What Causes Sleep Talking?

Sleep talking, also known as somniloquy, is a sleep disorder that is characterized by unconscious speech during sleep. This can be spontaneous or can occur in response to someone trying to speak to the sleep talker while they are asleep. Sleep talking can occur during any stage of sleep, but speech is typically more easily understood the lighter the sleep.

Sleep talking can display a wide variety of traits. Night time speech may be eloquent or inarticulate and nonsensical, shouted or whispered. Utterances may be brief or long monologues. The sleep talker may even use a different voice during sleep speech than they do when awake. Typically sleep talkers seem to be talking to themselves, but they may also produce one side of a conversation. The content of sleep speech may be related to past or present experiences or be completely random. While it can be tempting to see sleep speech as a window into a person’s mind, sleep talking is unconscious and often irrational. Speech may seem related to dreams, but the jury is still out among scientists on how linked dreams and sleep talking really are.

But what causes sleep talking?

Motor Breakthrough

Specifically, sleep talking during REM speech is due to “motor breakthrough” of dream speech. This means that the speech system is made active during speech and words spoken in a dream are spoken aloud. Sleep talking can also happen during “transitory arousals,” the brief periods of increased wakefulness between stages of non-REM sleep. In short, sleep talking occurs during moments of wakefulness during sleep.

However, this doesn’t really explain exactly why one might be talking in their sleep, so let’s look further into what causes sleep talking.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep talking often co-occurs with other sleep disorders such as:

  • Nightmares
  • Nocturnal seizures
  • Confusional arousals
  • Sleep apnea
  • REM sleep behavior disorder
  • Night terrors

REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) causes people to yell, shout, grunt, and act out their dreams while they sleep. Night terrors are characterized by frightening screams, thrashing, and kicking. Especially in children, night terrors are often accompanied by sleep walking. Sleep talking can also accompany nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED), a medical condition characterized by eating while asleep.

Mental and Physical Health Problems

Often, sleep talking is a result of stress or anxiety. In some cases, adult-onset frequent sleep talking (particular if sleep talking began spontaneously after the age of 25) is a sign of a psychiatric disorder, such as depression. Sleep talking can also caused by sleep deprivation or daytime drowsiness, which may be the result of a sleep disorder, mental illness, or the occasional normal sleep issue. Use of alcohol, drugs, and certain medications can lead to sleep talking, particularly if abused or used shortly before bed. Fevers can also lead to sleep talking.

Other Factors

Sleep talking appears to be common, but appears to be especially common among children. While about 5% of adults talk in their sleep, over half of all children talk in their sleep at least occasionally. One in ten children talk in their sleep more than a few nights a week. Like other types of parasomnia, including sleepwalking and teeth grinding, most children appear to grow out of sleep talking. Male and female children are equally likely to talk in their sleep, but among adults sleep talking is more common among men than women. Sleep talking appears to have a genetic component as well, but it is triggered or exacerbated by external factors.

When Should I Get Help?

Sleep talking usually occurs alone, without a linked condition, and is not in itself harmful, unless it is severe enough to wake up others or to cause a sleep disturbance for the talker. However, sleep talking can be very embarrassing, especially if the talker commonly shares a bedroom. Sleep talking can also be graphic or vulgar, possibly offensive or disturbing to both listeners and the speaker when they learn what they said. These situations may cause people to fear sleeping in the presence of others for fear of disrupting them. In these situations, medical intervention is not necessary for the patient’s health, but may be an option to put the patient at ease and prevent others from being alarmed or disturbed.

Minor sleep talking can generally be improved or halted by a regular sleep schedule, improved sleep hygiene, and sufficient rest. Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, large meals, and excess stress, especially shortly before bed can also make a substantial difference. Partners or roommates of mild sleep talkers may benefit from white noise, such as from a fan or white noise recording, or the use of earplugs. If sleep talk is severe (i.e. occurs nightly, perhaps causing significant problems for a co-sleeper) or continues over a long period, it may be related to another health issue, so you should consult a medical professional to check for underlying medical problems.

One such medical professional is Dr. Mayank Shukla. Dr. Shukla is a leading sleep and respiratory specialist in New York who is passionate about treating both children and adults suffering from various sleep and respiratory disorders. If you have been asking yourself what causes sleep talking and how to effectively find treatment, you came to the right place. Contact Dr. Shukla’s office today to schedule an appointment and allow him and his staff to help you rest easier.

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