Sleep is one of the most blissful parts of the day. You get to sink into your pillows, cover yourself up with cozy blankets, and let go of your worries. However, this time isn’t quite so blissful for everyone. About 45% of Americans have trouble falling asleep. And chronic sleep issues can affect between 50% and 80% of psychiatric patients. Whether or not they have trouble drifting off, over 18 million American adults experience a condition known as sleep apnea once they finally slip into slumber. Not only does sleep apnea disrupt the quality of your sleep, but it can put your health at risk.
As sleep apnea occurs when you’re sleeping, it can be hard to tell if you’re experiencing the condition or not. Let’s dive into the details of this sleep disorder so that you can get on your way to a better night of sleep.
What is Sleep Apnea?
This sleep disorder, also known as obstructive sleep apnea, happens when your breathing is interrupted during sleep for brief moments. The word “apnea” refers to these moments in paused breathing that last at least ten seconds each. For those with sleep apnea, these pauses happen repeatedly while they slumber.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat don’t keep your airways open as they should, despite your body trying to breathe. As you struggle to breathe normally, you may experience fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels. The combination of these two things can lead to hypertension, heart disease, and problems with mood and memory. There is another form of sleep apnea know as central sleep apnea, in which it is the brain failing to control breathing during sleep. Complex sleep apnea is a combination of the two types. However, obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common and is likely what someone means when they are referring to sleep apnea.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Anyone can experience sleep apnea, but there are certain factors that increase your risk of having the disorder. One factor is your weight. Those who are overweight or among the 36% of Americans who are obese are at an increased risk of developing sleep apnea. Other physical factors can increase your risk, such as having a small upper airway, a recessed chin, a small jaw, or a large tongue, tonsils, or uvula. Having a large overbite or a large neck size, which is considered to be 16 inches or more in women and 17 or more in men, may also predispose you to sleep apnea.
As they directly affect the functioning of your body, smoking and alcohol use are the most prevalent activities that put you at risk for sleep apnea. People over the age of 40 tend to suffer the most from sleep apnea and researchers have found a possible genetic basis for the disorder, as obstructive sleep apnea seems to run in some families.
How Can You Tell If You Have Sleep Apnea?
The strongest indicator of sleep apnea is chronic snoring. While a little snoring during the six to 10 colds we get per year might be annoying, it’s probably not sleep apnea. As you won’t know how much you snore when you sleep, most people rely on their spouse or partner to tell them how bad the snoring is. If you sleep alone or you notice other symptoms while you’re on a business trip and staying in corporate housing for the average 84 days, try recording yourself while you sleep. While all snoring isn’t a sign of sleep apnea, unusual sounds such as gasping and choking while you’re snoring indicate that your body is working harder to breathe.
Sleep apnea will also leave you feeling very fatigued and sleepy during the day, while normal snoring typically doesn’t interfere with the quality of your sleep. This disturbance in your sleep pattern can also cause depression, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and a tendency to fall asleep while on the phone, at work, or driving.
Treatments For Sleep Apnea
If you think you may have sleep apnea, you should see your doctor. Write down a record of your sleep, fatigue levels throughout the day, and any information your bed partner gave you about your nightly snoring. Your doctor will likely use a sleep study to diagnose your sleep apnea and its severity. Once diagnosed, the most common treatment for sleep apnea is using a continuous positive airway pressure device, or CPAP device.
This device is connected to a mask that fits snugly over your nose and/or mouth. It works by gently blowing air into the airway, helping to keep it open while you sleep. The machine can be noisy, but the mask is made of a simple plastic, such as polyethylene, the most common plastic around the world. Silicone typically edges the mask to make it fit comfortably and snugly.
Some people with mild forms of sleep apnea can find relief by making lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or avoiding alcohol. While the average person in the U.S. drinks 38% more water than 15 years ago, something as simple as increasing water consumption further and drinking it in place of alcohol or sugary sodas can help with these lifestyle changes. Even sleeping on your side instead of your back can alleviate your sleep apnea.
If you think that you or a loved one has sleep apnea, it’s important to talk to a medical professional. They will be able to properly diagnose the disorder and get you on the path to treatment. With the right treatment, you can have a better night’s sleep and even feel the effects of that good sleep while you’re awake.