Many people may mumble in their sleep or toss and turn. Some have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. There are conditions much more irregular than these that indicate your sleep quality isn’t all it should be. If you’ve ever lived with a sleep walker or talker, you know that it can be pretty funny when they go about their night-time antics.
It gets a lot less funny when, say, your son gets up and walks out the front door at 2:00 a.m. (Asked the next day, he has recollection of neither getting up and walking out nor of your going out after him to guide him back inside.) Or suddenly hearing the voice of your housemate babbling on, then rising to a yell. These are not all that uncommon.
Sleep disorders affect not just the sleeper
Parasomnia is a sleep disorder in which your slow wave sleep is disrupted. Slow wave sleep is our deep sleep, where our bodies truly rest. It is this phase of sleep that finds us sleepwalking, talking, and eating and when sexsomnia, night terrors, and restless leg syndrome occur.
Dr. Nitun Verma is a specialist in sleep medicine of the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders:
“I heard about one patient who, after getting the wrong sleep medication, sleep drove to Taco Bell, ate a ton of burritos, then returned home to bed. He didn’t remember any of it but put the pieces together when he found hot sauce packets all over himself. Textbook sleepwalking, which is a parasomnia.
“I remember another patient who is a high profile professor at a prestigious university. He suffered from exploding head syndrome, where he would hear a violent explosion in his head just as he started to fall asleep.”
Sleep driving and sleep eating are also parasomnia disorders. Eating while asleep doesn’t usually pose a problem–unless someone tries to cook using a stove or other appliance–but imagine driving while sleeping. Puts a whole new spin on yelling “wake up!” as the traffic light turns green but the car in front of you doesn’t move.
There are drugs that can help but by their very nature, any foreign substance disrupts natural sleep–better to try less intrusive methods first, beginning very simply with sleep rituals. These can lead to a more restful sleep with fewer awakenings.
1. Relax before bed
Take some time for quiet rest or short meditation before bed. Deep breathing or a warm aromatic bath can help to soothe and de-stress. Warm milk and herbal teas can also help us to relax (just not too soon before bed or you may have to get up during the night to use the bathroom).
2. Regular exercise
It’s good for everything about you, not the least of which is sleep. Exercise affects your metabolism and keeps all systems in your body working properly. We weren’t meant to sit still.
3. Put away electronics
We’ve become so attached to our smart phones, tablets, and computers that they are often the first thing we look at in the morning and the last at night. Avoid this.
Try shutting everything down (or not looking) at least two hours before going to sleep. Many studies have shown that staring at radiant screens before bed negatively affects our sleep.
4. Cut down (or out) alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes
Alcohol is a depressant and may make you feel sleepy but having it your system when you go to sleep can interfere with deep-level sleep.
Caffeine, too, is a big no-no: if it perks you up in the morning…studies have shown that caffeine taken within 6 hours of bedtime can affect your sleep. Cigarettes, well, there’s nothing good about them; if you smoke, you can only help yourself by quitting.
5. Optimize your bedroom for sleep
Darken the windows, get a new pillow, adjust the temperature, wear earplugs–whatever makes you the most comfortable and least likely to interrupt your sleep.
6. Dream-state sleep
The second type of sleep disorder that can occur is REM (rapid eye movement) behavior disorder, or RBD. In the active dream state, some people act out their dreams but don’t consciously know what they’re doing. A story from Dr. Verma illustrates:
“A father was arrested when he dreamt his house was on fire and he ‘saved’ his newborn baby by throwing him out the window to firefighters below to catch. Trouble was, there was no fire, no firefighters, but he did throw the baby out the window (The baby was ok).”
If you or someone in your home suffers from a sleep disorder, there are methods you can employ to handle the episodes.
Don’t wake a sleepwalker–because the actions occur unconsciously, sudden awakening can lead to terror and/or aggression. Gently guide the person back to bed, speaking softly and soothingly.
A sleep driver should be urged to pull over, the driver removed safely from the car, and the keys hidden.
If you are the sufferer, place locks and/or alarms on the windows and doors, hide keys and sharp objects, and sleep on the floor to prevent injury.
There are circumstances under which a professional should be consulted: if conditions persist and all natural efforts to control them fail, dangerous or aggressive behavior manifests, or you are chronically exhausted.
The nature of sleep is still somewhat of a mystery. What we do know–unequivocally–is that good quality sleep is crucial to your health.