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  • Writer's pictureSleep Well Blog

Let's talk about sleep apnea...

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

What is sleep apnea exactly? Let's break it down: an apnea is simply a term for saying that you have stopped breathing. That's it.

... and, yet, "That's it". This is the issue.

Sleep apnea means that you experience apneas -- you stop breathing for a bit-- throughout the night while sleeping. This is not good.

Essentially, when you have sleep apnea, you experience a decrease in oxygen in your bloodstream. To make sure that you get air, you wake up briefly and then go back to sleep. When this happens continually throughout the night, you are not only sleep deprived, but your body tries to compensate with an increase in blood pressure so that you can get more oxygen to your vitals. Right?

So, then, what happens?

Well, imagine the strain that your body is undergoing at night because it's struggling to get enough oxygen. Imagine what that does to your cardiovascular system.

This strain increases your risk of hypertension on two fronts. You have an elevated risk because you are sleep deprived, and you have an elevated risk because of the lack of oxygen at night. It's not surprising that sleep apnea is related to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, obesity, etc. - all serious health concerns that are related to chronic sleep deprivation

Unfortunately, sleep apnea is frequently undiagnosed.

So, how do you know if you have sleep apnea?

Well, you can be tested for it either at a sleep clinic or at home, depending on the kind of test that the clinic provides.

There are actually three types:

1) Obstructive sleep apnea

2) Central sleep apnea

3) Mixed/complex sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the soft tissues in your respiratory pathway collapse at night. Your throat muscles collapse while you sleep, as they relax, leading to their blocking of your airway. For more information:

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is markedly different in origin from OSA. While you could characterise OSA as more of a "structural" issue in the sense that there is a collapsing of the throat muscles, CSA is akin to "faulty" wiring. With CSA, the brain's signal to your body to breathe goes haywire. So, you stop breathing momentarily. Click here for more info:

Mixed/complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS) is a combination of OSA and CSA. Some people who are treated for OSA develop CSA as they undergo treatment with a CPAP machine (treatment-emergent sleep apnea).

How is it treated?

Some people with mild cases of OSA may be told to manage their sleep apnea by sleeping on the side. There are actually belts and balls that you can use to lessen your chance of lying on your back when you sleep. In fact, try propping pillows or tying a tennis ball or something bulky to your back. In addition, dental devices are available for sleep apnea. However, these devices are relatively recent in their development and complications relating to their impact on teeth, jaw, and mouth can sometimes be experienced. They are used for mild to moderate sleep apnea.

The main treatment, as mentioned earlier, for sleep apnea is the CPAP machine - it's a mouthful to say: continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).

I was in a room full of sleep researchers as well as industry and health professionals (basically the stakeholders of sleep research), and one of their laments was that the CPAP machine is the"catch-all" solution to everything sleep apnea. It will be interesting to see if and how sleep apnea treatment, beyond CPAP, will evolve in the future.

A CPAP is cumbersome to use. So, treatment compliance becomes an issue. However, it is very important that people do use it. It does make a difference.

I remember speaking with clinicians about the issues that they experience with their patients, and they said that this compliance issue is compounded by the need to provide patients with support to teach them about sleep hygiene and wellness (which - of course - is what I and my fellow sleep researchers -come-coaches do). Patients need to make lifestyle changes to promote better sleep.

In terms of sleep apnea, you are at increased risk for its development if you are:

  • carrying excess weight; obese

  • male

  • an older adult

  • a snorer

  • a person with a thick neck

  • a person who experiences frequent nighttime urination (nocturia)

  • a person who experiences nasal congestion

  • a person who drinks alcohol, takes sedatives, or smokes

  • a person who experiences daytime fatigue even though you may have had a full night's rest.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, please do get yourself tested. It is a serious condition; however, there is definitely a treatment for it... and it can make a world of difference to your health.


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