Sleep Apnea 101: Everything You Need to Know about the Sleep Disorder

August 26, 2021

You may have heard of sleep apnea if you’ve ever had a hard time with falling asleep, staying asleep, or snoring loudly at night. But did you know that it affects nearly 20 million people in the United States alone? Studies show that one in every 15 adults has obstructive sleep apnea—and the majority of them remain undiagnosed. 

Sleep apnea can have a significant impact on an individual’s life. Not only do those with the sleep disorder usually experience excessive sleepiness, fatigue, and trouble focusing, but they are also at a higher risk of developing other chronic conditions. Sleep apnea sufferers are four times more likely to have a stroke and three times more likely to develop heart disease. They may even be more likely to get in a car accident

Because sleep apnea can be challenging to diagnose, how do you know if you suffer from the disorder? If you find yourself feeling excessively tired—even after a full night of sleep—keep reading to find out more about sleep apnea, including what it is, signs you may have it, its effects on the body, how to prevent it, and how you may be able to treat it.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that involves breathing that repeatedly stops as an individual sleeps. Those with untreated sleep apnea can stop breathing hundreds of times throughout the night, which leads to loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, and fatigue—even after a full night of rest. If gone too long without treatment, the disorder can cause several health issues, like heart disease and high blood pressure, and impair an individual’s ability to function well in school, work, or relationships.

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. While obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when throat muscles relax and the airway becomes physically blocked during sleep, central sleep apnea occurs when the airway is clear. In cases of central sleep apnea, the brain fails to signal to the respiratory muscles that it is time to breathe, signaling an issue with the function of the central nervous system—not the airway.

Between OSA and central sleep apnea, OSA is the most common of the two, and it’s what we will focus on most closely in this article.

How Do I Know If I Have Sleep Apnea?

One in 15 adults in the United States has obstructive sleep apnea. That’s 18 million people in the US alone. Even more alarming, the majority of them are undiagnosed. Because symptoms mainly occur while an individual is sleeping, detection and diagnosis can be difficult. If you regularly experience sleepiness, even after a full night of sleep, you may have sleep apnea. Watch for the following signs of the sleep disorder:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Waking with a dry mouth
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake
  • Excessive sleepiness

Detection of sleep apnea could be dependent on another person. For example, some symptoms—like episodes in which you stop breathing while sleeping—may only be noticed by another person. Similarly, signs of both obstructive and central sleep apnea commonly overlap, which means a visit to your doctor could help you determine whether you have sleep apnea as well as which type of disorder you might have. 

If you visit a doctor, he or she may suggest screening for OSA with a sleep test. Depending on the test, it may occur at a healthcare center or at home. These studies monitor your heart, movement, breathing, and brain waves to analyze whether you suffer from a sleep disorder.

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Body?

Up to 60 percent of people with heart disease also have obstructive sleep apnea. Similarly, those with sleep apnea are estimated to be two to four times more likely to develop abnormal heart rhythms and 140 percent more likely to have heart failure.

It’s clear that sleep apnea is associated with more than just insomnia, sleepiness, and snoring. It’s also associated with severe chronic conditions. Plus, the longer it is left untreated, the more likely someone is to develop another issue. OSA is known to be associated with the following long-term health concerns:

  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Liver problems
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Weakened immune system
  • Anxiety
  • Obesity 
  • Decreased libido
  • High blood pressure

When your body does not get the sleep it needs, it doesn’t have the opportunity to recover and rest. Experts suggest that we should get at least seven hours of sleep. If you’re unable to rest as long as needed, you put yourself at risk of developing a variety of other health issues, especially if you are chronically sleep-deprived.

Can I Prevent Sleep Apnea?

While there is no single guaranteed way to prevent sleep apnea, there are a few lifestyle choices that can lower your risk of developing the condition. For example, it may help to stop taking sleeping pills, which are known to relax the muscles in the back of your throat and make it harder to breathe. 

Other lifestyle choices that help people prevent sleep apnea include the following: 

  • Cutting down on alcohol consumption
  • Quitting smoking
  • Weight loss
  • Sleeping on your side
  • Frequent exercise
  • Healthy eating habits

Many of the healthy lifestyle habits that are often associated with sleep apnea are also related to many of its comorbidities, which means making these changes could also benefit you in other ways. If you have both sleep apnea and diabetes, for example, prioritizing your health by taking these steps could also improve your diabetes. Give it a try: Make some of these changes and see how you feel!

What Treatment Options Are Available?

You may have heard of the most popular and common form of sleep apnea treatment: wearing a CPAP machine at night. CPAP treatment provides continuous air pressure through a piece placed over your nose. Because the air pressure in the machine is greater than the air around you, it’s enough to open the airway passages throughout the night. These machines can successfully reduce the number of breathless episodes that occur as you sleep and improve the quality of your sleep and life. 

Based on the severity of sleep apnea, your doctor may also recommend other treatments, such as the following:

  • Oral appliances
  • Making lifestyle changes
  • Wearing a mouthpiece
  • Jaw surgery
  • Implants
  • Other forms of PAP machines
  • Upper airway stimulation
  • Tracheostomy

Your doctor could suggest a combination of one or more of these treatments in response to your sleep disorder. Sometimes, using these therapies in conjunction with one another could provide even better results than using a single solution. 

Now that you know the basics of sleep apnea, you’re well equipped to identify possible signs of the disorder. If you think you may be struggling with a sleep-related breathing disorder, reach out to your doctor. He or she will be able to screen and diagnose you, as well as provide a treatment plan suitable for your lifestyle and needs.