Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing, called apneas, while you sleep. The pauses can last for up to a minute or more and may occur 30 times or more an hour. When you finally start breathing again, it’s usually a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea may also be a sign that you’re getting too little oxygen. When this happens, your heart beats faster, and your blood pressure may increase to unsafe levels. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes mellitus, depression, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeat.
People with sleep apnea stop repeatedly breathing during their sleep, leading to several short-term complications, such as disrupted sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Sleep deprivation is common in patients with obstructive sleep apnea because of frequent arousals associated with respiratory effort. These arousals are brought on by the lack of oxygen reaching the brain and then triggering the brain to arouse the individual to breathe. In addition, sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, diabetes mellitus, depression, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeat.
In severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea, a person may be diagnosed as having “secondary” sleep apnea or central sleep apnea. In this case, the patient’s blood oxygen level can be severely low for a continuous length of time without arousing them from sleep. This condition is often found in patients with heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
In some cases, a patient may have both types of apneas, and the severity of each can vary, even throughout the night.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
The primary symptom is snoring (although not everyone has sleep apnea snores). Other common symptoms include:
- Morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness
- Chronic fatigue or drowsiness
- Irritability or hyperactivity
- Poor memory or concentration
- Restless sleep
- Reduced sex drive
Other, less common symptoms include:
- Frequent trips to the bathroom at night (or bedwetting in children) due to increased urine production while sleeping. This is because your body’s tissues soak up extra fluids when you’re not getting enough oxygen.
- High blood pressure
- Repeated bladder infections in women.
Can you have sleep apnea and not know it?
Yes, especially in the early stages of the disorder. Many people with sleep apnea don’t even realize they snore and never feel sleepy during the day because their brain shuts down for such short periods that they don’t remember.
Are there benefits of sleep apnea?
Yes, the benefits of sleep apnea include:
1. Stronger immune system.
2. Less inflammation means a longer life expectancy.
3. Improved quality of life for people with congestive heart failure
4. Lower risk of death among all adults ages 65 and older, including those who develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
5. Reduced risk of death from any cause among adults with obstructive sleep apnea
6. Improved glucose tolerance and better blood sugar control
7. Reduced risk for colon polyps
8. Smaller waist circumference and more stable insulin levels in men with prediabetes
9. Better blood sugar control among people with type 2 diabetes
10. Lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)
11. Fewer gallstones among men with prediabetes
12. Better memory and brain function among older adults
13. Reduced risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke among men with diabetes
14. Better moods among women during menopause
15. More flexible arteries (as measured by increased ankle-brachial index)
16. Reduced plaque buildup in the carotid arteries among people with high blood pressure
17. Lower risk for atrial fibrillation (irregular and often rapid heart rate)
19. Less weight, body fat, and waist circumference
20. Improved sexual function for men with erectile dysfunction
Who is sleep apnea for?
Sleep apnea can affect anyone. However, the following people are at a higher risk:
- Men who have more than 40 pounds of weight gain over five years, or 100 pounds or more in their lifetime.
- Men and women age 50 and older with high blood pressure.
- People with heart disease, such as congestive heart failure.
- Those who snore loudly (although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea).
- People with large neck sizes (over 16 inches for women or over 17 inches for men)
- Adults with high blood pressure.
- People with diabetes or prediabetes.
- Menopausal women who have problems sleeping or restless legs.
- Anyone who is overweight
- Older adults, especially those over age 65
- Middle-age and older adults who have a parent, grandparent, or another close relative with obstructive sleep apnea
- People with narcolepsy (a chronic sleep disorder that causes daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep)
- Anyone under 18 who snores and has large tonsils or an enlarged tongue (this may be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea).
Sleep apnea is a medical disorder that has extreme effects on the body and mind. Although there are benefits to sleeping apnea, it is essential to think about what we put into our bodies and prevent diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.