Did you know that obstructive sleep apnea increases your chance of sudden death?
In fact, some studies indicate that if you have obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA), your chance of dying are 3 times higher than the general population.
Sleep apnea, often mispronounced ‘sleep acne’, is an obstruction in your airway while you sleep. When you’re awake, your airway is usually able to stay open, allowing you to breathe well. As you fall asleep, however, breathing slows down, and muscles relax. The upper airway is basically all muscle, and more likely to become floppy or collapse; decreasing airflow, or stopping it altogether.
This results in a number of physical and mental/emotional changes that can be more than just a nuisance; they can be down right deadly. Unfortunately, some of the symptoms of OSA are not identified as such, and the real cause is not dealt with; sometimes with fatal consequences.
With that in mind, lets take a look at some indications that you might have sleep apnea.
Has anyone ever told you that you snore? Do you wake yourself up sometimes because of snoring? Does your significant other no longer sleep in the same room with you because of your loud ruckus?
What causes this commotion anyway?
Snoring happens when the airway becomes narrowed, resulting in the vibration of soft tissue. This narrowing happens because your airway relaxes while you sleep. And while snoring by itself may not be hazardous to your health, it can be a symptom of sleep apnea, which may be fatal.
But before we delve into the more serious aspects of OSA, lets take a look at a couple of the more just plain irritating symptoms.
When you swallow, there’s a little valve that opens to allow food into your stomach. If this valve becomes weak, or doesn’t close normally, stomach acid can back up into your esophagus (the tube that connects your stomach to your throat). This causes what is commonly called ‘heartburn’; or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (also known as GERD).
Trying to breathe against a closed airway, which happens if you have sleep apnea, creates a suction that can literally pull stomach acid into your esophagus.
GERD is usually treated with medicine, but being it can also be a symptom of OSA, that should be considered as well.
FREQUENT TRIPS TO THE BATHROOM
Sleep apnea causes stress on the body which leads to the release of various hormones. One of these hormones creates the urge to urinate; so frequent trips to the bathroom at night could be a sign you have sleep apnea.
What happens is this: You fall asleep, and eventually your airway closes off. After some time, your brain signals the need for oxygen, and wakes you up. You take some deep breaths, and your heart starts pounding. This sends a signal to your kidneys to get rid of what it believes is excess fluid; which is an attempt by your body to take the stress off your heart.
However, there are a number of causes for this urge other then OSA; but if you also snore and are tired all the time, this could be another indication that you have sleep apnea. Although it’s natural to get up once or twice a night to go to the bathroom, more trips then that should be looked into.
And while the frequent urge to urinate isn’t a serious heath risk in itself, it’s also a sign of Diabetes; which is critical. And OSA can also cause that.
While your airway is closed off, you’re still attempting to breathe; and these attempts cause stress on your body. When your body’s under stress, it goes into fight or flight mode; which releases a chemical that, over time, leads to insulin resistance. This in turn, leads specifically to type 2 Diabetes, which is generally the non-insulin dependent kind.
Type 1 Diabetes can also be worsened by OSA, because when the body is under stress, it’s harder for it to control blood sugar levels.
However, treating sleep apnea with CPAP has been shown to reduce insulin resistance, and therefore, improve blood sugar levels in those with both types of Diabetes.
And of course, trying to breathe against a closed airway is very stressful on your heart as well.
Which can lead to…
Heart disease is the leading cause of death. Here’s how OSA is connected.
We sleep to give our bodies some down time. However, if you continually stop breathing because your airway closes off, this puts an extra strain on the heart at the very time it should be resting. This can lead to a number of deadly complications.
The first thing that happens when your airway closes off and you stop breathing is your oxygen level drops. Your body reacts to this drop in oxygen by narrowing the blood vessels in an effort to conserve what little oxygen it is getting. When breathing once again resumes, blood pressure increases due to narrowed arteries.
As the heart is going through its rollercoaster ride in a continual attempt to keep up with what your body is doing, it can also develop an irregular rhythm. The most common of these is called Atrial Fibrillation (or a-fib).
When the heart is in a-fib, it’s beating fast and irregular; and as a result, the blood doesn’t flow as it should, making it more likely to clot. This might cause a stroke, which can also be fatal.
Lets take a closer look at this.
RISK OF STROKE
Stroke is the 4th leading cause of death, but the #1 cause of disability.
There are 3 different types of Strokes: Transient Ischemic Attack (or TIA), Ischemic stroke, and hemorrhagic Stroke.
While TIA’s and ischemic strokes can both be caused by blood clots, Ischemic strokes can also be brought about by a narrowing of the arteries. This can be a result of plaque build-up, but it can also be a consequence of the bodies natural defense to a drop in oxygen; like what happens in people with OSA.
Throw a-fib in the mix, and you have all the makings of a stroke waiting to happen.
However, sleep apnea can also cause emotional and mental problems.
Studies show that men diagnosed with sleep apnea are twice as likely to show clinical signs of depression than the general population. For women, the statistics are even worse. You gals are 5 times more likely to have these symptoms.
Reduced oxygen could definitely be a factor. But the poor quality of sleep that you experience with OSA in itself could leave you feeling pretty crappy.
Interestingly, CPAP has been shown to reduce signs of depression; so if you’re depressed, but also exhibit some of these other signs, a talk with your Dr. is highly recommended.
But what’s even more crucial is the injury OSA causes to your brain.
While you’re awake, toxins build up in your brain from various things you’re exposed to. During sleep, an area of the brain is activated and flushes out these impurities. Not only that, but sleep also plays a role in the storage of memories.
So, a good nights rest literally cleans out your brain and helps with concentration and recall. When this process is constantly interrupted, you’re memory and thoughts become foggy. But worse than that, those nasty toxins that are left damage areas of your brain.
In fact, OSA damages critical areas of the brain that control not only memory, but balance, and the nervous system as well. For instance, research has shown that the part of the brain where memory is processed is actually smaller in people with sleep apnea.
One can only wonder if there’s also a connection between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The good news is that if this brain damage was caused by OSA, treatment with CPAP has reversed these effects.
So, what can I do if I suspect I have Sleep Apnea?
Ask yourself the following STOP questions:
S-Do you Snore loudly?
T-Are you Tired all the time?
O-Has anyone Observed you stop breathing in your sleep?
P-Do you have high blood Pressure?
If you answered yes to any of these, a talk with your Dr. would be a good idea as further testing may be necessary.
Treatment for OSA includes the use of CPAP, Oral appliances, or various Surgical procedures; although CPAP is the main treatment option.
What is CPAP, and how does it work?
CPAP, often mispronounced ‘C-Pack’, stands for Continuous Positive Air Pressure; and works by using air pressure to help hold your airway open. This keeps you breathing well; which also helps keep your oxygen levels up
I’m on Oxygen, can’t I just use that?
Oxygen will also help maintain good oxygen levels, but because it’s not pressurized, does nothing to assist in keeping your airway open. While 02 keeps the oxygen in your blood from getting too low, studies show it’s not as effective in lowering blood pressure as CPAP
Getting a good night’s sleep is more than just waking up feeling refreshed. Being awake and actually having some energy for daily activities is nice, but that’s really just a side effect of CPAP. The real more serious health problems of sleep apnea are dealt with, and you actually have a chance to live a longer more healthy life.
So if you suspect that you, or someone you know, has sleep apnea, do yourself and/or them a favor and see your Dr.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at your heart, and how to take care of this very important organ that gives you life.