Sleep apnea is a serious disorder in which breathing stops or becomes very shallow during sleep, causing oxygen levels in the blood to fall. The throat muscles contract, there is a gasp for air, and breathing starts again. This pattern may be repeated hundreds of times a night.
A person with sleep apnea actually wakes up briefly and falls asleep again without being aware of having awakened. Heavy snoring is often a symptom of the condition. The soft tissues of the mouth vibrate during snoring, but with apnea the tongue and other soft tissues periodically fall back and collapse the airway, sometimes totally, sometimes only partially.
Sleep apnea affects anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of adults, yet the condition is still rarely diagnosed. Family members may tell you that you stop breathing at night and snore explosively. If you sleep alone, you may not even know that you snore, and you may not link the possible consequences of apnea to the disorder. Since apnea prevents you from sleeping restfully, and robs you of restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, it can lead to daytime drowsiness, irritability, faulty memory, and lack of ability to concentrate.
Because of daytime drowsiness, those with sleep apnea are seven times more likely than average to be in traffic accidents. Apnea may also increase the risk of hypertension, stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular hazards. (For example, half of those with the disorder are found to have hypertensionthough the connection between sleep apnea and hypertension remains controversial.) In rare cases, especially among the elderly, apnea may lead to severe respiratory failure and death.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
- Intense snoring pattern that ends in a loud gasp or snort
- Feeling depressed, irritable and moody
- Waking up abruptly at night
- Headaches, cough, dry mouth and sore throat upon waking
- Feeling lethargic during the day for no apparent reason
- High blood pressure
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
There are two types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is specifically caused by a temporary blockage of the breathing passages. Central sleep apnea, another form of the disorder, is caused by a brain dysfunction, but the results are the same.
Excess weight and age are associated with sleep apnea, since the excessive relaxation of muscles at the back of the throat that triggers apnea is a consequence of getting older or gaining extra weight. Men, people over 65, and especially the seriously overweight are particularly prone to the condition. Consuming alcohol before bedtime and using sedatives can also promote sleep apnea.
What If You Do Nothing?
The snoring and other symptoms associated with sleep apnea are unlikely to improve without some form of intervention—at the very least weight loss for those who are overweight.
Home Remedies for Sleep Apnea
If you suspect that you have sleep apnea, tell your doctor. If you’re diagnosed with the disorder, there is no simple solution, but these self-help measures should help. Some are the same techniques used for stopping snoring.
- Lose weight. This is the one measure that may have the most benefit; even a 10-percent reduction should help.
- Cut back on alcohol. Don't drink alcoholic beverages in the evening. Also try not to eat heavy meals in the evening.
- If you smoke, stop.
- Elevate the head of your bed. Use bricks or fat telephone books under the bed frame to lift it about 10 inches.
- Avoid sleeping on your back. This helps keep the tongue from falling back and pressing against the airways.
- Reposition your lower jaw. There are various “mandibular advancement” devices that reposition the lower jaw as you sleep. A little like the mouthpieces worn by football players, the devices sell for about $50. Sleep clinics and many doctors can offer advice about these.
The measures above, especially losing weight, may also help prevent sleep apnea.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your doctor if you or family members become aware that you are showing signs of sleep apnea, especially if you are overweight and/or hypertensive.
What Your Doctor Will Do
There are kits available that allow you to test for sleep apnea at home; your doctor may recommend one of these. You may then be advised to lose weight if you are overweight or obese, and take other preventive measures. If these don’t help alleviate symptoms, the next step is to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist or a sleep clinic (found in many hospitals) for further testing and to discuss treatment options.
The primary treatment for sleep apnea is a device called a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine, which pumps air through a tube into a patient’s nasal passages via a mask the patient wears while sleeping. The device is cumbersome and inconvenient, and about 40 percent of patients who try it eventually stop using it. But patients who can tolerate it are usually very pleased with the results.
New surgical techniques have been used to treat sleep apnea, but they are drastic and are intended only for cases of the disorder that are life-threatening. If surgery is recommended, be sure to get a second opinion.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media