Sleep apnea affects just about 18 million Americans today. It is a severe medical condition that involves the interruption of regular breathing patterns while you sleep. Sleep apnea is caused by obstruction to the airway and it lowers the levels of oxygen in your blood. Even though you may not be fully aware of what is happening while you sleep, your brain actually triggers your body to wake up in order to restart your breathing.
Sleep apnea is often associated with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. If left untreated, it can lead to health-related complications such as exhaustion, poor sleep quality, headaches, impotence, depression, and a higher risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. Conducted research shows that other more severe consequences may occur as well. They include:
- Daytime fatigue: Having sleep apnea means waking up frequently during the night. In such instances, the stress that is put on your body causes you to become groggy, irritated, and less energized during the day. You may have trouble concentrating at school or at work and even fall asleep unintentionally. Daytime fatigue is the most life-threatening consequence of sleep apnea because there is a higher risk of getting into a car accident while on the road.
- High blood pressure: During an episode of sleep apnea, your breathing stops because the levels of oxygen in your blood begin to drop. When this occurs, your blood pressure begins to rise. For individuals who are healthy, a drop in blood pressure is normal during sleep because it keeps the oxygen flowing to the brain and heart. However, for individuals with sleep apnea, high blood pressure can put a great strain on the cardiovascular system.
- Heart disease: If you are already suffering from a heart condition such as heart disease, then the decreased levels of oxygen in your blood may lead to heart failure or even death. Moreover, a common form of sleep apnea, known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is associated with congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, and other severe medical conditions.
- Stroke: OSA may trigger a stroke or delay recovery after a stroke in individuals with OSA. Either way, the consequences are devastating, with a potential for paralysis or death.
- Liver complications: Sleep apnea and the buildup of fat within your liver can worsen episodes of apnea. As these episodes begin to worsen, the liver becomes scarred more often. For this reason, sleep apnea is associated with fibrosis or scarring of the liver.
- Surgery complications: If you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), then you may be at an increased risk of complications during or after a surgical procedure. Since surgical procedures entail being sedated and lying on your back, these two elements actually increase the probability of triggering an episode of sleep apnea. So, if you are already aware that you suffer from a sleep disorder, inform your doctor immediately and see how it can affect your health and treatments that you might require.
Continuous research shows that sleep apnea is likely to increase the risk of cancer and stroke. In general, it affects men more than it does women. In fact, a study found that men with severe OSA were over 50% more likely to develop a particular heart condition. What’s more, this study also found that men over the ages of 40 with apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) were over 60% more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
If moderate to severe OSA is left untreated, you are at a high risk of enduring severe health-related complications and even death. Furthermore, sleep apnea can:
- Significantly weaken your immune system.
- Delay or even prevent detoxification of your brain’s waste clearance system (also known as the glymphatic system) that only works while you sleep.
- Impair your physical and mental well-being.
- Increase the risk of diabetes or gout.
- Decrease your ability to focus or concentrate.
- Prompt memory loss.
- Reduce the levels of oxygen in your blood; thus, impairing the function of your internal organs.
- Trigger the growth of tumors.
- Disrupt the chemicals within your body or your circadian rhythms.
- Promote heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.
- Promote a severe form of depression.
While sleep apnea can be a serious condition, the good news is that it can be diagnosed through a sleep study. If you are unsure if you have sleep apnea but you do experience the following symptoms – loud snoring, exhaustion, drowsiness, frequent morning headaches, difficulty concentrating, clenching your teeth, insomnia, and more – consult a sleep specialist and discuss your symptoms with them. It may be imperative that you undergo a polysomnography (or sleep study). Polysomnography is a test that is used to monitor your heart rate, breathing, eye and leg movements, brain activity, and the levels of oxygen in your blood. The test can be performed either at home or in a sleep clinic, depending on your preference. It is noninvasive and painless. The test simply helps the doctor record specific information relating to your health while you sleep. Polysomnography can confirm if you have sleep apnea, how severe your condition is, or rule out a diagnosis.
If necessary, there are also other available treatment options for sleep apnea, including mouth applications, nerve stimulators, breathing devices, sleep apnea implants, minimally-invasive alternatives, or surgery. If it is determined that you suffer from a more severe form of sleep apnea, the doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP is a common effective form of treatment that uses an oxygen mask that is connected to a machine. The CPAP can help you get better sleep during the night.
In the meantime, if you are unable to get a good night’s sleep, consider trying out a few of the following suggestions:
- Avoid the intake of caffeine before going to bed.
- Take a warm bath or drink some herbal tea before going to bed.
- Set your room to a nice cool temperature.
- Stick to a routine sleep schedule.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat high protein and high grain meals.
- Limit your intake of alcohol to 1-2 drinks per day (excessive alcohol consumption interferes with regular sleeping patterns).
- Get enough physical exercise during the day but avoid exercising right before going to bed as the adrenaline rush may keep you awake.
- Conduct breathing exercises on a regular basis.
- Conduct tongue and throat exercises to relax and strengthen your muscles.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid taking any sleeping pills or sedatives.
The consequences of sleep apnea are very real and they can take a toll on your well-being. If you are suffering from symptoms related to sleep apnea, consider seeing a sleep specialist. Choose a specialist who has a broad experience with sleep disorders and can offer you various alternatives for your specific medical condition. Together, you can come up with the most appropriate treatment to improve your overall quality of life.
The earlier you can diagnose your condition, the better.