What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes your body to stop breathing while you sleep. It’s a potentially fatal condition, with harmful short- and long-term complications, that affects more than 1 in 3 men and 1 in 6 women.

Getting a good night’s sleep is just as important to your overall health as eating well and exercising regularly. That’s why it’s important to understand that snoring or regularly waking up tired means you probably aren’t getting the type of quality sleep you need. 

People may experience:

Sleep: excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia, nightmares, sleep deprivation, or snoring.
Respiratory: episodes of no breathing, breathing through the mouth, or loud breathing.
Also common: depression, dry mouth, dry throat, fatigue, headache, irritability, mood swings, or weight gain.

What causes Sleep Apnea?

There are three main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which more than 80% of sleep apnea patients have, occurs when enlarged and/or relaxed throat muscles obstruct your upper airway, blocking air from entering and leaving your lungs.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA), so named for its relation to the central nervous system, occurs when the brain stops signalling for the body to breathe until it detects a lack of oxygen and/or a heightened level of carbon dioxide that needs to be exhaled.
  • Complex sleep apnea (CompSA) is a combination of OSA and CSA. Here are more details on the different types of sleep apnea.

Eventually your brain senses that you’ve stopped breathing and causes you to wake up just enough to gasp and start breathing again. 

Then you fall back to sleep and the cycle begins again. This can happen more than 120 times every hour, even though you may not remember waking up. 

As you can imagine, apneas put immense short- and long-term strains on the body.

Short-term effects of sleep apnea

Of course apneas cause the immediate life-threatening danger of not inhaling enough oxygen (or exhaling enough poisonous carbon dioxide). But the body’s constant waking due to these apneas can also cause sleep deprivation. This can lower people’s energy and attentiveness the next day, negatively affect their moods and relationships with others, and raise the risk for memory loss, cognitive impairment and injury.

Long-term effects of sleep apnea

Untreated sleep apnea has been linked to an increased risk for other chronic and life-threatening conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart failure, as well as poorer glucose control in patients with type 2 diabetes.

The first step toward treating sleep apnea and living healthier is recognizing the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea and asking your doctor to get screened and tested. Roughly 80% of people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it, partly because they can never witness their own nighttime symptoms.

 Common sleep apnea symptoms

While snoring is still the strongest predictor of sleep apnea in men and women, not everyone who snores has it. And more important, not everyone who has it snores. Below are other common sleep apnea symptoms:

  • Constant tiredness
  • Poor concentration
  • Night sweats
  • Weight gain
  • Lack of energy
  • Forgetfulness
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Frequent urination at night

In addition, women often show subtler, atypical symptoms such as insomnia, morning headaches, depression and anxiety. These symptoms often lead to misdiagnoses such as depression, insomnia or menopausal side effects. If you have these symptoms, be sure to ask your doctor about whether you might have sleep apnea.

The benefits of sleep apnea treatment

What are the benefits of treating sleep apnea? When left untreated, sleep apnea can negatively affect your energy levels, productivity and mental well-being. It can also have long-term, adverse effects on your heart, metabolism and overall health. Sleep apnea can affect anyone, fit or overweight, old or young, male or female. It can even affect children. A few of the common symptoms are:

  • Loud snoring
  • Lack of energy
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • A partner or family member notices that you stop breathing during sleep

Effective treatment of sleep apnea has been shown to help alleviate these symptoms, which can lead directly to a healthier mental outlook and improved well-being. If you think you or someone you know might have sleep apnea, it’s important that you talk to a doctor or health care professional. Be sure to let your doctor know if any of the following apply to you:

  • I’ve been told that I stop breathing during sleep.
  • My family tells me I snore.
  • I’m tired all day even after a full night's sleep.
  • I have no energy.
  • I frequently wake up with a headache.
  • I nap anytime and anywhere I can.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor to find out how to setup a sleep apnea test.