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Sleep apnea causes pauses in breathing that can occur hundreds of times each night. These short periods of not breathing can disturb your sleep and increase your risk for heart-related illness, high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes and depression.

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in men than women and becomes more common after menopause. With 50 to 70 million Americans that have some type of sleep disorder, and 60% of them don’t seek help for their sleep problems, sleep apnea just adds to that sad statistics

Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea 

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of your airway during sleep. It is most common in adults and occurs more often in men than in women. 

People with obstructive sleep apnea may snore and wake up frequently during the night with shortness of breath, or make choking or gasping sounds. This reduces the quality of their sleep, and can cause them to feel tired during the day.

Several factors increase the likelihood of developing obstructive sleep apnea. 

  • Excess weight and obesity raise your risk because fat deposits in the neck and throat can obstruct breathing. 
  • People who smoke or use alcohol are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. 
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea increases your risk, as does having a large neck circumference or enlarged tonsils. 
  • Allergies or other medical conditions that cause nasal congestion or obstruction also raise your risk of obstructive sleep apnea.

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include snoring, waking up frequently during the night with shortness of breath, feeling tired during the day and trouble concentrating. 

Other symptoms are irritability or mood changes, memory problems, difficulty focusing and problems with relationships. To diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will consider your symptoms and health history, and will do an in-clinic sleep study.

…Central Sleep Apnea 

The various forms of CSA are classified by their underlying cause. 

  • Medical conditions such as heart failure or a stroke interfere with the brainstem’s ability to send signals to trigger breathing. In some people, this leads to a pattern of over-breathing and under-breathing or even total cessation of breathing (primary central sleep apnea). 
  • Other causes include taking certain medications or substances, including opiate drugs such as methadone, which diminish the brain’s ability to respond to changes in carbon dioxide levels.

Symptoms of Central Sleep Apnea are similar to those of obstructive sleep apnea, but tend to be more severe. People with CSA are often excessively tired during the day, despite adequate nighttime sleep, and have problems concentrating. They may also have difficulty falling or staying asleep, especially when sleeping in a bed with a partner.

To diagnose CSA, doctors will collect a person’s medical history and conduct a physical exam. They will usually ask about symptoms such as a lack of energy during the day or problems with breathing while lying down. 

They will also want to know if a person has been prescribed any medications or taken any substances that could increase the risk of CSA. They will usually recommend that the person undergo a sleep study, which will chart how much and how rapidly a person breathes during sleep.

Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea causes your breathing to stop periodically during your sleep. These pauses, called apneic episodes, last 10 seconds or more. When this happens, your throat muscles relax and the tissue in the back of your throat droops down over your airway, temporarily blocking it. 

When the brain notices that you’re not breathing, it sends a signal to rouse you from your sleep so you can breathe again. This can happen several hundred times a night. This disrupts your normal sleep cycle and keeps you from getting a restful night of restful sleep.

If left untreated, this can lead to a variety of health problems and serious events. Some people are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea than others, including overweight and obese adults, smokers, older adults, and those with diabetes or borderline diabetes.

People with mixed sleep apnea have trouble getting enough oxygen because their brain doesn’t properly send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing. This condition can be caused by a number of things, including certain medications, underlying health conditions, or genetic disorders. 

It’s also more common in African Americans and Hispanics than in whites. Symptoms of this type of sleep disorder include difficulty falling asleep, daytime drowsiness, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome

If you have congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS), also known as Ondine’s curse, your nervous system isn’t properly communicating with your breathing. 

This causes you to take shallow breaths, especially when sleeping. This prevents you from getting enough oxygen and can build up carbon dioxide in your blood. In severe cases, this can lead to cardiac problems.

In people with CCHS, the airway is abnormally small or the throat muscles are too weak to move the tongue and soft palate forward. This can cause a narrowing of the airway and obstructed breathing, which is similar to obstructive sleep apnea.

Anything that restricts your ability to breathe can cause obstructive sleep apnea. This includes a large tonsil size, being overweight, having a deviated septum or other medical issues that affect how your mouth and throat close during sleep.

Sleep apnea can cause problems with memory, concentration and mood. If left untreated, it can lead to heart disease and a higher risk of accidents and injuries. 

Men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women, but the incidence increases in women after menopause. Age can increase your chance of having obstructive or central sleep apnea as well, as your body becomes less active and muscle mass decreases.

Solutions for Sleep Apnea…

…Weight Loss

Obesity can lead to obstructive sleep apnea because fat cells around the neck can push on the windpipe and prevent it from passing through. It may also contribute to central sleep apnea, because fat can reduce the strength of the muscles that control breathing.

People who have obesity or are overweight are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea, especially as they get older. They are also more likely to have the complex or mixed type of sleep apnea. 

Symptoms include night time snoring, gasping or choking during sleep, and feeling tired during the day. These problems can raise the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation and stroke.

The main treatments for obstructive sleep apnea are losing weight, changing your sleeping position and using an anti snoring device or mouthguard. 

Other options include the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, oral appliances or surgery to widen the upper airway. Doctors can prescribe medications to treat the underlying condition. 

They can also refer patients to a specialist in the ear, nose and throat or to a doctor who treats heart and nervous system disorders. If symptoms persist, a health care provider may suggest a sleep study to check your breathing while you are asleep.

…Change Sleeping Positions

You can reduce sleep apnea symptoms by making simple changes to your lifestyle. These home remedies won’t cure the condition, but they can help you get better sleep at night and feel more refreshed during the day.

One of the easiest solutions is to change your sleeping position. Sleeping on your back makes apnea much more likely to happen because it puts the tissues in your mouth and throat in a position where they can block the airway. Sleeping on your side can prevent this, and it can also reduce snoring.

Another option is to use sleep aid products, such as nasal sprays, adhesive strips and special pillows, which can improve breathing by helping air travel through the nose more easily. These over-the-counter solutions won’t cure mild or moderate apnea, but they can help you avoid worsening your symptoms. 

Using positive airway pressure, which pushes pressurized air down your windpipe to keep it open, can treat both obstructive and central sleep apnea and is the most effective treatment for most people.

…Avoid of Alcohol

The consumption of alcohol can have many negative effects on sleep. In addition to the general health problems associated with it, it can also lead to snoring and sleep apnea. 

Changing your lifestyle habits, such as reducing the amount of alcohol you drink and sleeping on the side rather than on your back can help reduce these symptoms. You can also talk to your doctor about getting treatment for snoring and/or sleep apnea.

For those that are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, or if they are snoring and/or having pauses in their breathing while asleep, the best way to improve their condition is to stop drinking alcohol. 

Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the throat and can cause the airway to become obstructed during sleep. This will prevent oxygen from reaching the brain and can lead to a number of serious conditions, including heart disease and stroke.

For those that are already using a CPAP machine, it is recommended to avoid any type of alcohol since this can counteract the effectiveness of the device. Instead, people should stick to non-alcoholic drinks and should try to go to bed earlier. This should allow them to get a better night’s rest and will make them feel more alert the next day.

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