Sleep apnea is a condition that causes breathing to be greatly reduced and even temporarily stopped while sleeping. This halting of breath – “apnea” is derived from the Greek word for “no breath” – compels the body to wake briefly to restore breathing. It is not exactly widespread, but it is not rare, either; one estimate suggests that one in 15 Americans has some form of sleep apnea.
There are essentially three types of sleep apnea. The most common is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which, as its name implies, is sleep apnea caused by obstruction; specifically, an obstruction or blocking of the airway.
It can occur in anyone, even children, but it is more likely to be found in:
- overweight and obese persons
- older persons
- persons younger than 50 years old, in men, boys, and those designated as male at birth
- people of Asian, Hispanic, or African-American descent
Central Sleep Apnea is another type of sleep apnea that is caused by a miscommunication between the brain and the muscles responsible for breathing. It appears in about 1 percent of the American population. Central Sleep Apnea typically happens because of an injury, a stroke, or the consistent use of opioids for pain management.
Finally, Complex Sleep Apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea essentially disturbs sleep because it forces the body to rouse itself to ensure that breathing resumes. This waking often does not last long (usually a matter of seconds) and is typically so brief that the sleeper is not awakened to full consciousness. For this reason, it can often go unnoticed.
Even if the mind doesn’t notice it, the body is affected by the frequent disruptions to sleep; in severe cases, they can happen more than thirty times in an hour. Quality and quantity of sleep suffer because of these frequent disruptions, which is why the most common symptom of sleep apnea is chronic fatigue.
The person afflicted by sleep apnea will consistently feel unrested. As is commonly known, sleep occurs in stages. Scientists differ as to whether there are four or five of these, but they agree that the most physically restorative stage is the “deep sleep” entered just before Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Deep sleep is characterized by slow, long brainwaves (Delta waves), relaxed muscles, and greatly slowed breathing and heart rate.
Sleep apnea interrupts this stage by shaking the body out of this restful sleep. The body, therefore, has less of the replenishment it needs, making the sufferer feel physically depleted.
People with sleep apnea tend to feel drowsy. The main reason for this involves a brain chemical called adenosine. Adenosine essentially causes the sleepy sensation that preludes sleep. During deep sleep, adenosine is slowly reduced, so the body is less resistant to being roused. Sleep apnea also produces a condition called hypoxia, which is a reduced amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. This also impedes the reduction of adenosine.
Consequently, there is more adenosine in a sleep apnea sufferer than is typical. This not only makes it harder to wake up, but since adenosine naturally increases during waking hours, it can cause the body to desire sleep and lead to drowsiness.
Better rest through treatment
While symptoms of sleep apnea are noticeable to others, those who suffer from the disorder may have no idea. And it can be easy to deny or dismiss. Snoring always accompanies sleep apnea, but people without sleep apnea can also snore. And while drowsiness is a symptom of sleep apnea, it can also be explained in other ways.
If a person suspects s/he might have sleep apnea – or if a partner has complained about loud snoring – a visit to a doctor may be in order. The doctor, in turn, might recommend a sleep study. If sleep apnea is confirmed, a doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, surgery, an oral appliance, and/or the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine.
Getting better sleep
People who find themselves tired and sleepy even after what they consider a good night’s sleep might consider having a physician check for sleep apnea. Insufficient sleep is an increasing concern among American adults, but it need not be a permanent condition. Changes in lifestyle and treatment for sleep apnea, if diagnosed, will almost certainly result in better and more restorative sleep.