Sleep Paralysis: Causes & Prevention

If you have ever woken up but were unable to move, saw shadows, or felt something heavy on your chest that seemed like it was holding you down, you have likely experienced sleep paralysis.

The experience can be frightening, and it can feel like it lasts for several minutes. Despite this feeling, the condition will go away in a few seconds, as your brain completes the process of waking up and restores movement to your body.

How Can Sleep Paralysis Be Prevented?

Generally, your brain will paralyze your body while you sleep so you do not act out your dreams as you enter deep, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and REM stages of sleep. When you wake up as normal, your brain restores movement to your body as your consciousness returns. If you snap awake out of deep sleep or a dream, it is possible that your brain has not completely restored the connection to move again.

For the most part, sleep paralysis is a random occurrence that will happen on rare occasions in your life. Some people are more prone to experiencing it than others due to genetic factors, sleep deprivation, age, and underlying medical conditions.

If you routinely experience sleep paralysis, there are approaches to preventing it or reducing how often you experience it. If you understand how to recognize sleep paralysis, it can help you to relax for a few seconds until it passes.

Risk Factors for Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis may occur in anyone, regardless of gender or age, but there are a few conditions that make it more likely.

Research shows that sleep paralysis has a genetic component. People who experience the condition several times have close family members who also regularly experience sleep paralysis. Situations that cause stress and sleep loss are also associated with an increased risk of sleep paralysis.

The most common contributors to the condition include:

  • Adolescence. Teenagers and young adults are more likely than other age groups to experience sleep paralysis. Teenagers experience several potential factors preceding sleep paralysis, including environmental stress, physical stress from growing, and changes in the brain associated with becoming an adult.
  • Sleep deprivation. This is the leading cause of sleep paralysis for most people. Sleep deprivation is often associated with insomnia, which may be caused by life stress, major personal changes or loss, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or panic disorder.
  • Narcolepsy. This is a sleep condition that changes a person’s circadian rhythm, leading to poor-quality sleep and consistent sleep-deprivation. This can lead to sleeping more than usual, taking long naps, and suffering from sleep disorders like sleep paralysis.

People who have underlying conditions like narcolepsy or insomnia should work with a doctor to improve their sleep and get prescription medications as needed. If you do not have an underlying medical condition but you still experience sleep paralysis, there are ways to mitigate the frequency of episodes.

How to Prevent Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis can be a disturbing experience, even if you know what it is. Struggling with frequent episodes can lead to further sleep loss, which can increase the risk of more episodes of sleep paralysis.

To prevent bouts of this sleep disruption, here are some recommendations:

  • Manage stress. Easing emotional and mental stress can help you get better quality sleep. One of the best ways to reduce stress is to consume less caffeine, drink coffee or tea only in the morning, or stop drinking it altogether. Engaging in ways to relax your body is also important. Take warm baths, use ice on sore muscles, and stretch regularly. Deep-breathing exercises and drinking warm milk are other popular techniques for becoming more relaxed. Long term, you can improve how relaxed you feel by having a consistent routine most days of the week that includes regular, moderate exercise and healthy meals. Keeping your body in good shape and maintaining a healthy weight helps to manage your brain chemistry and hormones, like the stress hormone cortisol, along with neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which improve your mood, help you relax, and promote sleep.
  • Take herbs and vitamin supplements. Sleep deprivation from stress and insomnia can trigger sleep paralysis. If you need immediate relief to get good sleep, try herbs and vitamins to help you sleep deeply enough that you feel rested in the morning. The following are recommended herbs, which can be taken in supplement form or made into teas:
    • Valerian root
    • Chamomile
    • Passionflower
    • Lemon balm

Dietary supplements like melatonin or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply, so you feel rested upon waking. Over-the-counter dietary supplements can be found in grocery stores, drugstores, and natural food stores.

Check the label for trustworthy company information, including a seal of approval noting Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Follow the instructions on the bottle and always start with the lowest dose, as sedative effects may lead you to feel groggy in the morning. Also, check the expiration date on any supplements you purchase and buy them in person rather than online.

Before you take any dietary supplements or add herbs to your sleep routine, work with your doctor to understand if these will impact the effects of any medications you currently take.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. If you consistently struggle with feeling tired because of insomnia and simple relaxation techniques do not help, implementing good sleep hygiene can help you get good sleep and avoid sleep paralysis. Try these steps:

    • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Even if you do not fall asleep immediately at your normal bedtime, get up at the same time each morning, avoid sleeping in, and allow yourself to be tired at the end of the day so you are more likely to fall asleep at your chosen bedtime.
    • Cool your bedroom down. The ideal temperature is between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Get thick drapes or blackout shades to reduce outside light. Remove sources of light from your room, including nightlights, phones, and other devices.
    • Stop using electronic devices like your computer, television, or phone at least an hour before going to bed. The blue light they emit can trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it is daytime.
    • Avoid eating large meals right before bed, and avoid fried or spicy food that might lead to indigestion. Instead, eat a light dinner at least two hours before going to sleep.
    • Create a relaxing bedtime routine that may include a warm bath, a good book, soothing music, and even light exercise or stretching.

  • Try a better bed and pillows. There are many reasons to get a new mattress and/or pillows to improve your sleep. Many people sleep on mattresses that are more than 10 years old, even though you should replace your mattress every seven to 10 years, depending on the mattress material. Pillows should be replaced every three to five years. Your pillows and mattress may also be the wrong firmness to suit your body and sleep position. With numerous new memory foam mattresses that include different layers of gel, firmness settings of foam, and even innerspring coils, you can get a mattress that ranges from very soft to very hard delivered to your front door with just a few mouse clicks. Your pillow may be too hard for you, too tall to support your neck, or too flat to support your body. You can get new pillows as you shop for a new mattress.

Preventing Sleep Paralysis May Take Time

Unless you have a serious underlying sleep disorder like narcolepsy or chronic insomnia, taking sedative drugs will not help sleep paralysis problems. Even if you sleep for the whole night, your sleep cycles will be different, with fewer REM stages. This can lead to ongoing sleep deprivation that increases the risk of further sleep paralysis episodes.

Instead, follow natural steps to keep yourself on a sleep schedule, and if you continue to suffer from sleep deprivation, work with a doctor to manage the condition. You may not know you have a type of narcolepsy, for example, until you undergo a sleep study that can monitor your brain waves and how often you wake up at night.

It is important to give yourself a couple of weeks to adjust to a new bedtime routine and relaxation techniques. It’s better to use these than to rely heavily on dietary supplements or herbal remedies to sleep.

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