Surprising Causes of Restless Sleep

What do the Salem witch trials, Moby Dick, and alien abductions have in common?

They’re all linked to sleep paralysis, a little-known sleep disorder that’s like being trapped in real-life horror movie. The terrifying symptoms include hallucinating that there’s an intruder in your bedroom, pressure on the chest that may feel like a physical or sexual assault, and sensations of levitation or out-of-body experiences.

About eight percent of the general population, 28 percent of students, and 32 percent of psychiatric patients have had at least one episode of sleep paralysis, while an unfortunate few experience this waking nightmare on a nightly basis, Pennsylvania State University psychologists report, based on a review of 35 earlier studies of the disorder.

This bizarre condition stems usually stems from a glitch in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase of sleep, when your body is deeply relaxed, your muscles are “on hold,” and you may start to dream. But if consciousness returns during the REM cycle, you may experience sleep paralysis, creating a feeling that you’re in terrible danger, but can’t move a muscle to escape. This nightmarish experience can cause some people to think they’re bewitched, abducted by aliens, or that a malevolence presence is in the room, as happened to Ishmael in the novel Moby Dick.

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Here are some other signs that you haven’t had a restful night’s sleep:

You Wake with a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

The problem: Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD). If you suffer from this common digestive disorder, you can’t help but notice bouts of heartburn—unless you’re asleep. Waking with a bad taste in your mouth can be a tip-off to nighttime GERD symptoms that you don’t remember in the morning (sleep prompts forgetfulness). In fact, this “silent heartburn” partially rouses you, resulting in a poor night’s sleep. Here’s what you can do:

  • Raise the head of your bed by four to six inches
  • Don’t eat during the two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Chew gum in the evening (it boosts production of saliva that can neutralize stomach acid)
  • Sleep on your left side (this helps with digestion)
  • Avoid foods that trigger reflux (alcohol, coffee, other acidic foods and chocolate are often to blame)
  • Avoid medications that trigger reflex (ask your doctor about drugs you take).

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Your Jaw Clicks or Feels Sore in the Morning

The problem: grinding your teeth or tensing your jaw (two different forms of bruxism) while asleep. The muscle tension involved disturbs your rest. Your dentist may detect the telltale wear and tear on your teeth this habit causes, and neck pain when you wake is a sign that you’ve been tensing your jaw while asleep. Here’s what you can do:

  •   Ask your dentist for a mouthguard to prevent teeth grinding or a device to stop you from tensing your jaw.
  •   Give up chewing gum—you may unconsciously mimic the chewing motion while asleep.
  •   Reduce or avoid alcohol and caffeine (both can intensify teeth grinding).

Waking Tangled in the Sheets

The problem: restless leg syndrome. With this condition, your legs are acutely uncomfortable, especially at night. Symptoms include pain, burning, gnawing, creeping, pulling, throbbing, itching, all of which are relieved to some degree by moving your legs, which you may continue to do in your sleep. Try these remedies:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen.
  • Soaking in a warm tub or massaging your legs to relax your muscles.
  • Applying warm or cold packs or compresses (alternate them for best effect).
  • Learning relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation.
  • Get regular exercise (avoid working out late in the day, which can worsen symptoms).
  • Cut back on caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, all of which can make matters worse.
  • See a doctor if self-help measures don’t help

Dry Mouth or Really Bad Morning Breath

The problem: snoring or mouth breathing. This suggests that you’re probably not getting enough air to relax fully and sleep soundly. Try these self-help tricks:

  • Lose some weight; dropping even 10 pounds may stop the snoring.
  • Cut back on alcohol in the evening and give up sedatives or sleeping pills (they all relax throat and nose muscles, priming them for snoring).
  • Try nose strips designed to stop snoring, or switch positions in bed (sleeping on your back tends to promote snoring).
  • Consult a doctor if loud snoring is accompanied by excessive daytime drowsiness, which may signal sleep apnea, a condition that causes temporary pauses in breathing during sleep. Other symptoms include dry mouth, sore throat, and morning headaches.

Sleep apnea is a serious—and often undiagnosed—condition that can raise risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack or stroke. Lifestyle changes can help in milder cases, while more severe ones may require such treatments as wearing a pressurized mask over your nose or a dental device in your mouth while you sleep.

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