Have you ever been drifting off to a good night’s sleep, only to be jerked awake suddenly? If so, take comfort in the fact that a hypnic jerk is not unusual. I once experienced a hypnic jerk when I was finally dozing off after a particularly strenuous film shoot. The jerk was so violent that I kicked my nightstand, which sent a lamp crashing to the floor. Needless to say, that was a rough way to wake up.
The abrupt contraction of muscles that causes a hypnic jerk happens to roughly 70 percent of the population. A hypnic jerk isn’t considered dangerous in and of itself, but unexpectedly waking up can be disconcerting!
What Causes a Hypnic Jerk?
One theory is that hypnic jerks stem from a time when our ancestors slept in trees, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Maybe that feeling of falling is engrained in our collective unconsciousness. There is another explanation that makes a lot of sense.
From a neurological perspective, a hypnic jerk is a natural occurrence as the body transitions into sleep. These involuntary movements are part of a broader classification of involuntary muscle contractions called myoclonus. Hiccups are another example of myoclonus. Annoying, for sure, but for the most part harmless. So, a hypnic jerk is a symptom caused by the misfiring between areas of the brain that regulate consciousness.
Areas of the brain that are misfiring
Neurologist, Doctor Brandon Peters says the Reticular Activating System is the “brain’s attention center.” It keeps us conscious and alert during waking hours and is instrumental in the transitions from wake to sleep. Doctor Peters points out that the center is triggered into action naturally by our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms regulate the body’s internal clock.
The VLPO, also known as the sleep-switch effect, produces neurotransmitters that block the Reticular Activating System during sleep. The neurotransmitters cut off sensory and motor function to the cerebral cortex. The sleep-switch effect happens because the VLPO acts in the same way as a light switch. It turns consciousness off and on, by regulating the source of activity.
When these two systems aren’t in perfect sync, the result is a hypnic jerk. For most people, an occasional hypnic jerk is a natural occurrence and happens with little to no reaction. Sometimes, this unwanted brain activity disrupts the sleep cycle to the point that it causes issues in waking life.
Outside factors influence the occurrence of a hypnic jerk as well. Exercising before bed, drinking too much coffee, or getting into an argument with your spouse can all affect falling asleep. Some medications, such as those used for treating depression can also increase episodes of hypnic jerking.
Most of the time, we can adjust our lifestyle in ways that will ease the occurrence of a hypnic jerk. We can do a few things to facilitate the transition from one state of consciousness to the next, altering the body’s urge to stay awake.
A Vicious Cycle: How Hypnic Jerk Becomes a Problem
Suddenly waking can cause feelings of anxiety, particularly if the rapid arousal accompanies other symptoms. Many people wake startled by a sense of falling. In some cases, people see bright flashes of light and may hear loud noises. They may also experience a dream-like hallucination upon waking from a hypnic jerk.
Sometimes the victim of a hypnic jerk will cry out loud upon waking. A recurring hypnic jerk can be a vicious cycle. Waking up unexpectedly night after night will result in sleep deprivation, which, in turn, can increase occurrences of a hypnic jerk. For some, the apprehension involved with falling asleep is enough to cause insomnia.
Solutions For a Better Night’s Rest
Our brain needs to settle down so it can take the necessary measures to shut off for the night. One thing that is important when thinking about our sleep-cycle is to remember that our bodies have natural rhythms. Do not exercise before bedtime. Use exercise in your morning routine to get a great start to the day.
Watch What You Eat and Drink
The first thing to check is your caffeine intake. Be aware of the time of day, and make sure to note the number of caffeinated beverages you drink.
It may be evident that caffeine will mess with your sleep, but so does protein, sugar, chocolate and ice cream. Some foods, like bananas, will aid in inducing sleep because they contain magnesium and potassium. These minerals both serve as natural muscle relaxants.
Check your alcohol consumption. While it may help you fall asleep, alcohol won’t help with a healthy sleep cycle. It disrupts circadian rhythms. Studies show that alcohol consumption suppresses melatonin, a key facilitator of sleep and regulator of sleep-wake cycles.
Start a Sleep Routine
A simple breathing meditation before bed will help slow the mind down and release the stress from the day. It may help the brain’s attention center to more readily accept the shut-down of consciousness, instigated by the sleep-switch effect. There are a variety of audio meditations to help you with your breathing as you learn to relax.
Use essential oils in conjunction with nightly meditation, or alone. Lavender aids in relaxation and helps with sleep. My favorite essential oils come from doTerra. They also offer “Restful Complex Softgels” which contain lavender, green tea extract, and chamomile, among other natural ingredients that are proven to enhance relaxation.
Our Final Thoughts on Hypnic Jerks
We all have probably experienced a hypnic jerk at least once in our lifetimes without knowing that it happened. In fact, most humans have. A hypnic jerk may be part of evolution, a long-ago need to make sure we maintained a semi-alert state, even in sleep. However, nowadays we don’t need to be jerked awake to keep us safe. It’s annoying! Most of the time that is all a hypnic jerk amounts to, an annoyance that drags us from our sleep.
It can become a serious problem though and may be an indication that something else is wrong if happening too frequently. If you start to feel anxiety about sleeping or jerk awake too frequently, please see a doctor. If your doctor finds no underlying problems, then the best thing to do is to adjust some of your lifestyle choices and odds are, that will help.