Your Guide to Understanding Sleep Apnea

Updated 03/15/17
Woman in bed sleeping
@cajaroli

My dad had no idea he had sleep apnea, but my mom did. Well, she didn't know the technical term, but she knew he had a disruptive sleep habit that certainly wasn't natural. My dad, on the other hand, was completely oblivious.

What kept happening was my dad (bless his heart) would snore loud enough to rattle the entire house's foundation, then, for a few seconds, he would completely stop breathing. After a few (terrifying) moments passed, he would gasp for air and continue snoring as usual. My mom brought this to his attention, so my dad, shocked, brought the issue up with his physician, and thus, he was officially diagnosed with the sleep disorder.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, this is the case for most individuals with sleep apnea (both the earth-shattering snoring and being completely incognizant of having it all together). Keep reading for a full breakdown of the signs, causes, complications, and treatments of sleep apnea.

Women in bed sleeping
Brooklinen

The Signs

Doctors aren't always able to diagnose sleep apnea during routine visits—no blood test can prove you have the disorder. The symptoms (dry mouth, sore throat, morning headaches, insomnia, irritability, and exhaustion) don't always directly point to sleep apnea. However, if you notice that you're feeling lethargic, moody, and tired during the day (and/or your partner notices that you stop breathing and snore loudly at night), a visit to the doctor may be in order.

The Causes

The loud snoring and the sudden pause in breathing associated with sleep apnea are due to the airway collapsing or becoming blocked during sleep. As a result, only a bit of air can pass through the passageway, causing the vibration of snoring. This decrease in oxygen intake also causes an oxygen drop in your blood, which sends a signal to your brain to abruptly wake you up and start breathing normally again. Need a visual? Take a look below.

That's just "obstructive sleep apnea," though. There's another form called central sleep apnea, where your brain doesn't send signals to your breathing muscles. Thus, similar abrupt arousal from sleep occurs.

So who is most prone to obstructive sleep apnea? Men, people who are overweight (the excess weight presses down on the airway), older individuals, smokers, those with small airways, and those with a familial history of sleep apnea.

What Are the Complications?

Sleep apnea is sometimes known as "the silent killer" because while many aren't aware they have it, its direct physiological effects are dangerous. Below are the common complications with sleep apnea:

  • High blood pressure and heart problems: The drop of oxygen in the blood puts a strain on your heart and increases blood pressure. Low levels of oxygen in the blood can also cause irregular heartbeat and, subsequently, sudden death.
  • Liver problems: Individuals with sleep apnea are more likely to show signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or a buildup of fat in the liver's cells.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Sleep apnea may result in insulin resistance, causing the individual to test positive for the condition.

How Do You Treat It?

First things first, your doctor will likely recommend you get a sleep test to confirm you have the disorder. This could either happen in the doctor's office or at home. (Your doctor will provide you with equipment that will measure your heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and breathing patterns.)

Laurie Brodsky, ND, resident sleep expert for Dirty Lemon, says that utilizing a CPAP machine while you sleep may provide dramatic effects and improvements in terms of fatigue and daytime energy levels. This machine has a tube extension that hooks inside your nostrils and provides a positive flow of oxygen through your nose to keep the airway open.

Brodsky also suggests following an exercise routine that gets you to a healthy body weight in conjunction with a healthy diet, filled with tons of fresh colorful antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to nourish your body and eliminate toxins.

If you have trouble falling asleep to begin with, Brodsky recommends sipping on Dirty Lemon's Sleep Beverage ($65/case), a slumber-inducing blend of magnesium, lemon, and rose, in addition to the CPAP machine to "gently help you unwind after a long day and prepare your body for a restful, more continuous sleep cycle without any harsh additives causing rebound effects the next morning."

You can also try using an oral device (usually prescribed by your dentist) to help adjust your mouth so that your airway is kept open. Another commonly prescribed device is an expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP), which helps promote pressure in the airway and allow oxygen to flow freely.

As a last resort, your doctor may suggest surgery to permanently open up the passageway via tissue removal, jaw repositioning, or implants in the soft palate to reduce symptoms.

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