It’s so scary when this happens! You’re driving down the interstate at 75mph or you’re in heavy traffic. And almost without warning your heads falls down and pops back up because you just fell asleep! It’s happened to me too. Scariest part is the 1-2 seconds after you wake back up your still going 75 mph and your disoriented!!! And for some it ends tragically with an auto accident.
Why does this happen? How can you go from awake to asleep in a split second? Well you were probably very tired to begin with. And you could feel yourself wanting to fall asleep. Then it happened. REM Flood! Your brain put you to sleep at the worst possible time. REM Flood comes from being sleep deprived because you’re not getting proper sleep.
When we sleep we go through four stages, Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, and REM. Stage 1 is the first stage of sleep. It is very light sleep. It should take you about 10-20 minutes to reach stage one when you lay down to sleep. If I said your name during this stage you would wake up. Stage 2 is the transition stage between light sleep and deep sleep. In stage 2 our heart rate and body temperature lower. It is also the stage where clench and grind our teeth the most. It is also called the anxiety stage. Sage 3 is deep sleep. This is the stage where our body “reboots” itself like a computer. In this stage our muscles, skin, and hair grows, our hormones are regulated, our blood pressure is regulated, and we get deep restful sleep. The last stage is REM sleep. This is the stage where we process data and memories in our brain. We do most of our dreaming in this stage. During sleep we cycle from stage 1 to 2 to 3 and then REM sleep over and over. You cannot skip any stages and you repeat the cycle all night. Our brain must have a certain amount of REM stage sleep. About 20% of our sleep should be REM stage. There is no pill, diet or supplement to get REM sleep. The only way to get REM sleep is to continually sleep though all four stages over and over every night. And if you do sleep through all your stages continually all night you will wake up feeling great and rested.
The problem comes in when something breaks your sleep cycle. Snoring, sleep apnea, clenching/grinding, excess alcohol, and even certain anxiety drugs can cause breaks in your sleep cycle. Let’s use snoring as an example. You have just fallen asleep. You have entered stage 1. You are now drifting into stage 2. You’re just about to enter stage 3 when you start to snore. You’re losing air while you’re snoring so your brain wakes you up for a split second. You take a deep breath, roll over and fall right back asleep. But you don’t start back where you left off at stage three. When something breaks your sleep cycle you start back at stage 1. So if something is affecting your sleep all night you may not go through your sleep stages enough times. This means your brain did not get enough REM stage sleep. In other words, your sleep deprived. If you stay sleep deprived long enough your brain will eventually demand REM stage sleep. When this happens you can fall asleep no matter what you’re doing. I can remember staying awake all night in dental school studying for neurology finals. For 2-3 days I went with maybe 4 hours of sleep. My brain was starving for REM sleep. I remember coming back to my apartment after the final and I crashed on the couch. I did not even make it to my bedroom. I slept for about 10 hours! This is called REM Flood. It’s when your brain puts you straight to sleep and you cycle very quickly through stages 1, 2, and 3, and stay in REM stage longer. This allows your brain to make up for the lost REM sleep it needs. Your brain is “flooding itself” with REM sleep. For some people that work really long hours or late at night they take very short but very restful “power naps”. They are sleep deprived and make up for it with daily short naps between sleep.
The problem is when REM Flood occurs but you’re not at home to sleep safely in your bed. You’re in your car driving. When this occurs the brain essentially shuts off and on very rapidly. It puts you to deep sleep for a split second and then wakes you up. Hopefully you are still on the road after this happens.
The only way to ensure you are not sleep deprived is to sleep and sleep properly so you go through all your stages. For many of us that is not something we do every night. If you are having problems falling asleep, staying asleep all night, or falling asleep during the day you can be helped. For our patients we start with a home sleep study or some prefer to go to a sleep center for their study. When you come to see us to help you sleep there are two people I need to meet, the "awakeyou" and the "asleep you". These are two different people. The "awake you"can tell me what you remember about your sleep but that’s about it. The "asleep you" can tell me everything I need to know to get you to a great night sleep every night. To accomplish this we set you up with a sleep study and from there we can help you make changes to how you sleep. If you have a snoring or sleep apnea problem we can make a dental appliance to keep your jaw forward so your tongue does not block the air from entering your lungs. It looks kind of like a sports mouth guard. You do not have to use a CPAP if you don’t want to. For some it is simply changing their diet and/or medications. Everyone has their own unique problems sleeping well. So we start with a consultation and talk about how you are sleeping. And then we make recommendations based on what we hear. Simple. Everyone can have a great night sleep every night!