Simply put, sleep apnea means the stopping of breathing while asleep, and impacts around 18 million Americans alone. Despite the large population of Americans suffering from this disorder, many are not aware of its symptoms, severity and consequences should it be left untreated.
The first thing to understand with sleep apnea is that there are distinct types of the disorder that vary in causes and severity: central sleep apnea (CSA), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and those that suffer from both. CSA results when the signal from the brain to the respiratory muscles is faulty, while OSA - the most common form - takes place when there is a blockage or obstruction of the upper airway that can be caused by excess fat in the airway, a thick tongue or relaxed upper airway tissue, ultimately resulting in air not getting into the lungs. It’s important to understand that there are varying degrees of OSA, from mild, to moderate and severe. With severe OSA, the blockage of the upper airway results in breathing stoppages of more than 30 times an hour.
How do you know if you have sleep apnea?
While the most common symptom of OSA is snoring, mild snoring by itself is not harmful. However, when snoring is coupled with pauses in breathing, that is when sleep apnea occurs. Pauses can last anywhere from mere seconds to well over a minute in very severe cases. Other symptoms to be on the lookout for sleep apnea include morning headaches, dry mouth, waking up feeling unrefreshed and excessive daytime sleepiness. If you have any of these symptoms or have unexplained fatigue, see a doctor and ask if you are a candidate for a sleep study. This overnight test, which can be done at home (or, in some cases, in a sleep lab) measures oxygen levels, heart rate and tracks how many times a night you stop breathing.
How can you sleep safely with sleep apnea?
There are a few common first steps a doctor will prescribe to patients who display OSA, which include weight loss (only if overweight or obese), surgery and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The health benefits of CPAPs include eliminating (or reducing) snoring, improved energy levels, and less daytime fatigue, along with improving memory and concentration and decreasing the risk of stroke. Using a CPAP over a long period of time can also help improve your mental health and even decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Doctors will use the data provided by a CPAP compliance report to confirm if a patient is getting enough sleep at night.
The use of smart devices such as watches, rings, and other forms of wearable technology can also help determine how much sleep one is getting, and how much of that is quality sleep, which is key when dealing with sleep apnea. Sticking to basic good sleep hygiene practices will help improve the quality and amount of sleep one gets, these include:
Keep a set sleep schedule: This means going to bed and getting up at the same time most days (if not every day, even on weekends).
Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only: avoid reading, watching TV, or other activities in bed.
Set a nighttime routine: Begin to wind down 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Turn off screens, stop drinking liquids, and avoid strenuous exercise. Light stretching or yoga can be relaxing.
Keep the bedroom quiet, cool, and dark: create and maintain an environment that is conducive to falling and staying asleep.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugary snacks, and caffeine before bed: these can be stimulating and make it difficult to fall and/or stay asleep.
Avoid eating large meals right before bed: this increases the risk of heartburn or acid reflux, which is when stomach acid comes up into the esophagus (food tube). Instead, eat dinner at least two hours before bed. If a light snack is desired, opt for healthy fats, protein, and complex carbs, such as nuts, peanut butter, bananas, or yogurt.
The bottom line is that untreated sleep apnea is bad for your health and can cause more severe health problems down the road, so don't ignore the problem. Sleep apnea can be monitored and controlled by working a healthcare provider and practicing safe sleep practices to ensure serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and depression do not surface.