Why Do People Talk In Their Sleep?

03/10/2015 08:37 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015
Jay Lim via Getty Images

By Stephanie Steinberg for U.S. News

Sure, you can have my phone number. It's like having a direct line to God. But better, because I answer.

Hold me. I want you to feel greatness.

I'm like medicine. Take me twice before going to bed. Warning: I will cause sexiness.

I'm not fat. It's just my awesomeness swelling up inside me.

These sound like bad pickup lines or something you might read on a T-shirt, right? Well, they did eventually make it on T-shirts, but the egomaniacal zingers were first uttered by a man who spewed out jokes (and not-fit-for-print phrases) in his sleep.

Sleep Talkin' Man -- the name Adam Lennard and his wife use to refer to his alter ego -- was born in February 2009 when he shouted, "Enough with the cheese! Enough!"

"I ended up laughing him awake because it was so hilarious," recalls Karen Slavick-Lennard, as the two shared Sleep Talkin' Man stories in a phone interview from London, where they reside.

The couple, both 41, had been teenage sweethearts, but then lost touch for over a decade. In 2007 they reconnected online and got engaged only a few weeks later. Before the cheese incident, Karen -- nor anyone else for that matter -- had never heard Adam sleep talk. While some wives might be freaked out by their snoozing husbands saying, "I'd rather peel off my skin and bathe my weeping raw flesh in a bath of vinegar than spend any time with you," Karen, who suffered from insomnia and was often awake when Sleep Talkin' Man surfaced, found the nightly expletives pure entertainment.

"Everything Sleep Talkin' Man said was super sharp and perfect, whereas when he's awake, Adam is sometimes known to make those really lame dad jokes," she admits.

In 2009, Karen started a blog to log Adam's sleep talking and share his comedic bouts with family and friends. And then, to their surprise, they awoke one morning to find the blog had gone viral. What followed came international media appearances, a book and a rabid fan base that demanded T-shirts.

Karen theorizes this positive reinforcement encouraged Sleep Talkin' Man, who became quite invective (we're keeping this family-friendly, so head to the blog). But much to her disappointment, Adam hasn't talked in his sleep since the day their daughter was born in 2013 -- when he said something about 17 shaved monkeys and then shouted an obscenity at 4 a.m. in the maternity ward.

"I do miss Sleep Talkin' Man," Karen says. "Every once in a while he will grunt in the middle of the night like he would when sleep talking, and I'll say, 'Oh maybe he's going to talk!' and he never does."

While Adam became an Internet sensation, sleep talking is not uncommon. In fact, experts estimate that about half of children and 5 percent of adults experience sleep talking. Sleep specialists aren't sure why, but the behavior is more common among men.

To find out more about the sleep disorder and what you should do if you or your bed partner starts cracking jokes or uttering nonsense in the middle of the night, U.S. News talked with Ilene Rosen, an associate professor in the division of sleep medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, and Natalie Dautovich, a National Sleep Foundation environmental scholar and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.

What is sleep talking?
Sleep talking is a sleep disorder that can occur during any stage of sleep. The NSF states "sleep talking can involve complicated dialogues or monologues, complete gibberish or mumbling." Sleep talkers are usually unaware of their behavior until someone tells them.

"For most people, the talking won't do any physical harm," Dautovich says. "It could just possibly be embarrassing and disruptive to other people who share the same bedroom."

Bed partners should also know the words are not intentional. Take Adam, who created the Sleep Talkin' Man persona to distance himself from the crazy outbursts. "I had no control over it," he says. "It wasn't me consciously speaking, so if I did say anything [insulting] that was directed towards Karen ... we'd both laugh about it because it's not coming from me."

What causes sleep talking?
Sleep talking could be a sign of a more serious sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, night terrors, REM behavior disorder (when an individual acts out dreams by moving or talking) or sexomnia (when a sleeper carries out sexual acts).​ Sleep talking may also occur when a person experiences a fever, sleep deprivation, depression, stress or consumes alcohol or drugs before bed.

Adam and Karen believe Sleep Talkin' Man emerged from stress. At the time, Adam (who's from England) had applied for a Visa to move to the U.S. with Karen (who's from New Jersey). He was rejected, and they spent eight months dealing with the Department of Homeland Security's appeals process.

"We were living in limbo with no idea where we would end up," Karen says. "We were floating between his parent's house and a little sublet. We were totally unsettled, and our whole life was hanging in the hands of this government agency." To top it off, neither had jobs, and Adam was fighting a court battle with his ex-wife. "I think Sleep Talkin' Man was just this processor that would churn​ through all this stress and spit it out in these hilarious or horrific insults," Karen surmises.

Are there risks of sleep talking?
If sleep talking interferes with your sleep or affects daytime functioning or a relationship, Dautovich advises consulting a sleep specialist.

Sleep talking could also cause sleep deprivation, which Rosen says contributes to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. "Anything that disrupts someone's sleep in the bedroom is problematic," she says.

What's just as bad, sleep talking may disrupt a partner's sleep. "Often it is the other partner that brings them to the sleep physician because the bed partner's sleep is so disturbed by the sleep talking," Rosen says. One episode usually isn't a cause for concern, but if the talking becomes loud and frequent, it could signal an underlying sleep disorder, she adds.

Should you wake up a sleep talker?
It depends. "If it's isolated sleep talking, waking them up might make them stop for a minute, but when they fall back to sleep, if they're sleep deprived ... it may not stop it," Rosen says. "If it is related to REM disorder or one of the other parasomnias, waking them up may be helpful, or may not be, which is why it's really important to talk to your physician."

Can you talk to a sleep talker?
This also depends on the individual. The NSF​ notes that "sleep talking may be spontaneous or induced by conversation."

In Karen's case, engaging Sleep Talkin' Man in conversation was impossible. "If I ever tried to talk to him, he woke up," she says.

Is sleep talking treatable? One way to cut the chatter is to practice good sleep hygiene, or what Dautovich describes as "behaviors you do during the day and before bed that affect your sleep." Try:

How long may sleep talking last?
For many people, sleep talking is temporary. Children often grow out of it, Rosen says. Occasionally, though, it can resurface in adulthood if sleep schedules are thrown out of whack.

If someone who has never experienced sleep talking becomes a ​serial nocturnal conversationalist, "that would be the time to seek medical attention," she says.

Are spoken words related to dreams?
No one knows for sure. "The functioning of the brain while we're asleep is so complex that it's hard to know where the content is coming from and how it's being filtered through various brain functions," Dautovich says.

Adam, for one, isn't sure if his talking stemmed from dreams because he doesn't remember them. However, there were occasions when Karen observed that his sleep talking related to daytime activities - like when they volunteered at animal sanctuaries and Adam later belted out: "Oh, it's time I got a tail. Yeah, a ​real strong one."

As Karen puts it, "When you're spending your day bathing elephants or with monkeys strapped all over your head or snuggling with sloths, that provides more fodder for weird, bizarre things."

Advice from Sleep Talkin' Man
Eventually, the stressors in Adam and Karen's lives resolved: The Visa didn't come through, so they stayed in London. They found jobs -- Adam works in advertising; Karen is a product manager. They found a place to live, and their life became "more normal," Karen says.

"I guess Adam didn't need Sleep Talkin' Man anymore," she sighs.

But for those with a Sleep Talkin' Man or Woman who comes out at night, Adam has one piece of advice: "Celebrate it."

"It's not a sign of madness," he says. "People ask me if I suffer from psychological disorders - it's nothing about that. I'm perfectly happy and mentally sound. For me, my sleep talking is [my] way of playing out my stresses in a really positive, healthy way."

And if you're the partner eavesdropping ​at night, Karen assures, "It's nothing to be worried about. You should just totally enjoy it."

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