Do you wake up every morning with a headache, dry mouth, and feeling more exhausted than when you went to bed? Is your bedmate complaining about your snoring or the weird noises you make in your sleep? If so, then you might be dealing with sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a common condition that can lead to decreased quality of life and serious health issues if left untreated. Luckily, there are ways to improve sleep apnea and help you get healthy, uninterrupted sleep.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing stops for ten seconds or more at least five times every hour. There are three kinds of sleep apnea, obstructive, central, and complex.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive, seen in up to 22% of the population.
Obstructive sleep apnea happens when your upper airway becomes blocked by your tongue, throat muscles, or other body tissues. Obstructive sleep apnea ranges from mild (5 to 15 incidents of apnea per hour) to severe (more than 30 incidents per hour.)
Central sleep apnea is neurological in origin, and about 5% of people with sleep apnea have this type. When someone has both obstructive and central sleep apnea, it is called complex sleep apnea, which is seen in less than 1% of otherwise healthy people with sleep apnea.
What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?
There are many signs that you might have sleep apnea. Individually, they might not point to a potential apnea diagnosis, but it’s worth considering if you have multiple symptoms.
- Waking up with a headache
- Insomnia or frequently waking up during the night
- Feeling sleepy during the day
- Moodiness and irritability
- Dry mouth
Other people telling you that you stop breathing during your sleep
Frequent tossing and turning
- Reduced focus
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Some of the risk factors of sleep apnea are beyond our control. If you were assigned male at birth, are 60 years old or older, have a family history of apnea, or have a large tongue and small jaw, you are at greater risk of developing sleep apnea.
Other risk factors can be changed with lifestyle adjustments. Obesity is directly linked to sleep apnea; the more overweight you are, the worse your apnea will likely be. Conversely, research shows that weight loss reduces the incidence and severity of sleep apnea.
Smoking cigarettes impacts sleep apnea, as well. Experts haven’t yet conclusively proven that smoking can cause apnea, but there is evidence that it worsens it. People who smoke the most tend to have more severe sleep apnea.
Drinking alcohol before bed also makes obstructive sleep apnea worse. It can increase nasal congestion, overly relax throat muscles, and make it harder to rouse, leading to longer bouts of apnea and more significant oxygen deprivation. Some medications can cause similar problems. If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, check with your healthcare provider before taking any medicines.
Some medical conditions and hormone imbalances can increase your risk of developing apnea. Congestive heart failure, asthma, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure are just a few examples. Getting medical treatment for any underlying health conditions is essential to reduce your risk of apnea.
Interestingly, once women go through menopause, their risk of developing apnea increases almost to the level of men. Low estrogen levels change body fat distribution, causing more fat to accumulate around the midsection.
Increased abdominal fat is a risk factor for developing sleep apnea.
What Sleep Position is Best for Sleep Apnea?
The position you sleep in can make sleep apnea worse or better. Sleeping flat on your back can cause your tongue to slide back into your throat, cutting off airflow. Back sleeping increases your chance of experiencing sleep apnea or having more severe apnea, so it’s best to avoid it. If you must sleep on your back, use pillows to elevate your head.
Whether you have mild, moderate, or severe apnea, sleeping on your left side is considered the best option for minimizing apnea and keeping your air flowing. Sleeping on your right side is the second-best option, but it can worsen acid reflux. If this is an issue for you, stick with the left side.
How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Body?
Unfortunately, sleep apnea can have numerous harmful effects on the body. Long-term apnea can damage heart health. Coronary artery disease (CAD), abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia), high blood pressure, and stroke are all linked to sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea also frequently occurs alongside metabolic changes like insulin resistance, high blood sugar, Type 2 diabetes, and high triglycerides. It’s not yet clear if these metabolic abnormalities are part of what causes sleep apnea or are side effects of it.
Uncontrolled sleep apnea can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and shortened lifespans. The more severe your apnea, the greater your risk of developing serious health conditions.
Is Sleep Apnea Hereditary?
Sleep apnea does have a genetic link. Research shows that if a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) has sleep apnea, you are significantly more likely to snore or also have sleep apnea. This increased risk can be because of genetic similarities in body type and fat distribution, facial structure, throat and tongue anatomy, and sleep traits.
How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor must order a sleep study (polysomnography.) Sleep experts will use monitors to observe your breathing, oxygen levels, muscle movements, sleep quality, and more overnight.
Sleep studies are usually conducted in a clinic, but in-home sleep study tests are also available. In-home tests won’t be able to provide all the detailed information of an in-clinic study, so people with more severe apnea or other underlying health conditions are better off opting for a clinic study.
Sleep Apnea Lifestyle Changes
There are several day-to-day interventions you can take to improve sleep apnea. Some you can undertake on your own, others should be overseen by a medical professional.
1. Manage your weight
Research shows that a 10% increase in body fat makes you 6 times more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea due to a constriction of the airway. Losing weight improves sleep apnea and can improve cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, and even possibly prevent type 2 diabetes.
Eating a healthy diet and prioritizing physical activity are the best strategies for long-term weight loss and overall health. For extremely obese people who don’t lose weight even when following diet and exercise guidelines, a doctor can prescribe fat-loss medications and might even recommend bariatric surgery if their sleep apnea is severe.
2. Quit smoking
Smoking can worsen apnea, so quitting is a simple way to lessen the severity of your sleep apnea. It will also help you improve your all-around oxygenation and ease of breathing. Of course, quitting smoking is also one of the best things you can do for your heart health.
Nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance, so don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare provider for help. They can offer guidance and even provide medications to help you if needed.
3. Quit or cut down on drinking alcohol
The more alcohol you drink, the worse your sleep will likely be. Because of the effect of alcohol on the body, heavy drinkers have lower nighttime oxygen levels, longer bouts of apnea, and more interrupted sleep than light or non-drinkers. Don’t drink alcohol near bedtime, or skip it altogether, to help improve your sleep apnea.
4. Try positional therapy
Positional therapy is when you use devices like binders, body-length pillows, and position-triggered alarms to help keep you from sleeping flat on your back (supine), which is known to worsen sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor about what positional therapy might work best for you.
5. Use a CPAP machine
Once you’ve had your sleep study and have a sleep apnea diagnosis, your doctor might prescribe you a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP). This machine pressurizes the air you breathe and gently maintains an open airway. You will wear it at nighttime, and it will deliver a constant stream of filtered air to you through a face mask.
If your sleep apnea is severe and doesn’t respond to other treatments, you might be a candidate for surgical intervention. Some people’s apnea improves after removing their adenoids or tonsils, and others might need a surgical restructuring of their jaw or tongue.
Is There a Cure for Sleep Apnea?
There is no cure for sleep apnea. Although sleep apnea is a chronic condition, appropriate treatments and lifestyle changes can tremendously improve or resolve symptoms. For example, if you lose weight, your sleep apnea might completely go away, but if you regain weight later, your apnea could return.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can sleep apnea cause high blood pressure?
Yes, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure. Research shows that approximately 50% of people with obstructive sleep apnea also have high blood pressure.
At what age do people usually get sleep apnea?
Although young people can develop sleep apnea, most people with sleep apnea are men 45 years old and older. Young women rarely develop sleep apnea, although the incidence of sleep apnea in women over 61 years old is similar to that of men.
What’s the difference between sleep apnea and insomnia?
Sleep apnea and insomnia often occur together but are different sleep disorders. Sleep apnea is an airway disorder that disrupts sleep because of periodic reduction or lack of airflow. People with insomnia have difficulty falling and staying asleep and can wake up too early. Physical or mental hyper-arousal is often the cause of insomnia.
Relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription medications, and non-prescription supplements such as melatonin can improve insomnia. Deep Sleep Gummies are one example of a product containing ingredients that can help people with insomnia fall asleep faster and enjoy a restful night's sleep. Always talk to your doctor before trying any new supplement.
You need to address your symptoms as soon as you think you might have sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor immediately if you’re a chronic snorer or your partner tells you they notice your breathing is abnormal while you sleep. Minimizing the symptoms and severity of sleep apnea as soon as possible will help protect your long-term health and help you wake up feeling rested and vibrant.