that occur during REM sleep. Sometimes a frightening image may appear, like spiders or threatening figures. But unlike someone waking from a frightening nightmare, those who experience night terrors do not awaken during the episode and their memory of it all differs from person to person. Children have more night terrors, though they tend to outgrow them. Night terrors in adults are often associated with a mental disorder, such as bipolar disorder or depression.
Do you act out your dreams as you sleep? Our brains work hard to create a safe setting for dreaming fantastical things. As we sleep our way toward the dream-filled, rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, nerve signals shut down most of our motor functions. This temporary paralysis keeps us from somersaulting out of bed when a dream finds us rolling down a hill. However, people with REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) can move their limbs while dreaming, punching, kicking, grabbing, and jumping in their sleep. Unlike night terrors, people with RBD can sometimes recall these vivid dreams when they wake up the following day.
The idea of acting out your dreams may sound like fun, but RBD can be dangerous (especially to their sleeping partner) and signal underlying problems. If you experience symptoms of RBD, talk to your doctor. RBD occurs frequently among people with neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease.
In isolation, parasomnia activities can be relatively harmless or at least make for a good story. However, any of these sleep events can be disruptive to the overall quality of your sleep and to your health and safety in general. Keep a sleep journal of your nighttime activities. Ask your partner, family member, or roommate to alert you to out of the ordinary sleep behaviours you exhibit. And check with your doctor to help you get back to nights of quiet, peaceful sleep.
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