Understanding sleep apnea

November 4, 2015

Nights are hardly restful if you have sleep apnea, a chronic and sometimes dangerous condition in which your breathing literally — and repeatedly — stops during sleep. A few lifestyle changes, and a simple machine, may be all you need to control it. These guidelines will steer you in the right direction.

Understanding sleep apnea

1. What is happening

It’s estimated that some 1.2 million Canadians have sleep apnea, yet many do not actually know they have it. Here’s why: if you have sleep apnea, you'll breathe normally during the day. It’s only at night, when you fall asleep, that your breathing stops — sometimes for 10 seconds, sometimes for a minute or more. You may snore loudly or even struggle for air when the level of oxygen in your blood starts to fall. In response, you wake only briefly — so briefly, in fact, that you don't remember it the next morning — then you immediately fall back to sleep.

This cycle can repeat itself many times a night (as frequently as 100 times an hour in some cases), preventing deep sleep and leaving you exhausted the next day.The consequences go beyond a little fatigue. With sleep apnea, you're two to three times more likely to have car accidents than those who sleep normally. Worse yet, the buildup of carbon dioxide in your blood can put you at risk for high blood pressure and other health threats, including a heart attack or stroke.

The most common form of the disease, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), occurs when tissues in the airway relax and "collapse" during sleep, blocking the flow of air. Anyone who is seriously overweight is particularly prone to this condition, as are men and those over age 65. If you sleep on your back or are related by blood to someone with sleep apnea, you also have an increased chance of developing it.

Far fewer people have another form, called central sleep apnea (CSA). Although it has the same symptoms as OSA, it is thought to occur when the brain fails to send "breathing signals" to your respiratory muscles.

2. First steps

  • Lose weight by exercising more and eating a healthy diet. Obesity is the main cause of sleep apnea.
  • Avoid alcohol or sedatives at bedtime to prevent the throat muscles from relaxing too much.
  • Sleep on your side or stomach, not on your back, to keep airways clear.
  • Use a CPAP machine to improve breathing during sleep.

3. Taking control

  • Elevate the head of your bed 10 to 15 centimetres (four to six inches) using bricks or fat books. Doing so helps prevent heartburn, a common apnea trigger.
  • Get hay fever under control, either by avoiding allergens or using non-sedating antihistamines to reduce congestion. Allergy symptoms often cause an increase in apnea and snoring.
  • Avoid a heavy meal near bedtime because it can make breathing problems worse.
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