Why we really need to talk about sleep apnea

Are you suffering from the common sleep condition?

Words by Jadie Troy-Pryde

There are many things that can contribute to a restless night’s sleep – stress, anxiety and medication are just a few of the reasons we can’t always nod off and stay asleep.

But what if sleep apnea is to blame for the tossing and turning? How can you find out if it’s affecting you? And how do you go about treating it?

Here’s everything you need to know about the chronic illness, also known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).

What’s sleep apnea?

It is a sleep condition that causes the throat to relax and narrow while you’re sleeping. As a result, it interrupts your breathing and sufferers can therefore experience an interrupted sleep.

This is due to the airflow becoming blocked for 10 seconds or more. With sleep hypopnoea the airflow can be reduced by more than 50% for 10 seconds or more.

Sleep apnea symptoms

It’s likely that your partner or a family member will detect symptoms before you do. Loud snoring, gasping, snorting, and noisy breathing are indicative of sleep apnea.

Is sleep apnea serious?

Due to it’s interference with your sleep, it can severely affect a sufferer’s day-to-day life, causing poor concentration, extreme fatigue and slow reflexes, increasing their risk of accidents.

If it is left untreated it can also lead to various health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes.

Credit: REX

Sleep apnea test

If a GP is concerned, they will refer you to a specialist clinic where you will be tested. Usually you are observed by professionals who monitor your breathing while you sleep, and they will take note of your vital statistics (height, weight, medical history etc). The main test taken at a sleep centre is a polysomnography.

Otherwise, you will be given devices – a heart rate monitor, breathing or oxygen sensors, and chest bands are most common – to take home and wear while you sleep. These will collect your sleeping data, which will be assessed by your sleep doctor.

What is a sleep apnea mask?

It’s a continuous positive airway pressure device that constantly supplies compressed air, keeping the airway open to prevent the muscles from tightening and interrupting your breathing.

Is sleep apnea genetic?

Studies have suggested that there is a ‘strong genetic factor’ according to Sleep Medicine Review, however it has not yet been categorically proven.

Sleep apnea treatment

Emma Kenny, psychologist and founder of wellbeing site Make Your Switchadvises: ‘When tackling sleep apnea, it is important for sufferers to understand what it takes for them to wind down before bed. This kind of routine is vital as it allows both the body and mind to switch off and enter sleep mode easily. In terms of developing a routine, I would recommend that sufferers focus on enjoying a nutritious and balanced diet, eliminating toxins and fatty foods after 6pm and avoiding the overuse of mobile phones and multimedia.’

Although surgery is an option, it is not necessary for the majority of sufferers. Instead, doctors suggest making lifestyle changes such as losing weight, cutting down on alcohol and cigarettes, and sleeping on your side.

One solution is a mandibular advancement device –  a sort of gum shield that holds your jaw and tongue forward to allow more breathing space in the throat.

Celebrities with sleep apnea

There are many celebrities who suffer with the sleep condition, including entertainer Rosie O’Donnell, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, and American Idol‘s Randy Jackson.

If you are concerned, please contact your GP for more information. 

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