Where does sleep apnea come from and what to do about it

Sometimes it’s enough to get used to sleeping on your side or stomach to make you feel better.

What is sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a temporary respiratory arrest that occurs when a person is asleep. These pauses last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur up to 30 times an hour.

In general, apnea is any stoppage of breathing movements, which can happen under a variety of circumstances. For example, when you have bronchial asthma. Or when you decide to stop breathing consciously (say, when freediving). But sleep apnea is very common.

Where does sleep apnea come from and what is it like?

The disorder occurs because the airways narrow during sleep and stop letting air in.

This is usually because the throat muscles relax and the soft palate begins to block the throat. This type of sleep apnea is called obstructive. However, sometimes the cause is different: the sleeping brain “forgets” to send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing. Then they talk about central sleep apnea.

The risk of constricted airways is more likely if:
  • You are overweight.
  • You have an anatomically narrow pharynx and larynx.
  • Your close relatives have also had cases of sleep apnea.
  • You are an elderly person.
  • You have enlarged palatine tonsils or adenoids. For this reason, sleep apnea can occur in young children.
  • You smoke or abuse alcohol.
  • You are used to sleeping on your back.
  • You have a stuffy nose all the time and breathe through your mouth.
  • You have been diagnosed with heart failure, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or Parkinson’s disease. Risk factors also include polycystic ovarian syndrome, hormonal disorders, a history of stroke, and chronic lung

conditions such as asthma.

There is also evidence that men are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea than women. However, in women, the risk of experiencing temporary respiratory failure increases sharply after menopause.

What are the dangers of sleep apnea?
  • The body does not immediately recognize the problem, so for some time oxygen does not enter the lungs. Then the brain begins to react, reflexes are triggered and the person wakes up to muscle effort to open the airways and take a breath. This is usually accompanied by a sharp and loud snorting sound.
  • The awakening is often so brief that the person does not notice it and sinks back into sleep. However, such episodes recur, and as a result, nocturnal apnea takes a toll on one’s health. Here are just a few complications.
  • Constant feeling of fatigue during the day
  • Because of regular awakenings, the person cannot get enough sleep and recuperate. Therefore, he/she wants to take a nap all the time during the day and feels like he/she has no energy for anything.
  • People with sleep apnea are more at risk of getting into an accident or having an accident at work than others. Children with this disorder often do poorly in school and have behavioral problems.
  • Hypertension and other cardiovascular pathologies
  • When breathing stops during sleep, oxygen levels in the blood drop rapidly. To compensate for this, the brain dramatically increases blood pressure and increases the load on the cardiovascular system as a whole.
  • Therefore, sleep apnea can lead to hypertension, tachycardia, increases the likelihood of myocardial infarction and stroke.
  • Increased risk of certain diseases

Sleep apnea can decrease cellular sensitivity to insulin and, as a result, becomes a trigger for the development of type 2 diabetes.

In addition, this breathing disorder provokes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Also apnea is associated with metabolic syndrome and an increased risk of complications after surgery.

How to recognize sleep apnea

The most characteristic symptom of sleep apnea is a snorting sound during sleep. But there are other signs as well.

Some of them cannot be noticed by yourself. They are usually only told by loved ones who are around when you sleep.

What symptoms you may notice
  • Frequent awakenings at night for no apparent reason.
  • Regular headaches in the morning.
  • Dry mouth after waking up.
  • Feeling drowsy, lack of energy during the day.
  • Problems with concentration.
  • Frequent feelings of fatigue and depression.
What symptoms other people can tell you about

Occasionally your breathing stops in your sleep.
You snore loudly.

What to do about sleep apnea

If you have just noticed the signs of nighttime apnea and are not sure if they require seeing a doctor, try to correct the disorder yourself. This can be done by changing your lifestyle a little bit.

Get rid of excess weight, if you have it. In some cases, once the body weight becomes normal, apnea disappears completely. Just don’t relax: if you gain pounds again, the disorder may return.
Exercise. The experts of the authoritative medical organization Mayo Clinic assure that regular exercises can make apnea less pronounced, even if you do not lose weight. Therefore, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day. A brisk walk or a walk on a bicycle will also do the trick.
Give up alcohol and, if possible, medications such as tranquilizers and sleeping pills. These make the muscles in the back of your throat too relaxed in your sleep and interfere with your breathing.
Sleep on your side or stomach, not your back. Sleeping on your back causes your tongue and soft palate to move closer to the back of your throat and reduce your airway.
Quit smoking.
If home methods don’t help and you are still tormenting loved ones with snoring and yourself with daytime fatigue, see a therapist.

How to treat sleep apnea

First, you need to clarify the diagnosis. After asking you about your symptoms, the doctor will most likely offer to perform a sleep test. Such a study can be performed both in a specialized clinic (go to it overnight, so the medics can study the activity of your brain, heart, lungs when you sleep), and at home. In the second case, you will be offered the use of a portable sleep monitoring device.

If the diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor will try to determine the cause of nighttime apnea. To do this, you will be referred to specialized specialists, such as ENT (to check the airway patency), cardiologist, neurologist. If they find any disorder, it must be corrected – and then the apnea problem will disappear on its own.

There are other ways to treat nocturnal apnea. For example:

Devices that help keep the airway open. These devices are like a removable artificial gum that must be placed in your mouth before you go to sleep. They push the lower jaw forward slightly and widen the lumen of the throat.
Surgical surgeries. These can be used by the doctor to remove or compress the tonsils or part of the soft palate to increase the airway. Other options aim to move the lower jaw forward.