Healthy Living

Not Feeling Quite Right: How Sleep Apnea Affects the Brain

Not Feeling Quite Right: How Sleep Apnea Affects the Brain

Sleep apnea has earned a lot of popularity lately. The terrifying disease can cause healthy people to decease unexpectedly during the night. It was certified as one of the causes of Carrie Fisher’s death, the legendary 60-year-old actress who played Princess Leia in the successful movie saga, Star Wars.

Even though Carrie Fisher’s death brought sleep apnea back to the table of “mysterious” conditions that can trigger death, she is not the only famous person suffering from it. Celebrities such as the former anchor of “The View”, Rosie O’Donnel; the 4-time NBA championship winner, Shaquille O’Neal; and the ex-governor of the state of Texas, Rick Perry; also suffer from sleep apnea.

Even though it is not a popular disease, statistics say that currently 3-7% of Americans suffer from this condition.

A recent case

Jack Bragen, who was diagnosed with sleep apnea more than a decade ago, decided to share his experience online and how it almost killed him.

Once diagnosed with this chronic sleep disorder, Bragen was ordered by the doctor to wear a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine to help him go through the night with some breathing assistance.

As well as CPAP machines, there are also BiPAP machines, which switch to a lower level of air pressure upon exhalation.

Not being aware of the consequences of ignoring the order, Bragen decided to return the machine, which he found unnecessary, regardless of how upset his sleeping doctor got.

After several years of displaying the same symptoms, they started getting worse. He woke up feeling tiredness and soreness. When the symptoms were no longer bearable, he decided to go to the doctor once again. He visited a trusted and known physician who, as expected, didn’t deliver him any good news, basically saying that if he didn’t start using the CPAP from there on, he could die.

The most common causes of sleep apnea are being overweight, obstruction in the airway, and certain medications. In the middle of an episode of sleep apnea, the body is deprived of the amount of oxygen it needs in order to work normally, leading to other problems such as heart failure and many other numerous ailments.

The body’s first reaction when a deficiency of oxygen is detected is to send signals to the heart. Once the heart has received said signals, it starts working slower. Working harder makes the heart sustain damage, and all this happens while the body is deprived from enough oxygen. Lack of oxygen in the brain triggers an anesthetic feeling that leads to the person having a hard time waking. All these conditions at the same time can lead to death.

Brain damage caused by sleep apnea

As aforementioned, the brain spends some time lacking enough oxygen to work properly, this could lead to the brain experiencing some damage. Now studies focus on what kind of effects can come for that period of time the brain spends “turned off” due to the lack of oxygen while having an episode of sleep apnea.

In some of the most severe cases, the cycle where the heart is having trouble sending enough blood to the brain, making it work twice as normal, can repeat itself up to 80 or more times an hour. The lack of oxygen causes cell damage to occur. Sleep apnea causes the blood-brain barrier to become more permeable than normal. This increased permeability allows entry of damaging substances into the brain.

Some of these invading substances may lead to problems such as:

Episodes of sleep apnea also affect two of the brain’s most important chemicals. The first substance is glutamate, which is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the nervous system, it plays a major role in cognitive functions such as learning. Also, poor sleep quality could be responsible for poor memory, emotional problems, decreased cognitive functioning, and increased cardiovascular disturbances.

The chemical substance affected in the brain due to sleep apnea is the gamma-aminobutyric acid (also called GABA) which is an inhibitor that slows things down and keeps people calm. Studies show that sleep apnea may also affect gray and white matter because it affects brain functioning and structure, causing injuries to axons and glia as well as inflammation in the hippocampus.

Untreated apnea is the main cause of some awful symptoms such as exhaustion and having restless nights even when sleeping for eight hours. Sleep apnea is a common disease among older adults, but statistics have shown that people on psychiatric medication and obese people are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea than healthy people.

The way to determine if someone is suffering from sleep apnea is by getting them tested with a sleep study. Usually, the job of a CPAP machine is to increase the air pressure going into the airway. This makes it easier to inflate the lungs and it also helps open constricted airway and offsets the effects of gravity in the case of an overweight person.

Conditions that may trigger sleep apnea

Regarding other conditions that can cause sleep apnea, some of the most common are:

  • COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), which is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It’s not necessarily caused by smoking, but it’s been found as one of the usual causes.
  • Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems.
  • Having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone

Sleep apnea can also be a hereditary condition since many people suffering from this issue have at least one or two relatives who also suffer from this. It’s very important to get it diagnosed and treated early, preferably as soon as symptoms begin to show up. Ignoring the symptoms can lead to worsening of the condition. Using a CPAP machine will increase quality of life very quickly. Patients using CPAP machines have stated feeling better the very same day they started using it. Not only do they have a way better night of sleep, they also feel better during the day.

A curious fact about sleep apnea is that many sleep tests show a positive result, even if they aren’t suffering from it. This is caused by a variation in the environment and that, somehow, the brain knows it’s not in a proper environment for resting.