Do you often still feel tired after a full night’s sleep? Do you snore so loudly that you regularly wake yourself up with a sudden snort, gasp, or choke? Does your family complain that your snoring keeps everyone awake? If so, you may have sleep apnea – more than just an irritation, it’s a potentially serious sleep condition where your breathing repeatedly stops and starts throughout the night.
There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea syndrome.
Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type, occurs when your throat muscles relax, allowing the soft palate, uvula, tonsils, tongue, and side walls of the throat to restrict or close your airway when inhaling. Because this reduces your air/oxygen intake, your brain briefly rouses you from sleep so you can re-establish your airway. Typically, this awakening pattern repeats throughout each night, up to 30 times each hour, which can seriously disrupt your deep restful phases of sleep.
Central sleep apnea is less common. It occurs when your brain doesn’t properly trigger the muscles that control your breathing, causing you to stop breathing for short periods of time and then awaken with shortness of breath which makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. The third type, complex sleep apnea syndrome, is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
All types of sleep apnea share these signs and symptoms: loud snoring; periods with no breathing; abrupt awakening accompanied by shortness of breath; sore throat and/or dry mouth upon waking; morning headache; difficulty remaining asleep; and excessive daytime sleepiness/concentration issues; and/or irritability.
Although sleep apnea can affect anyone, some factors increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.
Obesity: Excessive fat deposits around the upper airway can contribute to a restricted airflow. Neck circumference – people with thicker necks (over 17 inches for men and over 15 inches for women) have naturally narrower airways.
Heredity: You may have inherited a naturally narrow throat or an increased risk factor.
Gender: Men are twice as likely to develop sleep apnea.
Smoking: Smoke inhalation increases inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway, but this state usually resolves after quitting smoking.
Heart or kidney disease: These conditions may cause a fluid build-up in the neck.
Nasal congestion: Allergies or anatomical issues reducing air flow also increase your risk.
Factors for central sleep apnea include: being middle aged or older; having congestive heart failure and/or stroke; and using narcotic pain medications.
Sleep apnea is more than just an irritating snore – it is considered a serious medical condition, possibly leading to the following complications: daytime fatigue, drowsiness and irritability, which could impact your ability to drive safely; fluctuating oxygen levels during sleep, which increase your blood pressure, strain your circulatory system and increase your risk of heart attack, irregular heart rhythms, stroke, metabolic syndrome and death; insulin resistance, which may lead to Type 2 diabetes; liver scarring, which can cause reduced liver function and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease; and/or eye disorders, such as glaucoma, which could lead to blindness.
To improve the quality of your sleep and reduce your risk of experiencing sleep apnea consider: sleeping on your side; elevating the head of your bed; losing excess weight; exercising to improve overall muscle tone; avoiding alcohol/tranquilizers; keeping your nasal passages open at night with a saline nasal spray; and/or quitting smoking.
If you can’t resolve your sleep issues on your own, your doctor may recommend other common treatments, including a mouthpiece to shift the position of your jaw; a device to hold your tongue forward; surgery to remove the tissue obstructing your airway; and/or a breathing device to keep your airway open.
Make sure you get a good sleep each night – keep your concentration sharp and your reflexes quick every driving day.
Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.