Several years ago, at the request of my wife—who put up with my snoring but was disturbed by the increasing frequency of episodes when I appeared to stop breathing—I got tested for sleep apnea. In case you aren’t familiar with this condition, apnea means “no breath,” and obstructive sleep apnea is the periodic cessation of breathing while asleep. It is caused by a partial or complete blockage of the airway by the tissues in the back of the throat. Oxygen levels in the blood drop and carbon dioxide rises, waking you up just enough to start breathing.
People who suffer with sleep apnea get sleepy during the day, and it’s no wonder. This continuous arousal prevents them from getting adequate rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the deepest, most rejuvenating and essential level of sleep. During my evaluation for sleep apnea, I had a whopping 69 attacks of apnea (spells when I stopped breathing for 10 seconds or longer) in one hour. My oxygen level was low, and I got virtually no restorative REM sleep.
Sleep Apnea Is Devastating to Overall Health
A flood of research reveals links between sleep deprivation and a broad range of health concerns. In addition to making you tired and cranky, poor sleep can wreck your memory and mood, make you fat, raise your blood pressure and blood sugar, stress your immune system, and increase your risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and dementia.
In addition, hundreds of scientific studies have confirmed just how devastating sleep apnea itself can be. The combination of deprivation of REM sleep plus other ill effects of sleep apnea, such as significant drops in oxygen levels in the blood, fluctuations in hormone levels, and elevations in blood pressure, heart rate, and cardiac output, wreak havoc on the body.
People with sleep apnea are at increased risk of hypertension—and not only at night. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, those with moderate episodes of apnea had three times the risk of developing high blood pressure as those without this sleep problem.
Sleep apnea is also an independent risk factor for coronary artery disease and stroke. These conditions are associated with increased levels of oxidative stress, C-reactive protein, and clotting factors, and all of these are elevated in people with sleep apnea. Cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure are also much more common among sleep apnea sufferers.
There is also a significant relationship between sleep apnea, elevated blood sugar and insulin, and insulin resistance. Severe sleep apnea confers a five-fold increased risk of diabetes. Obesity, a related condition, is also associated with sleep apnea, although the exact relationship is harder to figure out since obesity is a primary cause of sleep apnea as well. Erectile problems, immune dysfunction, memory loss and concentration difficulties…the list of problems associated with sleep apnea goes on and on.
Sleep Apnea: A Common Sleep Disorder
At the Whitaker Wellness Institute, if patients have any of these symptoms or related conditions—or if they snore, a common sign of this condition—we evaluate them for sleep apnea. When I was tested, I had to spend a night in a sleep lab hooked up to all kinds of sensors and monitors. Now, we give patients a portable monitor to use in the comfort of their home or hotel room. Much less expensive and far more pleasant, this test is widely accepted as a reliable diagnostic tool for sleep apnea.
It’s shocking how many of our patients do have sleep apnea—an estimated 70 percent of those who are tested. But it’s heartening to see how much better they feel once they start sleep apnea treatment.
The Best Sleep Apnea Treatment
When I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, I immediately began using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which is a device worn at night that delivers a steady stream of air to keep the airways open. I couldn’t believe how much it improved my quality of life. Some people complain that their CPAPs or APAPs (an automatic version of CPAP) are uncomfortable, and they do take some getting used to.
Since I started using this sleep apnea treatment, I’ve slept without my CPAP machine only once—when I accidentally left it at home while traveling. I may occasionally forget to pack my toothbrush, but I never forget my CPAP because I am acutely aware of the tremendous benefits imparted by a good night’s sleep.
Automatic and continuous positive airway pressure (APAP and CPAP) machines are hands down the best-studied and most effective treatment for sleep apnea. Although I’ve been using this therapy myself for years and have never had any problems, I do understand that not everyone tolerates it so well.
According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, compliance rates hover around 60 percent, and mask discomfort and nasal issues are common roadblocks. However, because sleep apnea has such serious adverse effects on your health, the benefits of treatment far outweigh the discomforts of the therapy. That’s why, if you are diagnosed with sleep apnea and prescribed APAP or CPAP, I strongly encourage you to work with your doctor to try different masks, a humidifier, and other potential solutions before giving up on it.
Other Treatments for Sleep Apnea
I wish I could offer a proven alternative to CPAP/APAP for those who simply cannot tolerate this sleep apnea treatment. Oral appliances, dental interventions, surgical procedures, and positional therapies are certainly worth a try, but I can’t guarantee results. That said, I do recommend that everyone with sleep apnea use natural therapies to address underlying health problems.
Almost everyone with sleep apnea will benefit from losing weight. In fact, adequate weight loss will completely eliminate the condition in many, and losing 20 to 30 pounds will result in significant improvements. Avoiding alcohol may also be helpful. This is especially true for individuals with mild cases, who may snore and have episodes of apnea only after having a drink. Taking sedatives or analgesics at bedtime can have similar effects, so getting off such drugs may help.
Research also suggests that specific throat exercises can help by preventing airway collapse during sleep. Scientists divided people with moderate sleep apnea into two groups. One group was instructed to do a daily, 30-minute breathing routine while the other was taught exercises to strengthen muscles in the throat, soft palate, and tongue. After 90 days, little to no improvement was noted in the breathing group. Those who had practiced the throat exercises, however, had better sleep, less snoring, a significant reduction in neck circumference, and an overall decrease in sleep apnea severity of 39 percent!
Here are a few of the exercises you can do on your own. 1) Repeat the vowels (A, E, I, O, U) over and over again exaggerating enunciation. 2) Do multiple long, drawn-out yawning movements, opening your mouth wide and tightening the muscles in the back of your throat. 3) Push your tongue up against the back of your front teeth, slowly run it back over the roof of your mouth as far as you can, then slide the tongue back to its original position against the front teeth. Per the study, about 30 minutes daily of these and similar exercises, which can be done throughout the day, are required for maximum benefits.
If you snore, are overweight, and/or have metabolic syndrome or any of the other conditions or symptoms mentioned, I encourage you to get tested for sleep apnea. If you are or have been diagnosed with this condition, try the sleep apnea treatments I’ve shared—again, the most effective being CPAP/APAP and naturally addressing other underlying issues. As the Irish proverb goes, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”
Now it’s your turn: Have you been diagnosed with sleep apnea, and if so, what sleep apnea treatments have worked for you?