This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
Sleep apnea is a disorder where breathing repeatedly stops for at least 10 seconds while sleeping. The condition is considered potentially serious because it can impair the function of internal organs, leading to heart attacks, strokes, dementia and other maladies.
Here is what you need to know.
What Happens During Sleep Apnea?
The most common form is obstructive apnea. This results when the muscles in the back of your throat relax, which produces the narrowing or closing of your breathing airway during inhalation. Consequently, you can’t get an adequate breath, so your blood oxygen decreases. At this point, the brain briefly rouses you from sleep to enable the airway to reopen. Upon awakening, you may snort or gasp. This pattern happens five to 30 times or more per hour throughout the night.
A less common form of the condition is central apnea, which involves the failure of the brain to send signals to the muscles that control breathing. Sometimes a patient may have both obstructive and central apnea.
How Do So Many People Miss the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?
Many symptoms of sleep apnea are overlooked because they seem like common sleep complications. Typical nighttime symptoms include:
- Loud snoring
- Periods of breathing cessation
- Sudden awakening associated with shortness of breath
- Awakening in the morning with a dry mouth or sore throat
Usual daytime signs are irritability, attention problems, headaches and sleepiness. Other symptoms may include swollen legs, nighttime heartburn and frequent night urination as well as sweating and chest pain while sleeping. A telltale sign is a forward head posture during sleep, which becomes more pronounced as the apnea worsens. Spouses of patients are usually the first to notice the symptoms.
Complications are Hardly Something to “Snooze At”
Sleep apnea robs your body and cells of the oxygen needed to function properly. The sudden drops in oxygen that occur all night take a toll on the body and increase your risk of the following:
- Daytime fatigue
- Cardiovascular problems
- Blood sugar highs and lows
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Slow metabolism
- Memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease
- Weakened immune system
- Accelerated tumor growth
- Mood disorders
- Sexual dysfunction
Lifestyle Measures to Reduce Risk
If you have a mild case of sleep apnea, lifestyle modifications alone may relieve the symptoms.
Lose weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition can sometimes go into complete remission if the patient returns to an optimal weight.
Exercise. Thirty minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week may alleviate the condition.
Sleep on your side or abdomen. Avoid sleeping on your back because this position increases the likelihood of an airway blockage.
Stop smoking. Nicotine relaxes the muscles that keep your airway open, an effect that narrows the passageway.
Avoid alcohol and sedatives. These agents will make symptoms worse because they also relax the muscles in the back of the throat.
Get plenty of sleep. Inadequate rest can worsen the condition.
Eat a nutritious diet. Processed foods acidify the blood, leading to heavier breathing. Consume plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, as they will have the least adverse effect on breathing.
Treatment Options for Those with Sleep Apnea
Airway pressure devices. For moderate to severe cases, devices are available that help open the blocked airway. The most common is continuous positive airway pressure, a machine that brings air pressure to the patient through a mask. Expiratory positive airway pressure is a smaller device that fits over each nostril.
Oral appliances. A dentist can fit you with these devices that work by keeping the jaw positioned forward.
Oral myofunctional therapy. This program works with facial muscles to improve the shape of your oral cavity and foster better tongue placement.
Buteyko breathing method. A technique developed by a Russian doctor, it involves learning to breathe consistently through the nose rather than the mouth.
If your spouse has noticed that you snore loudly or stop breathing and gasp during sleep, make an appointment with your doctor. Since the condition has many complications, it needs to be addressed.