Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes, and Remedies

August 16, 2017 All posts Jared Sebastian

recent release from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed what many of us already knew: over a third of all American adults aren’t getting enough sleep. It’s enough for the government to label insomnia as a public health problem, but the inability to fall asleep doesn’t tell the whole story. What about those who do manage to get their nightly eight hours of sleep but still aren’t rested the next morning?

This is the lot for people with sleep apnea, a condition that affects somewhere between twelve and twenty million Americans.

Sleep apnea is a condition that results in long gaps, or “apneas” between breaths. A person with sleep apnea breathes far less than a normal sleeper, which results in a much less restful sleep.

So, Sleep Apnea Makes You Tired?

Well, yes. But unfortunately, it does a lot more than that.

Not to be morbid, but sleep apnea could be described as really, really slow suffocation. Imagine that you spent eight hours each day – the length of an average workday – not breathing as often as you want to, and you might start to understand the kind of pressure put on a body when it’s experiencing chronic sleep apnea.

The tragic irony of sleep becoming the least restful part of the day has far-reaching ramifications. The lower rate of breathing robs the body of oxygen, resulting in higher levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. That has long-term consequences that can include high blood pressure, neuromuscular diseasesheart failure, and death.

To make matters worse, sleep apnea might also be the cause of a low sex drive by way of low testosterone. One study of 2,121 policemen found that men with the condition are 50 percent more likely to experience abnormally low levels of testosterone. Other studies have found that men with sleep apnea are more than twice as likely to suffer from erectile problems, and that women also become more prone to sexual dysfunction.

The warning signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include fatigue, morning headaches, brain fog, depression, waking frequently to urinate, and a dry mouth or sore throat upon waking.

3 Kinds of Sleep Apnea You Should Know About

The most common form of the condition is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which could be seen as a relative of snoring; the sound of a snore is caused by a partial obstruction of the airway, and OSA occurs when the airway is completely blocked. OSA is often simply labeled “sleep apnea,” but there are in fact two other kinds.

The second type, central sleep apnea, isn’t caused by an obstruction. Rather, it occurs when the brain temporarily fails to signal the muscles that are responsible for breathing – something we rely on the brain to do when we’re not conscious. Some estimate that just twenty percent of sleep apnea cases are caused by central sleep apnea, but the real number is probably lower. It’s usually caused by medical problems that affect the brainstem, like Parkinson’s disease and strokes, and treating the underlying medical condition, whatever that may be, is the typical remedy.

Finally, there’s complex sleep apnea, which is sometimes called mixed sleep apnea. This is a combination of the two kinds described above, and one study of 223 sleep apnea patients found that 15 percent of folks who reported having OSA actually were suffering from complex sleep apnea.

What Sleep Apnea Remedies Are Available?

Back sleepers are far more prone to snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, and if a person is flexible with their sleeping position, simply lying on their side can be an effective remedy. Choosing the correct neck support pillow can help, and there’s also evidence that performing basic neck strengthening exercises can improve OSA.

But the most commonly prescribed method is to lose the weight. Overweight and obese people are far more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, and weight loss should help to reduce excess soft tissue of the mouth and throat that can cause the airways to become blocked. If a person has the condition and their neck circumference is greater than 17.5 inches, weight loss is almost certainly the solution.

If weight loss isn’t helpful or possible, or if a person is suffering from central or complex sleep apnea, doctors may prescribe a CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. Helpful for any form of the condition, a CPAP is an air pump that maintains airflow as a person sleeps, and while they have a reputation for being loud like a generator, requisite of intrusive face masks, and not remotely conducive to a good night’s sleep, tech developers have been engineering progressively quieter and less invasive versions.

In the absence of a CPAP or a similar device, like a bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) or adaptive-servo ventilation (ASV), medications like acetazolamide or theophylline may be prescribed. Talk to your doctor about what sleep apnea remedies are available to you.