Health

The Real Reason People Talk in Their Sleep

January 5th 2016

By:
Laura Donovan

When I was 10 years old, my friend Heidi pulled me aside in our summer camp cabin and said we needed to talk. "Laura, you were yelling in your sleep all night," she said. "You were screaming, 'I want my daddy!' Really weird stuff."

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I remember feeling ashamed by this, but I tried to justify my sleep-talking by saying I was homesick and nervous about being away from my own bed for a week. But the reality is that sleep-talking seems to run in my family. My late dad and grandfather always talked in their sleep, and my grandfather even fell out of bed from a particularly intense sleep-talking session once.

It turns out, I'm not the only sleep-talker. I'm one of many Americans who sleep talks — many don't even know they do.

What is sleep-talking?

Sleep-talking (technically known as somniloquy) remains a mystery to scientists in many ways. But there are some possible explanations for it, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep-talking may be brought on by depression, sleep deprivation, stress, fever, sleepiness during the day, and alcohol, among other things. As I suspected, sleep-talking also runs in families, and it's common for sleep-talkers to have other sleep disorders, such as nightmares, sleep apnea, confusional arousals (acting oddly upon waking), and REM sleep behavior disorder. In rare instances, adult-onset sleep-talking can also be associated with a psychiatric disorder or nocturnal seizures, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

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The Discovery Digital Network's TestTube recently made a video about sleep-talking, in which host Trace Dominguez said that there's still a lot we don't know about sleep-talking.


Dominguez explains why:

"For some unknown reason, some people will snooze comfortable and quietly, whereas others will speak gibberish, words, sentences, or entire speeches while sawing their logs. Understanding somniloquy involves understanding a bit about sleep first."

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During sleep, the brain releases glycine and GABA, which paralyze the body to keep our vocal cords and body muscles from moving.

Scientists don't know why people end up talking in their sleep through all of this, Dominguez said. Sometimes, people may slip through their "paralyzing net of glycine and GABA and end up voicing what's happening inside their head, called a motor breakthrough," he added.

People may also sleep-talk due to transitory arousal, which is the transition between sleep stages, Dominguez said.

"Sleep-talking is related to sleep walking and night terrors, and about half of all children and 5 percent of adults will talk in their sleep. It's more common among men than women, although sleep researchers really don't know why."

There are many different sleep-talking experiences. Some may sleep-talk for 30 seconds. Others may talk all night. Some sleep-talkers are nice; others may be vulgar or aggressive. Loud sleep-talkers may pose problems to those sleeping near them.

A challenge for sleep research is that people find it difficult to measure their own sleep-talking: After all, they're asleep! Roommates and partners can't be counted on, either: They may not hear or remember the other person's sleep-talking.

Dominguez cited a study in the journal Brain and Development that found that 10 percent of children sleep-talk every night, while half will do it once a year. Another paper found that most childhood sleep abnormalities go away by the time a kid turns 13, but not sleep-talking. Sleep talking that is associated with mental or medical illness is more common in people over 25 years of age, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

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