Healthy Living

Why Does Sleep Apnea Happen?

Why Does Sleep Apnea Happen?

Sleep apnea may seem baffling at first. How much do you really know about the disease? What causes you to stop breathing in your sleep? Is this a natural phenomenon? Are some people more prone than others? How can you prevent it? Having many questions about a potential condition is normal. Many people have unanswered questions about the causes or the physiological attributes of the throat and mouth. Finding out more about the disease can lead to understanding your treatment and prevention.

The Basics

As you may already know, there are three types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is likely the type that you are most familiar with. It is also the most common, so it may be what you think of when you think of sleep apnea. It occurs when your throat muscles relax. Central sleep apnea is a second type that is less common. This occurs when your brain doesn't send proper signals to breathe. Without the proper signals to the muscles, your breathing is impeded. The third type is complex sleep apnea syndrome. Sometimes, this is also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This is a combination of the first two types. This type is rarer in patients. Knowing what type of sleep apnea you are dealing with can ensure you are treated properly and have a full understanding of your condition.

How It Occurs

To understand why sleep apnea transpires, you must understand how it happens. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when you stop breathing during sleep. This does not mean you are dying, it is simply a quick lapse in air. As you breathe during sleep, the muscles in the back of the throat relax. This causes your tongue to block the airway. These muscles also control the soft palate and tonsils. For those that are unfamiliar with the soft palate, it is the soft tissue on the roof of your mouth. These decrease the airway for oxygen to flow through to your lungs through blockage. As a result, you will not get adequate air and it may lower oxygen in the blood. The brain works like a sensor. When it detects not enough oxygen, it disturbs your sleep to reopen the airway. This can happen many times a night and you may not even remember waking up. When waking up, you may make a snorting or gasping sound. It is challenging to stay rested when your sleep cycle is disrupted many times a night.

Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain cannot transmit signals. If the throat and mouth muscles do not receive signals, it stops breathing. This occurs for a very brief time and then your brain wakes your body up. Like obstructive sleep apnea, this process repeats throughout the night. Complex sleep apnea occurs when both the airway decreases through relaxing of the muscle and you stop transmitting signals to breathe all at once. With all types, it is important to keep in mind that it can affect both genders and all ages.


So now that we have discussed the different types and how it ensues, we can delve into causation. Finding out potential causes is important. There are several causes or factors that increase your chance of getting the disease. These are: excess weight, neck circumference, gender, age, physiological differences, family history, using alcohol or other substances, congestion, and smoking. Going through potential factors can lead to prevention.

One of the most common indicators of the condition is extra weight. This increases your chances of the disease by four times. That is because overweight people tend to have thicker necks and more soft palate. This makes breathing more challenging if the muscles relax because there is already a smaller airway. The risk is greater with a smaller airway or a naturally smaller throat. We are all engineered slightly differently, so some people naturally have a smaller neck or larger tonsils. Still this can increase your risk significantly. Heart disorders can increase your chances of getting central sleep apnea, particularly with congestive heart failure. If you have already had a stroke, this also increases your risk for this disease. If you are unsure if you have these risk factors, talking to your doctor may be helpful.

Familiar history, age, and gender all play into causation. In many cases, this may be frustrating because there is no way to prevent some of these factors. Males are much more likely to develop the disease. Women are more likely to get sleep apnea if they are overweight. Older women have increased risk over younger ones. Age in general may affect if you get the disease, although there are cases in younger individuals as well. If your parents or siblings have sleep apnea, you may be at higher risk than someone that has no family history. A history of allergies or nasal congestion can increase your risk of getting the disease. Nasal congestion blocks your nose, making it more likely that you will mouth breathe.

Like many other medical conditions, the use of substances interferes with the disease. Alcohol causes the muscles to relax, which decreases the airway. Any sort of sedative will have a similar effect. Since smoking is hazardous to the airways and lungs, it irritates the airway. This leads to inflammation, creating a tighter airway for oxygen to flow through. Narcotic pain medications will impact the signals to your brain, so it is common to aggravate central sleep apnea. It may be hard to quit, but staying away from anything that can increase this risk is a wise decision.


Now that you are informed about causes and factors, you can focus on prevention of the condition. While some risks to the disease are genetic or physiological, there are several ways to decrease your chances of developing the disease. The first one on this list may seem obvious. Stop smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs that increase the risk of the disease. This will decrease the risk that your muscles relax and crowd the airway in your throat and mouth. Next, maintaining a healthy weight can decrease the likelihood of getting the disease. As we discussed earlier, this is especially true for women, as obesity and being overweight is more likely to trigger the disease for them. Exercise and a healthy diet can increase your ability to achieve a healthy weight. Beyond that, eliminating nasal congestion is very important. If you have a deviated septum, you may want to talk to your doctor about fixing it. Alleviating your allergy symptoms may also help nasal congestion. Using a nasal spray may clear your nose and throat. Lowering your blood pressure may decrease the chances of heart disease, which in turn will decrease your chances of sleep apnea.


Sleep apnea can be frightening and disruptive to your life, but there are several modes of treatment. With a greater understanding of why the disease occurs, you can look for symptoms and work on preventative goals. This will increase your ability to seek treatment from a medical professional and allow you to minimize the effects of the condition. With time, you will be able to lead a productive life with restful sleep throughout the night.