Sleep Talking: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Have you been told by your partner or housemates that you talk while you sleep? We know you’ll probably knock it down as a joke. They must be pulling your leg, right? You’re sleeping, how can you be talking! Well, maybe they’re not joking.
Does your partner wake you up in the middle of the night having full-blown and incomprehensible conversations? You may turn and ask what the heck are they talking about?! What’s all the gibberish in the middle of the night about? But he or she is fast asleep and probably won’t even remember the incidence the next morning when you bring it up.
Sleep talking, or somniloquy, is not a serious condition, but can sometimes disrupt sleep and cause sleep deprivation for the person that is sleep talking and also their partner. Somniloquy, more commonly known as “sleep talking,” is a specific type of parasomnia characterized by talking out loud while you are sleeping. Sleep talkers can whisper soft words that last a few seconds to complete loud conversations that can last up to 30 seconds. It can, on top of the sleep deprivation, cause anxiety and embarrassment for the sleep talker.
The umbrella term parasomnia, however, encompasses sleep non-disorders ranging from abnormal movements or behaviors (think sleepwalking or having excessive nightmares). Somniloquy is not classified as a sleep disorder, but rather an isolated experience that seems to happen outside of the influence of other disorders or as a symptom of them. Why do we do it and what does it mean, if anything?
It’s important to know what causes sleep talking and what you can do about it if this is a regular occurrence in your house.
Who Talks in Their Sleep?
Sleep talking can happen to practically anyone but is more frequent in young children and adult men. It is associated with REM-related arousal. There’s no real treatment for sleep talking, but it’s pretty rare that somniloquy is actually bad enough to warrant needing treatment (we’ll get to Dion McGregor’s in a moment, though). It also has a genetic component to it so your chances of chatting while asleep are greater if you have family members that are sleep talkers. Approximately half of children between the ages of 3 and 10 have regular episodes of sleep talking. Most of them tend to grow out of it with episodes getting rare as they age.
“The condition is very prevalent: 17 percent of people report sleep talking in the last 3 months, and 66 percent report ever having talked in their sleep.” -National Sleep Foundation
Sleep talkers’ nighttime mutterings don’t tend to follow along with dreams so much as they’re nonsensical thought processes. They’re more of a reflex of the brain dumping out random junk than thoughtful neural connections. Sometimes sleep talking relates to past events or experiences, but most of the time it seems to be a genuinely nonsensical spattering of words that can contain multitudes.
For most people, talking in your sleep is comical, spooky nonsense.
Causes of Sleep Talking
As mentioned above, there is a genetic factor associated with sleep talking. But there are other reasons that can bring on episodes of sleep talking even if no one else in your family exhibits signs of sleep talking.
Doctors aren’t fully aware of why some people sleep talk regularly. People don’t tend to seek medical attention for sleep talking since it isn’t a life-threatening condition and doesn’t normally interrupt productivity and day to day activities.
Some lifestyle habits or other medical conditions that can bring on sleep talking are:
- Alcohol consumption
- Psychiatric disorders
Additionally, other types of sleep disorders can cause sleep talking in certain people such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Night terrors
- REM sleep behavior disorder
REM sleep behavior disorder and night terrors can cause a person to yell, shout and thrash around. This type of sleep talking is thought to be sometimes linked to the sleeper’s dreams.
Symptoms of Sleep Talking
Chances are you don’t even know you chat away in the night if you sleep alone and don't have any roommates. However you'll find out soon enough if you sleep talk once you have a roommate or a partner in bed.
It can be quite disturbing to hear your partner speak gibberish in the middle of the night. Your partner may try to understand what you are saying and will even try to wake you up and speak with you. Of course, you probably won’t remember any of this in the morning.
There are usually no other symptoms apart from the jibber-jabber. However it can, in some rare cases, be accompanied by thrashing or physical outbursts.
Sleep talking can occur in any stage of sleep. It can be very comprehensible conversations if it comes about during the lighter part of sleep (stages 1 and 2). It will probably be gibberish or moaning sounds if it happens during deep sleep (stages 3, 4, and 5). We would tend to believe that the words being uttered have some correlation with the dreams, but doctors seem to think that they are unrelated unless it’s linked with another sleep disorder.
It usually doesn’t harm the sleep talker’s health but can cause anxiety that can lead to insomnia. Imagine if you are afraid of going to sleep for fear of saying things while you sleep that are not meant to be heard by anyone! That may keep you awake and stressed.
Over time, sleep deprivation can have consequences on a person’s life and relationships. Actually, sleep deprivation can aggravate sleep talking. Kind of a vicious cycle!
The severity of the sleep talking is measured by the frequency at which it happens.
- Mild - The Sleep talking episodes are less than once a month.
- Moderate - The sleep talking episodes happen about once a week.
- Severe - Sleep talking is considered severe when it occurs every night.
Why Are You Talking in Your Sleep?
While it is admittedly under-researched, scientists believe that somniloquy may be brought about by any number of issues ranging from stress to depression, sleep deprivation to day-time drowsiness. It’s difficult to pin down, though it seems clear that external factors stimulate sleep talking as a response, despite genetics sometimes being a precursor. Oftentimes, sleep talking will occur alongside other sleep disorders and parasomnias like nightmares, sleep apnea, and REM disorder. Luckily, it is relatively uncommon that somniloquy persists, though it does happen to about 69% of the U.S. population at some point in their lives.
According to Psychology Today, “Most NREM parasomnias occur in the first third of the night, which is when most of the slow wave sleep occurs. They seem to be more frequent when the drive to maintain either wakefulness or slow wave sleep is especially strong. For example, they are more frequent when a person is sleep deprived, and in need of slow wave sleep (which is thought to be the most restorative for the brain).”
Dion McGregor—The King of Somniloquy
“Spin it now! Spin it! Spin it—Don’t spin it so fast they whirl off! That way lies madness! Yes… that way lies dirty eclairs when they fall on the floor, now pick those up!” Dion McGregor demands with a wildly dramatic delivery while completely asleep in an audio clip of his oddly coherent somniloquy experience titled Food Roulette.
Dion McGregor was a musician whose flatmate, Michael Barr, recorded his unusually coherent nighttime ramblings in 1960s New York. For some reason, and doctors are still not sure why, he was able to completely articulate dreams while asleep, far different from the mutterings and sentence fragments sleep talkers usually provide. The recordings of his sleep talking sessions ended up in the hands of the record label Decca, who were fascinated by the clarity of his quick-witted monologues, and then curated and released under the album title The Dream World of Dion McGregor in 1964.
Because of their skepticism of his actually monologuing in such a fashion while asleep, the record label hired a psychiatrist to test McGregor. He was never shown to be a hoaxer. Additional recordings of McGregor’s years of suffering from (or benefitting from?) somniloquy was released by record label owner Phil Milstein, who noted “It was an unprecedented approach to surrealism, where the dream-state is unfiltered or unmediated by art or artistic interpretation.” The McGregor recordings have become a cult classic in “found sound” recording circles.
It’s incredible to listen to clear recordings of such vivid experiences of talking in your sleep, and they remain the most coherent ever recorded, even decades later. His impeccable comedic timing, despite the nonsensical and rambling nature of his narratives, really make these recordings not only an interesting anomaly but a masterclass in improvisational abstract storytelling. Or, at least, they’re good for a few laughs.
“Henrietta had a head like a mole! Yes! She wouldn’t have it, hmm. Drove her right out of town, said she was one o’ Maude’s girls! Nobody’d have that. So, drive her outta town… But Henrietta, mmmm, she guarded her secrets. Guarded ‘em! She had been married 28 times.” (From the track Our Town)
They’re certainly worth a listen.
Standard-Issue Sleep Talking
While Dion McGregor has a fantastic and utterly fascinating sleep talking story under his belt, the majority of somniloquy speakers are simply babbling, moaning, groaning, whispering, or loudly exclaiming their way into comedy (or horror) gold, depending on the perspective of their partners. There are rather extensive Reddit threads of the scariest and funniest things people have heard their partners say in their sleep—whichever one you read will leave you in tears, either from laughing or discomfort. As it turns out, you can make some pretty wild statements when talking in your sleep. Here are some favorites from the above threads (reformatted):
From Redditor r/pjkenk2: “My fiancee woke me up very VERY aggressively and said "A DUCK IS A DUCK THAT LEADS THE GREY DUCKLINGS" and promptly fell back asleep.”
From r/hauxli: Woke up to go to the bathroom one night. As I move to get up my boyfriend goes, "don't go out there..." Thinking he's awake and joking with me I go "oh yeah, why?" He sits upright eyes wide open and goes "SHE'S out there." and flopped back down asleep.
From r/otisbolognis: Significant Other: “Shhh be quiet. She'll hear us.” I ask who. Significant Other Response: “The woman who lives here. Shhhh, she's in the hallway.”
And this classic from r/well_fed: "Honey, wake up. It's time for bed.”
How to Stop Sleep Talking
There isn’t really any treatment for sleep talking, but some lifestyle changes and habits can possibly help diminish the episodes.
Decrease alcohol and caffeine intake ☕
Alcohol has a negative impact on our overall sleep. It can cause us to snore up a storm and even provoke episodes of sleep talking. Imagine the things you will say when sleep talking while drunk!
Diminish the alcoholic or caffeinated drinks several hours before going to sleep to get a good night’s sleep and to help keep at bay sleep talking occurrences.
Keep a sleep diary 📝
Over a 2-week period write down when you go to bed, when you wake up, what time you take your medications, what time you exercise, what you eat and at what time in the evening. Jot down everything and anything that you think may affect your sleep in any way.
This way you can analyze your lifestyle and maybe pinpoint things that you can change in order to get better sleep.
This sleep diary may come in handy if you eventually need to see a doctor about your sleep disturbance.
Reduce stress 🍃
Stress is a big factor in most people’s lives today. We juggle so many responsibilities and life can get messy sometimes. Try to reduce stressful situations before bedtime and create a calm environment an hour before going to sleep.
Dim the lights, read a book, drink some tea, or cuddle with your partner.
Meditation is proven to quiet the mind and whirlwind thoughts. You may be able to reduce the sleep talking episodes If your mind is quieter before you hit the sack.
Meditation gets easier and more effective over time. Don’t give up on it because you think it’s not working.
Sleep Music 🎵
Another way to calm the mind and body is to listen to relaxing music while you sleep.
There is no magic pill or even any treatment plans for sleep talking but try any or all of these things and note if your sleep talking episodes become less frequent.
When To See a Doctor
The normal type of sleep talking that doesn’t affect anyone is not a cause for concern. When the sleep talker or the partner experiences sleep deprivation as a result of the night disturbance then a doctor should be consulted.
You may be referred to a sleep specialist and he or she will evaluate your sleeping habits and patterns and may even order a sleep study to determine if the sleep talking is associated with another sleep disorder. Your sleep diary will come in handy here!
A treatment program will be prescribed If the sleep talking is in fact linked to a known sleep disorder like sleep apnea or REM sleep behavior disorder.
Are You Talking to Me?
You should consult a specialist if the sleep talking onset was sudden and is accompanied by thrashing or violent outbursts. Also, speak with your doctor if the sleep talking is a nightly occurrence and is loud enough to wake your partner up every night.
Sleep talking is not dangerous and is usually not a cause for concern. Your partner may even be amused by your occasional night time gibberish. Ask him or her to record it if you want to hear yourself the next day. Chances are it’s quite light and will give you both a chuckle.
Sleep talking isn’t something to really worry about. While you may be surprised by the sudden exclamations of a partner or loved one, there are very few medications to treat somniloquy and it isn’t a dangerous condition. If you recognize sleep talking triggers such as sleep deprivation or high stress, it’s best to avoid those in order to quell your nighttime chatter, but in due time somniloquy tends to fade away by itself. It even faded for Dion McGregor in his later years. So if you’re talking in your sleep, there might not be anything you can do about it but revel in the silliness of the human brain and try to get some quality sleep while you’re at it.