Understanding Sleep Apnea
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder where your breathing is briefly interrupted when you’re asleep. If you have sleep apnea, you’re probably not aware of these short breathing pauses that occur hundreds of times a night, jolting you out of your natural sleep rhythm. All you know is that you don’t feel as energetic, mentally sharp, or productive during the day as you should do.
The most common type of sleep apnea—obstructive sleep apnea—occurs when the airway is blocked, causing pauses in breathing and loud snoring. Since sleep apnea only occurs while you’re sleeping, you may only discover you have a problem when a bed partner or roommate complains about your snoring. Though you may feel self-conscious about it or tempted to just make light of your snoring, it’s something you shouldn’t ignore. Sleep apnea can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health.
The chronic sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can result in daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration, and an increased risk of accidents. Sleep apnea can cause moodiness, irritability, and even lead to depression, as well as serious physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, liver problems, and weight gain. With the right treatment and self-help strategies, however, you can control your snoring and the symptoms of sleep apnea, get your sleep back on track, and feel refreshed and alert during the day.
Types of sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly.
Central sleep apnea is a much less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system, occurring when the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. People with central sleep apnea seldom snore.
Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea
It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. But you can get around this difficulty by asking a bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep. If pauses occur while you snore, and if choking or gasping follows the pauses, these are major warning signs that you have sleep apnea.
Major warning signs
- Loud and chronic snoring almost every night
- Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
- Pauses in breathing
- Waking up at night feeling short of breath
- Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, no matter how much time you spend in bed
Other warning signs
- Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Insomnia or nighttime awakenings; restless or fitful sleep
- Going to the bathroom frequently during the night
- Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
- Uncharacteristic moodiness, irritability, or depression
- Morning headaches
Is it sleep apnea or just snoring?
Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. So how do you tell the difference between normal snoring and a more serious case of sleep apnea?
The biggest telltale sign is how you feel during the day. Normal snoring doesn’t interfere with the quality of your sleep as much as sleep apnea does, so you’re less likely to suffer from extreme fatigue and sleepiness during the day.
See a doctor immediately if you suspect sleep apnea
Sleep apnea can be a potentially serious disorder, so contact a doctor immediately if you spot the warning signs. An official diagnosis of sleep apnea may require seeing a sleep specialist and taking a home- or clinic-based sleep test.
Sleep apnea causes
While anyone can have sleep apnea, you have a higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea if you’re:
- Overweight, male, with a family history of sleep apnea
- Over the age of 50, a smoker, affected by high blood pressure
- Black, Hispanic, or a Pacific Islander
- Someone with a neck circumference greater than 15.75 inches (40 cm)
Other physical attributes that put you at risk for obstructive sleep apnea include a deviated septum, receding chin, or enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Your airway may be blocked or narrowed during sleep simply because your throat muscles tend to relax more than normal. Allergies or other medical conditions that cause nasal congestion and blockage can also contribute to sleep apnea.
Lifestyle changes to reduce sleep apnea symptoms
Lose weight. People who are overweight have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which can fall down over the airway and block the flow of air into the lungs while they sleep. Even a small amount of weight loss can open up your throat and improve sleep apnea symptoms.
Quit smoking. Smoking contributes to sleep apnea by increasing inflammation and fluid retention in your throat and upper airway.
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and sedatives, especially before bedtime, because they relax the muscles in the throat and interfere with breathing.
Exercise regularly. As well as helping you lose weight, regular exercise can have a major effect on the duration and quality of sleep. Aerobic and resistance training can help reduce sleep apnea symptoms, while yoga is also good for strengthening the muscles in your airways and improving breathing.
Avoid caffeine and heavy meals within two hours of going to bed.
Maintain regular sleep hours. Sticking to a steady sleep schedule will help you relax and sleep better. Sleep apnea episodes decrease when you get plenty of sleep.
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