Sleep Apnea: Types, Symptoms, Effects, and Treatments

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing frequently stops and starts while sleeping. In the US, at least one out of five adults suffer from this disorder. Although it is common in the United States, sleep apnea is a medical condition that should be taken very seriously. Not only can it affect your daily life, but sleep apnea can also negatively impact your overall health. By recognizing the symptoms of this disorder, the effects it can have on your body, and taking proactive steps to mitigating its effects, you can take control of your sleep and move towards improved rest and wellness. 

Three Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea presents itself in three different forms. Although they share some similar symptoms, the causes of these three categories of sleep apnea are different. Sleep apnea treatments usually vary by type, so it’s important to determine which type you have before trying at home remedies or sleep apnea treatments.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Many times, sleep apnea happens because your upper airway becomes blocked, stopping air from traveling through. This type of sleep apnea is known as obstructive sleep apnea because something is blocking or obstructing the air passageway. Usually, the culprit with this type of sleep apnea is relaxed throat muscles. Once these muscles relax, the tongue or other tissue falls back into the throat and blocks the place that air flows through. This limits the amount of oxygen that reaches your lungs. Usually these pauses in breathing last 10 seconds or more. This type of sleep apnea is the most common type, affecting around 6% of people around the world.

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Obstructive sleep apnea presents itself in three different levels of severity: mild, moderate and severe. These three types aren’t ranked on the severity of symptoms but how many episodes happen every hour.

  • Mild OSA- 5 to 14 interruptions of breathing per hour.
  • Moderate OSA- 15 to 30 interruptions of breathing per hour.
  • Severe OSA- More than 30 interruptions of breathing per hour. 

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea vary from person to person. However, some common symptoms affect most people with the condition. 

  • Snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnea. Just because you snore, you don’t necessarily have sleep apnea. However, obstructive sleep apnea suffers will almost always suffer from loud and regular snoring. Many people miss this sign since they don’t even know that they are snoring while they sleep.
  • Waking Up from your sleep is another symptom of OSA. Regular snoring not associated with sleep apnea will not rouse you from a deep sleep. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, you might have sleep apnea.
  • A choking or gasping sound that occurs while you sleep is also a tell-tale sign of sleep apnea. This makes sense since your body is blocked from taking in the oxygen that it needs. Decreased oxygen can have drastic effects on the brain and can even cause brain damage if it becomes severe.
  • Sleepiness that lasts most of the day even though you slept several hours can indicate a breathing problem. Every time you wake during an episode of obstructed breathing, your brain has to reset its sleep cycle. Waking starts sleep cycle starts all over again and makes it impossible to move into the deeper stages of sleep . Because of this, it is possible to sleep for several hours but never go into the type of deep sleep that is needed to keep your body healthy. Sleepiness and fatigue are likely results.
  • Headaches, especially in the morning, can also occur due to OAS. Lack of oxygen getting to the brain leads to lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Headaches are a product of oxygen deprivation.

Anyone can develop sleep apnea, but there are certain risk factors that make a person more likely to develop the disorder. Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include being overweight, having a thicker neck or enlarged tonsils, having a more narrow airway, smoking, and drinking alcohol or taking muscle relaxers. Men are more at risk than women. People who suffer from chronic nasal congestion have a higher incidence of obstructive sleep apnea as well. 

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Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Another type of faulty breathing, central sleep apnea (CSA), occurs when the brain fails to send other parts of the body signals telling them to breathe. Because your brain isn’t communicating with the muscles responsible for breathing, your body doesn’t try to breathe. With central sleep apnea, there is no tissue blocking the airway. In fact, the airway is clear. However, your muscles in that airway are not doing their job due to missed signals. 

Central sleep apnea shares some symptoms with obstructive sleep apnea such as restless sleep, snoring (not as common), and morning headaches. Symptoms that can also occur with central sleep apnea include:

  • Difficulty concentrating that makes it difficult to complete tasks. This is due to lack of sleep as well as reduced oxygen.
  • Changes in mood or overall irritability are also a symptom of sleep apnea. If sleep apnea is severe and brain damage occurs, these changes in mood can become permanent. 
  • Chronic fatigue that can last all day long also comes along with CSA. This type of fatigue moves past sleepiness and can be felt throughout the body. This symptom can be severe and have a detrimental effect on a person’s ability to function throughout the day. “I’m just so tired all the time” is a common complaint of those with sleep apnea.

Like with OSA, people who are overweight are more at risk of developing CSA. Other conditions that make one at risk for central sleep apnea include medical conditions affecting the brain stem, heart failure, certain medications (especially sedatives), and Parkinson’s Disease. Like with obstructive sleep apnea, men are more likely to have central sleep apnea than women. Adults over 65 are also more at risk as are those who have had a stroke or take opioids (including painkillers.) Surprisingly, going from a lower to a higher altitude can also cause central sleep apnea to begin as well. Usually, the condition stops when the sufferer returns to a lower altitude. 

Complex Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also called mixed sleep apnea, is a combination of the other two types. Complex sleep apnea can areise even when they are using a CPAP machine to treat obstructive sleep apnea. As the Sleep Apnea Treatment Center explains, “Patients with complex sleep apnea at first appear to have obstructive sleep apnea and stop breathing 20 to 30 times per hour each night. But unlike typical obstructive sleep apnea patients, their breathing problem is not completely alleviated by a CPAP.” This condition is brought on by the same risk factors of the other two types of sleep apnea and have the same symptoms. Complex sleep apnea can be harder to treat since the cause is two-fold.

Sleep Apnea Effects

Regardless of type, sleep apnea can have serious health effects on those who suffer from the disorder. This is why finding effective sleep apnea treatments are so important. Specific effects of sleep apnea have on the body include:

  • Weakened immune system- It turns out the old wives tale that says lack of sleep can make you sick is actually true. Lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea can cause sleep deprivation that makes your immune system weaker. Studies show that lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea reduces the number of T-cells in the body and suppresses immune system function. Increased colds and sickness is the result.
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood- People with sleep apnea will have lower levels of oxygen in their blood. This contributes to the fatigue and headaches that are a sign of sleep apnea. Long-term low oxygen levels can cause problems with heart rhythms, fluid buildup, and even induce a stroke. 
  • Asthma and acid reflux- Though sleep apnea doesn’t usually cause asthma, it can aggravate it. The same thing goes for acid reflux which can cause weight gain and create a vicious cycle of sleep issues.
  • High blood pressure and blood sugar- People with sleep apnea are more likely to have type 2 diabetes.  If you already have diabetes, sleep apnea can make it more difficult to manage. It also increases your risk of high blood pressure. 
  • Memory problems and depression- One of the most troublesome effects of sleep deprivation is confusion and issues with memory. Because sleep helps us solidify our memories and process information, sleep apnea can wreak havoc on your mind. Many studies also link sleep apnea to an increased risk of depression and can even mimic depression. Some people have even been misdiagnosed as having depression when sleep apnea was the real culprit.
  • Heart and liver issues- Your brain isn’t the only organ affected by sleep apnea. The disorder can also harm your heart and your liver. Science shows a direct link between sleep apnea and high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke and heart failure.  Fatty liver disease is tied to obstructive sleep apnea. This serious health problem can cause nausea, fatigue, jaundice, stomach pain, and weight loss. Thankfully, getting help for sleep apnea early on can prevent the onset of brain, heart, and liver issues.
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Sleep Apnea and Biometrics

One of the most surprising facts about sleep apnea is that most sufferers go through life without ever being diagnosed or seeking help for the issue. There are many reasons for this including the fact that to be diagnosed with the disorder; most doctors require you to go through a sleep study in which you are hooked up to a monitoring system that tracks information about your breathing. This process is not only time consuming but also expensive. 

Advances in technology have made it easier and more affordable for people to track their own biometrics at home. Biometrics refer to the body’s indicators of its physiological well-being. By accurately tracking signals like SpO2, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability, Biostrap users can quantify the effects of chronic diseases like sleep apnea as well as the efficacy of treatments used to mitigate those effects. For example, users can use Biostrap’s Sleep Analysis feature to measure changes in SpO2, number of disturbances, and amount of deep sleep.

Diagnosis and Sleep Apnea Treatments 

When going to the doctor about possible sleep apnea, the physician will usually want you to bring a record of your sleep as well as fatigue levels throughout the day. This is where biometric tracking can come in handy. Rather than having to focus on the anectodal information of the effects of poor sleep, biometrics can provide a palpable, quantifiable reading of your body’s physiological well-being.

Once diagnosed, there are several different ways to mitigate the effects of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is usually treated using a CPAP machine. A CPAP machine has a mask that fits over the mouth and nose and blows air into the airway to keep it open during sleep. Although this treatment is very effective, some patients avoid it since its use can lead to central sleep apnea.

Other sleep apnea treatments include positive airway pressure therapy, wearing a dental appliance that repositions the lower jaw and tongue and surgery to remove tissue that blocks the airway. But some of the best ways to mitigate the symptoms of sleep apnea are lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle Changes to Treat Sleep Apnea

One of the first ways to attack this sleep disorder is to focus on losing weight. Although a CPAP machine can treat sleep apnea, it can’t cure it. Losing weight can. By losing weight, you can rid yourself of the fatty tissue that can block your airway during sleep. Losing weight around your neck area really helps since a thicker neck makes you more susceptible to sleep apnea. Slimming down can also reduce the risk of other issues like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. According to Harvard health, just a 10 percent reduction in body weight can reverse sleep apnea. 

To lose weight, staying active is key. Whether its yoga, cardio workouts, or some other form of exercise, doing at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity can help you lose weight and breathe more easily. 

Another way to mitigate the effects of sleep apnea is to reduce your alcohol intake and the number of sleeping pills/sedatives you take at bedtime. Because alcohol acts as a sedative, it causes your throat muscles to relax. The same can be said of sleeping pills and prescription sedatives/muscle relaxers since they relax the nervous system. Although you should talk to your doctor before discontinuing medication, you might consider limiting alcohol if you think it could be contributing to your breathing problems while you sleep.

A fourth way to get rid of sleep apnea is to stop smoking. Smoking greatly increases your risk of developing sleep apnea because it acts as a sedative and can cause your airway to swell.  Stopping smoking is one of the best ways to combat sleep apnea since cutting cigarettes will help you breathe better right away. 

You should also try to get the best sleep that you can. This may seem impossible since sleep apnea disrupts sleep. However, there are things you can do to improve your rest. For one, you should set a bedtime and stick to it. Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day can help as can going to bed in a room that is both dark and quiet. If you have trouble going to sleep without alcohol or sleeping pills, look for other ways to induce sleep like taking a relaxing bath. 

You can also try changing your sleep position. Studies show that switching from back sleeping to a different position can greatly reduce sleep apnea issues. If you must sleep on your back, try elevating the bed. Just 4 inches of elevation can clear up breathing issues. 

Other unique ways to reduce symptoms associated with sleep apnea include singing (vocal exercises can reduce snoring), using nasal dilators to keep your nostrils open, and eating early (at least 4 hours before you go to bed.) When you do eat, make sure to include natural sleep inducers like bananas, turkey, and cheese. You might also consider acupuncture, sleep apnea strengthening exercise, and chewing gum to tighten the muscles around your mouth.

Regardless of what biometric system you use to track your sleeping or changes you plan to put into place to help reverse your sleep apnea, it’s important to put a plan in place and seek assistance from a licensed physician. This combined with an understanding of sleep apnea, its causes and treatments can put you on the road to recovery and peaceful sleeping.

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