It’s no secret that skipping valuable sleep time can have negative effects on our physical and emotional health. But could a rise in the lack of sleep be an unacknowledged contributor to the steady rise in divorces over the years? A recent Washington Post article says yes, linking a healthy marriage to better sleep quality. If our nights are consistently restless due to stress, what else is at risk (besides our relationship)? I decided to do a little research to learn more about the surprisingly harsh consequences of fitful sleeping.
People who suffer from nocturnal sleeping-related eating disorders (NS-REDs) will sleepwalk to the kitchen and eat, well, anything. Frozen chicken, mayonnaise—even non-food items like cat litter and cigarettes—all are up for grabs as nighttime grub. According to Julianne Blythe, a physician assistant at the UCSF Sleep Disorders Center, NS-RED affects about 1 percent of the population. Possible factors behind sleep eating include sleep apnea, a condition that obstructs breathing while sleeping, and stress—two issues that also impede restful sleep.
Even if you’re not afflicted by a rare disorder like NS-RED, not getting enough sleep could lead you to eat more during your waking hours. A study conducted at the University of Chicago found that their patients who slept for less than five hours two days in a row experienced an increase in ghrelin, an appetite stimulant hormone, and a decrease in the hormone that triggers satiety. Even worse, those lacking sleep tend to crave the kinds of foods you should limit—the salty, sugary varieties that are sure to pack on the pounds.
One who suffers from sleep terror disorder wakes up repeatedly in a frightened and anxious state, often screaming. There is no memory of the dream that caused the panic in the first place. “[Sleep terror disorder] is a parasomnia,” Julianne explains. “This means that it occurs during the delta, or deep sleep phase.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that, in order to be diagnosed with sleep terror disorder, one cannot remember the dream or the panicked episode upon waking. “Because it doesn’t occur during REM sleep [the stage that hosts the dreams you actually remember], there are no vivid dreams to recall,” she says. So, people have no idea why they started screaming in the first place. Though this disorder is most common in children, adults can suffer from sleep terrors as well. Fever, sleep deprivation, and stress are potential triggers—they can cause disruptive sleep, which leads to disorders such as this one.
A Dramatic Change in Your Sex Life (Not in a Good Way)
A person who experiences sexsomnia (another parasomnia) engages in any kind of sexual activity (masturbating, intercourse, etc.) while in a deep sleep. It’s considered a variation of sleepwalking. As is the case with most parasomnias, those who have sexsomnia do not remember their nighttime escapades. This disorder occurs by being jostled out of sleep slightly (not enough to bring about full consciousness), which can happen because of issues like sleep apnea, stress, and anxiety. People have even complained about their partners attempting sex while heavily snoring. Sounds like a contender for the worst foreplay move ever.
Imagine you are lulled from sleep and feel a heavy pressure on your chest. You can barely breathe, can’t speak or call for help, and you definitely can’t move. You have to really concentrate just to move a finger because, though your mind is awake, your body is still in sleep mode. Some have compared it to being possessed. This experience is called sleep paralysis, and it can be a very frightening, unnerving disorder. Even though sleep paralysis isn’t often discussed, it’s a common and perfectly normal (albeit disturbing) experience—most of the time. “It can be a symptom of narcolepsy, but … [it’s considered] a normal entity if it happens once in a while,” Julianne explains. Sleep paralysis is caused by a disruption in REM sleep, which can be brought on by stress or being extremely tired.
Sleep is a highly vulnerable state, and never more so than when you’re experiencing somnambulism, the act of sleepwalking. This parasomnia involves getting up and moving around while still asleep. People have been known to walk down the stairs or into other rooms, perform unusual acts (urinating in non-toileted areas, for example), and even drive. Because the sleepwalker is still asleep, any number of accidents could occur—falling down the stairs, for example. Your eyes may be open, but you don’t see what’s in front of you because you’re still dreaming, so there is no way to know if you’re sleepwalking toward a dangerous situation. Somnambulism is brought on by a lack of sleep, stress, certain drugs, and medical conditions that disrupt the normal sleep cycle (asthma, apnea, etc.).
Revealing Too Much Information
Somniloquy sounds like a beautiful word, but it’s actually the medical term for people who talk while sleeping. As with the aforementioned sleep disorders, discontinuity in the sleep cycle is often the culprit behind somniloquy. Stress and illness are common catalysts for sleep talking, so if you’re feeling anxious or sick and you have a secret, try sleeping solo. According to a sleep education Web site, what you say while snoozing can be innocent babble, or it can get you into trouble. Since you are not fully conscious, your internal monitors don’t always keep you in check. Things that you’d never say in the waking world might come out when sleeping. For instance, my mom loves telling the story about how my dad admitted to her in his sleep once that he was at a poker game with his friends instead of working late, as he originally told her.
Clearly, anything that disrupts your sleep (such as stress, the most common cause of the disorders in this article) could lead to more than just 9 a.m. pre-Starbucks grumpiness. True, daytime stress doesn’t automatically curse you to these nighttime disorders any more than bad dreams predict a future divorce. However, the potential consequences of fitful sleep—from a little sleep talking to a scary sleep driving episode—prove once more that a good night’s rest is necessary for physical and emotional well-being, and vice versa.