Poor nighttime sleep or excessive daytime sleepiness isn’t always easy to diagnose. Sometimes an uncomfortable mattress or inadequate sleep environment is the culprit. But other times, a deeper medical issue is to blame. Sleep apnea is one such condition that affects your quality of sleep and overall health. And according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, more than 30 million Americans suffer from it, and the majority of them are undiagnosed. If you’re worried that you might be one of them, there are a few common causes and symptoms to look out for.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person stops breathing during sleep. This will happen intermittently, sometimes hundreds of times per night (source).
The American Sleep Apnea Association describes the 3 different types of sleep apnea as:
1. Obstructive sleep apnea(or OSA), the most common type in which a person’s airway becomes physically blocked by their soft palate or tongue
2. central sleep apnea (abbreviated CSA), in which the nervous system doesn’t send the proper signals for the muscles within the airway to function
3. Mixed sleep apnea- a mixture of both OSA and CSA
During these brief periods of stopped breathing, the sleeper will enter a lighter stage of sleep that prevents them from getting deep, restorative rest. This makes chronic daytime fatigue or sleepiness a telltale sign of the condition (source).
What causes sleep apnea?
According to the Sleep Foundation, the most common causes of sleep apnea include:
- Anatomy. A physical blockage of the airway can be caused by a number of anatomical attributes, like a narrow throat, or nonoptimal positioning of the jaw, tongue, neck, or tonsils.
- Obesity. With increased weight comes the risk of a more narrowed airway during sleep, meaning that obese individuals are at increased risk of developing OSA.
- Sedative use. Alcohol as well as certain medications and drugs can cause tissues in the throat to relax too much, increasing the chances of airway blockage during sleep.
- Genetics. Unfortunately, the odds of developing OSA go up if one or more close family members have it too.
- Smoking. Smoking, particularly heavy smoking, can inflame the upper airway and obstruct breathing.
- Nasal congestion. Frequent congestion may inhibit the ability to breathe properly through the nasal passages, increasing risk of OSA.
- Hormone imbalance. Certain conditions, such as hypothyroidism, can swell the tissues in the airway as well as increase the likelihood of obesity, increasing the risk of OSA.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea occurs during periods of unconsciousness, and many sufferers don’t even fully wake when their breathing stops. Because of this (and especially if you don’t sleep with a partner that can observe this behavior) it can be difficult to determine if you have it. The Mayo Clinic advises that if you’re experiencing one or more of the following unexplained symptoms, you may want to talk to your doctor about possible sleep apnea.
- Regular daytime fatigue, particularly after having a full night’s rest
- Awakening with a dry mouth
- Morning headaches
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Loud snoring
- Daytime symptoms of poor quality sleep, like irritability, trouble concentrating, or mood swings
All of the above can be symptoms of OSA and CSA, although OSA is far more common (source).
Treatments for sleep apnea
Of course, if you suspect you have sleep apnea, the best thing to do is talk to a medical professional that can recommend testing and treatment. Depending on your specific needs, a doctor or dentist may prescribe one of these common treatments:
- Lifestyle changes like losing weight or quitting smoking
- Oral appliances or airway pressure devices (like a CPAP machine) that physically open the airway and/or relieve the blockage
- Supplemental oxygen while you sleep
- Surgery to either reposition the jaw or remove or shrink tissues that block the airway
Oftentimes, sleep apnea can be remedied through treating associated medical conditions that can cause it, like high blood pressure or certain heart conditions (to name just a small few).
Additionally, there are measures you can take at home that certainly won’t hurt. For milder cases of sleep apnea, you can start improving your symptoms today with one of these proven techniques (and most of them don’t cost a dime).
Change your sleep position
If you tend to sleep on your back, it could be aggravating or even causing sleep apnea (source). When lying flat with your head up, gravity naturally pushes neck fat and the soft tissues of your palate into your airway. So switching to your side or your stomach can relieve that pressure and help you breathe better. Keep in mind there are pros and cons to just about any sleep position, so check out our Best Sleep Position For You article for tips to settle in just right.
Elevate your head
Similar to switching from your back to your side, you can reduce the pressure against your throat by elevating your head. A 2017 study even showed that elevating the head of the bed significantly improved symptoms of OSA. This solution is especially helpful for those that are accustomed to sleeping on their back and may have trouble completely switching to their side or stomach. You can achieve the right positioning with a wedge pillow or adjustable bed.
Use a humidifier
Moisture is important for the entire respiratory system to work correctly. Adding a humidifier to your bedroom will help keep your nasal passages, throat, and mouth from drying out. This not only helps you feel more comfortable, but lessens any irritation or swelling to encourage better breathing (source).
Address nasal congestion
As we covered above, nasal congestion can contribute to OSA. Take necessary steps to open up the nasal passages by keeping the air moist or using a warm compress, saline spray, nasal strip, or decongestant.
Quit smoking and reduce alcohol use
If you didn’t have a million other reasons already to quit smoking, here’s one more! Tobacco use does a number on your respiratory system, including causing inflammation in your airway that can contribute to sleep apnea and snoring.
The same goes for alcohol use, especially heavy consumption, which can inflame the tissues and result in a blockage.
Adjust your thermostat
Evidence suggests that OSA sufferers might sleep better at cooler temperatures, which is great news since a cooler temperature in general is recommended for optimal sleep. What’s the ideal temperature then? Numerous studies have narrowed down the perfect range to between 60 and 67 degrees fahrenheit, while some health experts insist that it’s 65 degrees. Especially if you tend to sleep in a room warmer than 67 degrees, it’s worth experimenting with lowering your thermostat the next time you go to bed.
Practice breathing exercises
Proper breathing during sleep relies on muscles within your oral and respiratory systems to work properly. And just like any other muscles, they can be strengthened.
Yoga is one such practice that may help improve nighttime breathing, because it emphasizes breathing from the diaphragm and in doing so, increases oxygen levels in your blood.
Additionally, specific oropharyngeal exercises can help tone the tongue, jaw, and throat so they’re less likely to collapse during sleep.
Visit your dentist or doctor
This one goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. Your doctor or dentist (or both) can test for and diagnose sleep apnea. The condition has such a wide range of severity, and although the tips above may lessen symptoms for some, others will need more intensive treatments that only a medical professional can provide. But either way, sleep apnea is treatable, so don’t hesitate to take the first step and make an appointment.
For more resources and information on sleep apnea, we encourage you to read the following:
What is Sleep Apnea? by the American Sleep Apnea Association
Sleep Apnea by the Sleep Foundation
Sleep apnea by the Mayo Clinic
6 Lifestyle Remedies for Sleep Apnea by Healthline
Mouth And Throat Exercises to Help Stop Snoring and Improve OSA by the Sleep Foundation