Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing in your sleep, and it’s more common than you think. It’s the second most common sleep disorder behind insomnia, it may affect 2% to 4% of the population, and one in four Americans could benefit from a sleep apnea evaluation.
It’s not only common, it could be life-threatening if left untreated. The disorder has been linked to everything from heart failure to obesity, dementia to all-cause mortality. And it can cause low energy, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems during the day.
So, it’s clear if you think you have sleep apnea, you need to do something about it.
Keep reading to find out how to get rid of sleep apnea, the treatment options available, and how the RISE app can help you make the most of the sleep you do get with this condition.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to temporarily stop breathing during the night. There are three types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea is more common, and it’s what most research is referring to when it talks about just sleep apnea. We’ll be doing the same from here on out.
When a sleep apnea episode happens, you stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer. Your brain eventually detects low oxygen levels and wakes you up to kick-start your breathing again.
You might wake up gasping for breath, or you may only wake up slightly and not even notice what has happened. This may happen up to 30 times or more an hour, which makes for some serious sleep disruption.
To find out if you have sleep apnea, speak to your doctor or a sleep specialist. You may have to do a sleep study in a sleep center or at home that will measure things like your breathing patterns, airflow, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels during the night.
You can learn more about how to know if you have sleep apnea here.
The symptoms of sleep apnea include:
Sleep apnea can lead to health issues including:
However, as sleep apnea is so strongly linked to sleep deprivation and obesity, it’s hard to tell whether sleep apnea leads to these outcomes directly, or whether sleep deprivation and obesity are contributing to them.
As well as being overweight, risk factors include smoking, drinking alcohol, and having medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Whether sleep apnea can be cured depends on how severe the disorder is for you and the root cause. Experts believe the condition is very treatable.
If you have mild sleep apnea, you may find lifestyle changes can improve your symptoms. Even those with severe obstructive sleep apnea have treatment options that can help the condition.
Sleep apnea may be a condition that never goes away, but there are treatment options that can improve symptoms. Which one is best for you will all depend on how severe your condition is and whether you’re at risk of other health problems like heart disease.
Managing sleep apnea usually involves combining multiple treatment options, too, and having long-term follow-ups.
Here are the sleep apnea treatment options out there:
A continuous positive airway pressure machine, or CPAP, is considered the first line of treatment. It’s a device you wear over your nose or both your nose and mouth while sleeping, and it provides continuous air pressure to keep your airways open.
Here’s what CPAP therapy has been shown to do:
However, some people find CPAP machines uncomfortable and loud, so adherence to this treatment option is low. You can speak to your doctor about different CPAP devices to find one that works for you, or experiment with how you wear the device to find a more comfortable set-up. Using a humidifier with a CPAP machine has been shown to increase adherence.
Other than a CPAP machine, other devices are available to treat sleep apnea including an expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) machine, a bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) machine, and an adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) machine. All three you wear at night, like a CPAP machine, but they deliver air into your airways in different ways. If one doesn’t work for you, speak to your doctor about trying a different device.
Being overweight increases your odds of developing sleep apnea and losing weight is often recommended as a treatment.
Research shows weight loss through a cognitive-behavioral weight reduction program and a very-low-calorie diet can improve symptoms of the sleep disorder.
One paper stated: “weight reduction is a very effective treatment modality in overweight patients with OSA.”
The researchers concluded: “The cornerstone of treatment of overweight patients must be weight reduction by lifestyle changes (healthy eating habits, food behavior therapy if needed, and physical activity) and this should be the first-line treatment for all OSA patients. If necessary, bariatric surgery may represent an option in carefully selected patients who are severely obese.”
Bariatric surgery may also help sleep apnea. It’s been shown to reduce how many sleep apnea episodes happen each night by about 38 an hour, but it may not cure it completely, so other treatment options may still be needed to manage the sleep disorder.
If your sleep apnea isn’t caused by excess weight, maintaining a healthy weight is important to ensure the disorder doesn’t get any worse, which may be hard as sleep apnea itself can cause weight gain.
You can learn more about the connection between sleep apnea and weight gain here.
Oral appliances or mandibular advancement devices are less invasive than CPAP machines, so may be easier to stick to using each night, but they are less effective.
They’re specially fitted devices, similar to a mouth guard, that help to keep your airway open by bringing your lower jaw or tongue forward, creating more space.
While exercising can help you lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight, which can improve sleep apnea symptoms, exercise in itself may also help.
One study found that more hours of exercise each week was associated with a reduced incidence of mild and moderate sleep-disordered breathing, and this was true even when body mass index was taken into account. A decrease in exercise duration was linked to worsening sleep-disordered breathing.
This may be due to increased tone of upper airway muscles, a change in fat distribution away from having fat around the airways, or better control of breathing.
More research needs to be done to see if increasing your exercise can actually improve sleep apnea, or if those with more severe sleep apnea simply exercise less as they have lower energy levels during the day.
If your sleep apnea is mild, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes and natural remedies. These could include:
Tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, is the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. It’s the part that gets you high, but it may also be a potential treatment for sleep apnea.
One study found dronabinol, a synthetic version of THC, reduced how many sleep apnea episodes happened to participants each night when taking it for 21 days. However, the study only included 17 people, so larger studies need to be done to confirm these findings.
You can learn more about whether cannabis helps with sleep here.
Just like with THC, research into vitamin supplements for sleep apnea is still new.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in those with sleep apnea, but more research needs to be done to see if supplements could improve sleep apnea and the health conditions it can lead to, such as heart disease.
Vitamin C and E may also be a potential treatment option alongside CPAP. One study found when participants used a CPAP machine for two nights and then took vitamin C and E supplements for 45 days, they slept better, had fewer sleep apnea episodes, felt less sleepy during the day, and spent more time in deep sleep and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. But again, the study was small — only 20 people — so more research is needed.
Your sleep environment may make sleep apnea worse. Small particles in the air can build up in the upper airways and cause irritation and breathing problems. Research shows the more particles there are in your sleep environment, the more sleep apnea episodes you can have.
So, reducing the particle matter and air pollution in your bedroom may reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms.
The study also found an increase in bedroom temperature during sleep was linked to poorer sleep quality — although experts don’t agree on one definition for sleep quality yet.
Aim for 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit in your bedroom to try to make the sleep you do get with sleep apnea the best it can be. You can also set a reminder on the RISE app to check, and perfect, your sleep environment just before going to bed.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their check environment habit reminder.
A 2021 study found carbonic anhydrase inhibitor sulthiame — a drug usually used to treat epilepsy — reduced sleep apnea episodes by an average of 20 an hour. Larger studies are needed to confirm the results.
When other treatment options haven’t been successful, surgery may be considered.
Those suffering from sleep apnea can get surgery to:
This one is tricky as sleep apnea causes so much sleep disruption, but research shows when you’re sleep deprived, your sleep apnea can get worse.
A small study had participants sleep for only four hours a night for six nights. They not only snored significantly more, the amount of sleep apnea episodes they had went up.
So, focus on keeping your sleep debt as low as possible to stop sleep deprivation making the sleep disorder worse. Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body compared to your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need. More on how to lower this soon.
Heads-up: If you think you have sleep apnea, talk to a healthcare professional to get a diagnosis and find the best treatment option for you. Resist the urge to try sedatives or sleeping pills to reduce nighttime awakenings. These can come with dangerous side effects and don’t treat the root cause of the problem. You can learn more about sleep aids here.
More research needs to be done into many sleep apnea treatments, and even those which have proven successful for some, don’t work for others.
Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening sleep disorder, so seek medical advice if you think you’re suffering from it. But it’s also recommended you tackle the issue with multiple treatment methods, and lowering sleep debt and improving sleep hygiene can be a part of it.
Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body compared to your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need. On the RISE app, we measure sleep debt over the past 14 nights.
For example, if your sleep need is 8 hours 30 minutes, but you’ve only been getting 7 hours of sleep recently, you’ll have built up a lot of sleep debt.
It’s easy for those with sleep apnea to build up sleep debt as the condition wakes you up repeatedly throughout the night, sometimes without you even realizing it.
But, you can still work to keep your sleep debt low, which will improve everything from your energy levels to your mood to your productivity and overall wellness. And it can stop sleep deprivation making the condition worse.
You can lower sleep debt by:
The RISE app can work out your individual sleep need and calculate how much sleep debt you’re carrying. The app can then keep track of it as you pay it back. We recommend keeping sleep debt to less than five hours to feel your best.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.
As we mentioned, sleep hygiene is the daily habits you can do to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. When sleep apnea is disrupting your sleep, you don’t want things like a late-afternoon coffee or bright light keeping you up as well as your sleep disorder.
Sleep hygiene will make the sleep you do get the best it can be, and ensure nothing else gets in the way of you meeting your sleep need.
Here’s what to do:
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and tell you the ideal time to do each one depending on your own body clock.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder, but there are treatment options available that can improve your symptoms. These range from lifestyle changes — like losing weight and sleeping on your side — to more serious methods like using a CPAP machine or getting surgery.
You may find a doctor advises you to use multiple treatment options at once. The RISE app can help you on your sleep apnea journey.
Keep track of your sleep debt and keep it low to improve your energy levels each day, and maintain excellent sleep hygiene to make sure the sleep you do get is the best it can be and nothing else gets in the way of a good night’s sleep.
Some experts believe you can’t fully get rid of sleep apnea, while other sources say it’s treatable. Lifestyle changes may be able to help improve your symptoms if your sleep apnea is mild. If sleep apnea is more severe, you may need to wear a CPAP device while sleeping or have surgery.
Sleep apnea doesn’t tend to go away naturally. Lifestyle changes, like losing weight and quitting smoking, may be able to improve your symptoms. Those with severe sleep apnea may have to use a CPAP device while sleeping or have surgery.
A CPAP machine is considered the most effective treatment for sleep apnea. It’s a device you wear while sleeping that continuously pushes air into your airways. Other treatment options include oral devices that hold your jaw or tongue in place and lifestyle changes, like losing weight and quitting smoking. Hypoglossal nerve stimulation, or upper airway stimulation, is a promising alternative therapy for patients who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy, with adherence proving to be superior to CPAP. The most effective treatment will all depend on the cause of your sleep apnea and how severe it is, and your doctor may advise you to try multiple treatment methods.
Depending on your sleep apnea, you may be able to treat it naturally by losing weight, exercising, quitting smoking, reducing your alcohol consumption, and changing your sleeping position to sleep on your side, rather than on your back.
Sleep apnea is caused by the muscles at the back of the throat relaxing and your airways closing during sleep. The most common cause is being overweight. You’ll have an increased risk of sleep apnea if you have a large neck, drink alcohol or smoke, or have a health condition like heart disease or diabetes.
Sleep apnea symptoms include loud snoring, waking up gasping for breath, waking up often during the night, waking up with a dry mouth, waking up with a sore throat, morning headaches, excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and mood swings.
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