What Is Sleep Apnea

graphSleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that involves repeated breathing interruptions during sleep. These interruptions may occur hundreds of times each night, and may be the result of structural abnormalities or brain malfunctions. During normal breathing, air passes through the nose, past the flexible structures in the back of the throat, including the soft palate, uvula and tongue. When a person is awake, the muscles hold this airway open. When they are asleep, these muscles relax and the airway usually stays open. Sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway and airflow are blocked, causing the oxygen levels to drop in both in the brain and the blood, resulting in shallow breathing or breathing pauses during sleep. While you might think you slept for 6-8 hours last night, every time you stopped breathing, followed by a harmful drop in your blood oxygen level, your body’s self-preservation mechanism (fight or flight) took over and sent a burst of adrenaline through your bloodstream to wake you enough to begin breathing again. Imagine doing this every 4 minutes (mild), or every 2 minutes (moderate) or every minute or less if you suffer from severe sleep apnea! No wonder you’re exhausted all day. You haven’t really slept all night! Your body and mind never had a chance to reach the recuperative stages of “deep sleep” and “REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep”, when your cells regenerate and your memories are sealed.

Causes Of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs as a result of a partial or fully blocked airway passage in the throat. Certain factors may put certain people at risk for developing sleep apnea, which include:

  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Throat and tongue muscles that are more relaxed than normal
  • Deviated septum
  • Receding chin
  • Poorly aligned teeth
  • Family history
  • Nasal congestion and Allergies

Adults over the age of 60 may be more at risk of developing sleep apnea because the aging process may limit the brain’s ability to keep the throat muscles stiff during sleep.

Heavy use of alcohol or sedatives may also contribute to sleep apnea because these substances may relax the muscles of the throat.

While the typical Sleep Apnea patient is an overweight male over 50 years old with high blood pressure, I see plenty of thin, young, healthy-looking females that love to work out at the gym daily, yet are exhausted most of the day! They are more often wrongly diagnosed with psychological problems like depression, anxiety and hypochondria.

Obesity and Sleep Apnea

Why are so many sleep apnea patients heavy, and why do so many heavy people have sleep apnea? Which came first, the proverbial chicken and the egg question. When a person is sleep deprived, she produces less Leptin, the hormone that tells us to STOP eating. Instead, she produces more Ghrelin, the hormone that makes us feel hungry. A sleep deprived person’s cells become more insulin resistant, which blocks their ability to deliver energy giving glucose. This can also lead to diabetes. It’s a vicious cycle: Eating more leads to further weight gain, which leads to worsening sleep apnea. So really, it doesn’t matter which came first. Fix one and the other will improve!

Types Of Sleep Apnea

There are different types of sleep apnea that have different causes.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue at the back of the throat closes, blocking or obstructing the airway.

Central Sleep Apnea

In patients with central sleep apnea the airway remains open but the brain does not send signals to the muscles involved in breathing. Patients with heart-related conditions may suffer from central sleep apnea.

Mixed Sleep Apnea

Mixed sleep apnea combines aspects of the obstructive and central types of apnea.

Patients who are overweight, have high blood pressure, are older, smoke or have a family history of sleep apnea may have an increased risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea, while those with heart disease or a stroke are at an increased risk for central sleep apnea.

Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea

graphPatients with sleep apnea usually experience Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). Additional symptoms may include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Abrupt awakenings during the night
  • Not feeling alert as soon as you awaken
  • Multiple nightly awakenings to urinate
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Reduced libido and/or impotence
  • Uncharacteristic moodiness, depression or irritability
  • GERD, Reflux or Heartburn
  • Hypertension
  • History of Stroke or TIA
  • Arrhythmias
  • Diabetes or pre-Diabetes
  • Coronary Artery Disease
  • Congestive Heart Failure
  • ADHD
  • Night Terrors

Individuals with sleep apnea may experience shortness of breath that awakens them from sleep.