Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Poor sleep can be exhausting to your heart. Many times, you think you’re sleeping, but if you’re not in deep, restorative sleep cycles for enough of the night, your body can’t rest, and your gasps for air put stress on your heart. This is especially true with sleep apnea and other related sleep disorders.
More than 12 million Americans have sleep apnea, a type of disordered breathing characterized by the tightening of the throat muscles, which usually relax during sleep to keep the tongue from blocking the airway.
If the muscles tense up, the airflow can stop, sometimes for 10 seconds or more. The body goes into distress as the person gasps for air in their sleep, which can happen hundreds of times a night. Sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, memory loss, obesity, and insulin resistance. If you’re over 50 and you have a neck size of more than 17 inches, you are at especially high risk.
While there are three types of sleep apnea, all three share these common symptoms:
Disrupted breathing in which a person’s respiration becomes labored or perhaps stopping for 10 seconds or more
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Limited attention span or difficulty thinking clearly
Many of these symptoms arise because of poor sleep and decreased oxygen levels that occur resulting from interrupted breathing.
Additional symptoms connected to obstructive sleep apnea include:
Snoring that is especially loud and involves gasping, choking, or snorting, which may cause a person to briefly wake up
Morning sore throat or dry mouth
Generally speaking, someone with sleep apnea is not aware of their breathing problems at night, so they often only find out about the issue from a spouse/partner, family member, or roommate. Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most likely symptom to be noticed by people who live alone.
What Are the Health Risks of Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea can lead to sleep deprivation from constant nightly interruptions and not achieving that necessary deep sleep. Lack of sleep is associated with far-reaching health consequences that affect a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a result, it comes as no surprise that sleep apnea has been tied to diverse health problems.
Because of how it affects oxygen balance in the body, untreated sleep apnea raises dangers for various cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, heart attack, heart disease, and stroke.
What Are the Treatments for Sleep Apnea?
If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, you should make sure to talk with a doctor. Without understanding the root causes of your sleep apnea, it is difficult to treat. When necessary, the doctor can recommend an overnight sleep study to analyze your sleep, including your breathing.
Once diagnosed, there are numerous effective treatments available to restore sleep and improve your health. Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, reducing the use of sedatives, and sleeping on your side, can resolve some cases.
One of the most well-known treatments for sleep apnea is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or a BiPAP (bi-level positive airway pressure) machine. These devices push air through a mask and into the airway to keep it open during sleep.
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Additionally, special mouthpieces that hold the jaw or tongue in a specific position are an option for people with certain anatomical features. And while not usually the first treatment option, surgery to remove tissue and expand the airway can also be considered.
A Journey with Sleep Apnea
In a TEDMED article called “Examined Lives: A Firefighter Lives Dangerously— While Sleeping,” firefighter Thomas Zotti wrote about his experience with sleep apnea. His wife had pointed out that he was snoring, but he thought nothing of it—even when his doctor asked if he had any reason to believe he might have sleep apnea. Zotti worked overnight shifts and ignored some signs of problems: waking up from sleep feeling claustrophobic, experiencing headaches, feeling so fatigued that he stopped working out in the mornings. With coffee fueling him through his long days, he was able to mostly ignore his tiredness.
Boy, could I relate to his story—I was having many of the same symptoms and, like Zotti, not connecting the dots. According to my wife, my snoring sounded like I was gasping for breath, but as long as it wasn’t interrupting her sleep, I wasn’t concerned. Zotti said that, before he got treated for sleep apnea, the amount of oxygen in his bloodstream was as low as 81%—very low compared with the near-perfect score in the high 90s that most people have.
So if you are experiencing fatigue and you know that you snore, pay attention. While being a snorer doesn’t mean you have sleep apnea (and not every person with sleep apnea snores), it’s a vital sign, especially as we age. Even if we didn’t snore when we were younger, many of us will begin to snore as our soft palate tissue gets even softer, blocking the air passage, which is one of the most common causes of snoring.
The connection between snoring and sleep apnea can be especially strong for people who are overweight or where sleep apnea runs in the family.
So, Wellness Warriors, I believe that sleep apnea isn’t just a sleep disorder, it’s a health disorder, and you could be silently wearing down your health and well-being. If you find that you are experiencing any of the symptoms I discussed, please be sure to consult with your physician and start sleeping better as soon as possible!
Until next time, when I’ll be discussing insomnia, Live Well, Live Long.