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Is my teeth grinding a sleep disorder or parasomnia?

  • bruxism
11 min read
by Angela Todd |

What causes teeth grinding at night? The function of the brain while you sleep is still a mysterious and fascinating process, creating dreams and resetting the body. But for individuals who find themselves with nighttime grinding or clenching, sleep deprivation can be more of a waking reality. 

The causes for bruxism, or night time clenching and/or grinding behaviors, can vary from person to person. Regardless of the cause, your nighttime clenching and grinding can definitely be disruptive to your sleep cycle, causing your bruxism to be classified as a type of parasomnia. 

The Sleep Cycle

There is often much debate about how much sleep a person needs each night to achieve that “fully rested” feeling. The truth is, it is more about the quality of sleep during each stage of the sleep cycle, and if there are any disruptions that present themselves during any stage.

On average, a sleep cycle from beginning to end takes approximately 90 minutes to complete. Most research tends to agree that individuals require anywhere between four and six cycles within a 24 hour period in order to function properly. 

During this 90 minute period, the brain and body move through four stages of sleep: NREM stage one, NREM stage two, “Deep” sleep, and REM sleep. During each stage, the brain activity is slightly different.

The first two stages of sleep, NREM stage one and NREM stage two, are also known as the light sleep stages. During stage one, the body begins to slow down. This is the stage where you begin to doze off. If disrupted during this stage of sleep, an individual will most likely feel as though they weren’t sleeping at all. Some individuals may experience hypnic or myoclonic jerks (sleep twitches) as they move into stages two and beyond. 

During NREM stage two, the brain is sending signals to the body to slow down all physiological responses such as heart rate, breathing, and metabolism. During this stage, some activity occurs that helps transfer short term memory into long term memory. It is also during this stage that the body disengages from the “response” to avoid harm while in deep sleep. 

Deep sleep is the stage during which the body and brain are both at rest. The natural rhythms for breathing and heart rate have slowed down and the brain waves have also slackened, making it harder for individuals to be aroused during this stage of sleep. However, disruptions from this stage of sleep can often result in disorientation or fogginess as the brain activity struggles to return to normal status. 

The REM sleep stage, also known as the Rapid Eye Movement sleep stage, is the stage during which an individual dreams. It is also the stage during which the brain activity increases, creating a temporary paralysis of the body movements except for those needed for breathing, as activity can often match or exceed the brain activity levels that are observed and measured during wakefulness. In addition, breathing rates and heart rate often increase during this stage. The REM sleep stage only makes up approximately 20% of the sleep cycle. 

The cycle repeats, moving through the four stages of sleep throughout the night. 

What are parasomnias?

woman having trouble sleeping

Parasomnias, in short, are disorders which occur during any stage of the sleep cycle. They are disruptive and often cause other issues for the individual. Not only do parasomnias interrupt the normal cycle of sleep required for the body to function properly, but they also often create additional physical or psychological effects that can be damaging or at the very least, troublesome. 

Some parasomnia behaviors can be temporary, lasting only a few days to a few months before resolving. While other parasomnias can be more lasting, presenting in intervals throughout the years. 

Part of what classifies these behaviors from other normal activities are a group of characteristics. While some minor demonstration of any one of these symptoms isn’t uncommon for a typical sleeper, repeated presentation of one or more of these symptoms may indicate that additional medical evaluation is needed: These can include: 

  • Unusual movements
  • Unusual dreams
  • Irregular dreams
  • Atypical behaviors (such as sleepwalking or talking)
  • Strage emotional responses

Additionally, common symptoms exhibited by individuals with parasomnias can include: 

  • Talking during sleep
  • Nocturnal urination (Bedwetting)
  • Sleep walking
  • Auditory exclaimations, such as shouts or cries, throughout the night
  • Noctural binging (eating without recollection of the event)
  • Waking in strage locations without cause
  • Feeling extremely confused or disoriented upon sudden waking
  • Injuries caused by night time behaviors

Causes

In many cases, the causes for parasomnias are heavily blamed on stress. In some rare cases, other issues such as an autoimmune disorder can create parasomnias. However, among most medical professionals, stress is the most commonly cited reason for experiencing parasomnias. 

As the body responds to stressors during the day, such as work responsibilities, family obligations and other obstacles, the body tends to hold the “stress” of these events. During the sleep cycles, when the brain shuts the body down to reset and reboot, this stress can be manifested through various forms of parasomnia. 

Common Parasomnias

There are a handful of parasomnias which are commonly reported, while this list is not exhaustive. Symptoms and demonstrations of these sleep disorders can vary from mild to extreme. We recommend consulting with your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment of any sleep disorder. 

Sleepwalking:  Sleepwalking sounds like a fairly innoculus activity, one with potentially humorous antics particularly for families with home surveillance cameras. However, sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, occurs where the individual is completely engaged in the sleep cycle but is ambulatory and often in motion as if awake. Yet, upon waking, the individual will have no memory or recollection of having moved at all. 

Sleepwalking is not limited to simply walking, as the name would suggest. In fact, sleepwalking behaviors can present as repeatedly sitting up while in bed throughout the night, or even completing activities such as attempting to send messages or emails on mobile devices. 

The causes for sleep walking behaviors range from increased stress, having a full bladder at bedtime, or other disturbances throughout the sleep cycle due to medical conditions like sleep apnea. 

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep Behavior Disorder: This parasomnia occurs specifically during the stage of sleep known as REM sleep. This disorder causes a person to physically ‘act out’ the most vivid dreams. The disturbing factor is that for REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, the body's typical paralysis state is not engaged, allowing the individual to freely move during the most active dreaming state. REM Sleep Behavior Disorder is also one of the parasomnias which can cause an individual to vividly recall their dream activity if woken during the REM stage of sleep. 

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder can begin gradually and typically tends to increase in severity as time progresses. In most cases, there is a deeper issue that could indicate an autoimmune response or some other neurological issue that needs to be addressed.

Sleep talking:  Talking in your sleep doesn’t automatically classify as a parasomnia. However, when the behavior is repeated nightly or several times a week, or is disruptive enough to wake you or your partner from an otherwise peaceful night’s sleep, your somniloquy (a fancy term for sleep talking) may be more than just an occasional experience. Somniloquy is another parasomnia in which the brain is often reacting to the imagery experienced during the dream state. Episodes of somniloquy are said to last around 30 seconds per episodes and individuals can have numerous episodes in one sleep cycle. 

The content of somniloquy ranges from comical to obscene, from intelligible to fantastical gibberish. In some cases, individuals will have episodes of somniloquy that relate directly to events or stressors being experienced in their waking lives. For example, a student undergoing finals or an employee under a tough deadline may exhibit episodes of somniloquy where their phrases and statements are correlative to their waking stress. In other cases, these episodes may have no more meaning than the time displayed on the clock while you are reading this article. 

In general, somniloquy is the least worrisome parasomnia, posing no more risk than potentially telling your partner about what you really feel about their mother! 

Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (NSRED): This parasomnia is one that is often associated with sleepwalking. NSRED is characterized by episodes of making and/or consuming food during the night, without recollection of the events. Individuals with NSRED may find themselves gaining weight or missing specific food items from their fridge with no seemingly logical explanation. While NSRED is associated with sleepwalking, it is not as commonly exhibited. 

nighttime eating, sleep eating

Exploding Head Syndrome: Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS) is a parasomnia that typically presents as an individual is falling asleep or waking up. The disorder is characterized by short-lived auditory hallucinations produced in the brain of the sleeper. EHS suffers often experience ‘flashes’ of light or hypnic or myoclonic jerks in addition to the experience of a loud sound. In most cases, the loud sound is described as a gunshot, explosion, car backfire, or crash. 

For episodes of EHS while falling asleep, the user may be jerked awake by these auditory hallucinations, causing increased heart rate and disorientation. For episodes of EHS that occur during waking, the individual may have an accompanying dream as the brain seeks a reason to explain the auditory hallucination. EHS is reported to be more common in women than in men. Like many other parasomnias, some episodes can be rapidly occurring, having two or more experiences in one night. Additionally, EHS episodes may occur in a pattern across several days before halting for an extended period of time.  

Night Terrors: Having a bad dream every once in a while can simply be the psyche’s way of dealing with otherwise difficult life circumstances. When nightmares are so intense and vivid, however, that they cause screaming, flailing or extreme fear, it may be that it is a night terror, rather than a standard nightmare. Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are another parasomnia closely associated with sleepwalking. 

Unlike standard nightmares, night terrors are often difficult to wake from, causing the individual to feel as though they are “locked” into the frightening sleep stage. More common in children than in adults, night terrors typically tend to disappear once individuals have moved through puberty and adolescence, though they can occur later in life. 

Bruxism (Teeth grinding/clenching): Waking up to find your teeth and jaw sore, or feeling as though you’ve chewed on concrete throughout the night? Chances are you are dealing with the parasomnia known as Bruxism. More commonly referred to simply as teeth grinding or  teeth clenching, Bruxism is one of the few parasomnias that has a lasting effect on the waking life of the individual. 

Bruxism is defined as either lateral movement of the teeth (grinding) or tightly forcing the upper and lower teeth together (clenching). This parasomnia often is associated with other parasomnias and could be a result of a more serious medical condition, such as a TMJ disorder. Bruxism can lead to broken or cracked teeth, ‘ground down’ teeth, migraines, jaw soreness and pain if left untreated. 

Reasons for your Bruxism Parasomniagrinding, bruxism

There are a number of reasons why an individual may struggle with nighttime bruxism. A few factors which could be contributing to your nighttime clenching/grinding are: 

  • Age 
  • Oral habits
  • TMJ disorders
  • Bite alignment or malocclusion
  • Genetic or hereditary factors
  • Medications
  • Other medical conditions such as sleep apnea
  • Stress

One of the most commonly cited causes for bruxism or increased symptoms of bruxism is increased life stress. Oddly enough, the side effects of nighttime bruxism can further exacerbate the issue, creating a seemingly endless cycle of sleep deprivation, disruption and pain.

How a night guard might help your bruxism parasomnia

Wearing a night guard may not seem like the most desirable option. In fact, if you’ve ever tried the over the counter night guards that can be purchased at any drug store, you’ve probably experienced the bulky, uncomfortable guard that seems to make your pain worse instead of better! 

Here at JS Dental Lab, we’ve designed our night guards so that they are custom fitted to your teeth from high-quality material to help reduce the damage caused by your nighttime bruxism. Our nightguards are fabricated so that they have a lower profile than your standard over the counter or boil-n-bite guards, allowing for a more comfortable experience. 

Wearing a nightguard on either your upper or lower teeth helps to protect both sides of your teeth from damage caused by clenching or grinding behaviors. This is because the guard acts as a barrier that prevents your teeth from making contact and serves to take the impact of the pressure exerted by these activities. Whether you’re a more intense grinder or clencher, our variety of high-quality night guards offer you options to help with your bruxism. 

Our 3D Premium Night guard, which uses both the upper and lower impressions to fabricate a single guard, offers customization through adding thickness or creating a flat bite plane for those individuals who need a flat surface to help reduce the tension exerted by grinding. 

Homeopathic Remedies You May Also Consider

Finding the best ways to get the best night’s sleep can be challenging, particularly when your daily life is filled with a number of stresses from all avenues. Wearing a night guard can help to protect your teeth and may also reduce some of the pain associated with your bruxism behaviors. Additionally, you can also consider incorporating these alternative homeopathic practices to help reduce the intensity of your night time bruxism. 

Nightly meditation: Guided meditation is a great way to practice mindfulness and take awareness of your overall body. Incorporating a ten to fifteen minute guided meditation practice each night can help to reduce some of the stress experienced prior to sleeping. By taking a small of time each night to help center and check in with your body, you can focus on releasing the physical tension you carry which may help to reduce some of the tension held in your jaw. 

Essential oil blends: For decades, essential oils have been used to help heal and treat a number of different conditions. While not a substitute for professional medical care, specific essential oil blends have been reported by some to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of nighttime bruxism. Essential oil blends containing lavender and/or chamomile are said to have calming effects on the brain and body and may help to reduce stress prior to sleeping. 

Face Yoga: Stretching your muscles is a great way to keep them in working condition and flexible. Yoga is a commonly practiced form of daily stretching aimed at helping to create a relaxed and fluid body movement. Jaw yoga uses specific poses and practices aimed at helping to improve the flexibility and strength of the jaw muscles. Fifteen minutes of jaw tension relieving yoga poses each day may help to reduce the experience of clenching and grinding at night. 

Face yoga, facial stretching

Getting a great night’s sleep is important not only for your physical health, but your overall wellbeing. While a number of parasomnias may have little to offer in terms of treatment or prevention, your bruxism doesn’t have to be one of them. 

Not sure what type of guard is right for you? You can take our quiz here to find out what guard we’d recommend to help with your nighttime bruxism. If you have any questions, our customer support team is here to help!


Resources: 

https://www.sleepwellmd.com/sleep-disorders/parasomnias/#:~:text=Teeth%20grinding%2C%20also%20known%20as,as%20a%20consequence%20of%20bruxism.


https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12133-parasomnias--disruptive-sleep-disorders#:~:text=Parasomnias%20are%20disruptive%20sleep%2Drelated,eating%20disorder%20and%20sleep%20paralysis.


https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/talking-in-your-sleep#:~:text=What%20is%20sleep%20talking%3F,usually%20considered%20a%20medical%20problem.


https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-related-eating-disorders


https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rem-sleep-behavior-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352920#:~:text=Rapid%20eye%20movement%20(REM)%20sleep,sometimes%20called%20dream%2Denacting%20behavior.


https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-terrors/symptoms-causes/syc-20353524#:~:text=Sleep%20terrors%20are%20episodes%20of,an%20undesired%20occurrence%20during%20sleep.


https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21907-exploding-head-syndrome-ehs#:~:text=Exploding%20head%20syndrome%20(EHS)%20is%20a%20type%20of%20sleep%20disorder,wake%20up%20during%20the%20night.


https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bruxism/symptoms-causes/syc-20356095


https://yogainternational.com/article/view/yoga-for-jaw-tension

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