Does your spouse’s incessant snoring keep you awake at night? Does he ever seem to go quiet for a while, only to resume his ‘wood sawing’ a few moments later? Snoring can be a lot more than just an annoying sound that keeps you from your beauty sleep. It can be an indication of a far more ominous condition, lurking beneath the surface. Let’s take a look at that, shall we?
Snoring can just be snoring, caused by the vibration of the soft palate against the throat. During sleep, the muscles in the throat and palate relax and we tend to take longer, deeper breaths. In some people, the air rushing past, can create a vibration, which produces the snoring sound.
Snoring itself poses no threat to your health, unless that threat comes from your sleep-deprived spouse!
Even though this may seem amusing, it is a fact that many marriages and relationships have ended because of snoring and/or sleep apnea. Either the snoring keeps your partner awake, or they lie awake listening to you breathe, willing you to breathe when you stop, because it’s completely unnerving to hear someone simply stop breathing for thirty seconds or more.
Sometimes the diaphragm continues to rise and fall, but there are no breath sounds…
It’s not only on the domestic front that snoring can be embarrassing or humiliating. What about team building exercises, conferences or training courses, where colleagues are expected to share rooms? The snorer might be terribly self-conscious and too afraid to fall asleep, or the non-snorer is kept awake all night, while his or her colleague snores happily in the other bed.
When Snoring Shouldn’t Be Ignored
Snoring can be indicative of a far more sinister condition, known as Sleep Apnea. Most people would not know that they stop breathing for periods of time; this would have to be reported by another person, usually their spouse or partner.
The snoring (and intermittent periods of silence) is just one symptom of this condition and, in fact, not all sufferers snore. All Sleep Apnea sufferers will stop breathing completely in their sleep. Very often they will wake up gasping or choking, in desperate need for air. This can be both terrifying and exhausting for both the sufferer and his or her partner.
These episodes keep both of you from getting into the all-important REM sleep, which is vital for rest and recuperation.
The Types Of Sleep Apnea You Should Be Aware Of
There are three forms of this disorder, the most common one being Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), which is caused by physical obstructions to the airway. Sleep Apnea can affect people of all ages, both genders and in any physical shape, but you are at greater risk if you:
• Are male – sleep apnea is two to three times more prevalent in men
• Are obese – extra weight, particularly over the chest, neck and face, adds to the risk
• Have a large neck circumference, unrelated to obesity. This would usually be genetic.
• Are of advancing age – most often sleep apnea occurs in older people (over 40)
• Suffer from allergies, particularly those that lead to nasal congestion.
• Have enlarged tonsils (not necessarily infected)
• Drink alcohol, which encourages the relaxation of the muscles in the soft palate.
• Are a smoker. Smokers are three times more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
The other type of Sleep Apnea, which is less common, is Central Sleep Apnea. It is caused when the brain does not send proper signals to the group of muscles responsible for controlling the breathing. The people at greatest risk for this form of sleep apnea are:
• Have pre-existing cardiac disease
• Have already suffered a stroke
• Using narcotics for Hypertension or heart disease
A third variety of sleep apnea, which is extremely rare, is a combination of both the above. It is known as Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome.
Other symptoms of both forms of sleep apnea include:
• Constant, debilitating fatigue;
• Inability to concentrate;
• Headaches – particularly upon waking;
• Dry mouth;
• Irritability, humiliation, or even depression
• The feeling of having a “foggy head” throughout the day
The Dangers Of Sleep Apnea
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to far more serious health conditions, which include heart disease, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes, liver problems, metabolic disorder, and of course, the risk of having a car accident or suffering other injuries, as a result of extreme fatigue.
Another possible complication is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, brought about by the ongoing oxygen deprivation in the brain.
How does it lead to heart disease? Well, the repeated episodes of apnea, result in drops in the level of oxygen in the bloodstream, up to thirty times per hour. This means that in eight hours, you could stop breathing up to 240 times, putting a massive strain on the heart, as it tries to sustain blood and oxygen supply.
It is, therefore no surprise that sleep apnea could result in a heart attack, or damage to the heart muscles. The fluctuating blood oxygen levels can also eventually lead to arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), which could also be potentially fatal. One study that was carried out in 2013, concluded that 142 patients had died of sudden cardiac failure, as a result of sleep apnea.
What about a stroke? Continual oxygen deprivation can cause spikes in the blood pressure, which can – in turn – result in a stroke. The spikes in blood pressure are also linked to heart disease.
Sleep deprived partners are another consequence, which means there are now two of you who are operating on insufficient sleep. This is of particular concern when operating heavy machinery and motor vehicles, or if your job involves being responsible for the lives of others e.g. nursing.
Liver functions are more likely to be abnormal. Scarring of the liver is not uncommon. This can eventually lead to non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.
Sleep apnea increases the risk of insulin resistance, which can result in type 2 Diabetes. This is also linked to liver disease, such as fatty liver syndrome.
Metabolic disorders, such as high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure all tie in the above-mentioned conditions. Long term sleep deprivation will also slow down the metabolic rate and lead to weight gain. Weight gain leads to obesity, which aggravates sleep apnea – so it’s a vicious cycle.
What To Do If You Have Sleep Apnea?
So, you suspect you may be suffering from sleep apnea; what now? Go to your doctor or local sleep clinic. You will be hooked up to various types of apparatus that will monitor you as you sleep.
The apparatus will measure your respiration rate, heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen (or saturation) levels, the number of times you stop breathing – and for how long, and the number of times you snore.
This information will be fed into a computer and the final diagnosis will be made based on the findings. A blood oxygen saturation level of under 85% is considered extremely dangerous, especially for prolonged periods of time. The human body cannot function optimally without at least 90-95% saturation level.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, you can choose how to deal with it. You will probably be advised to avoid alcohol. If you’re overweight, you may be advised to try to shed some kilos, if you are a smoker, you will be advised to stop.
If you are taking over the counter drugs, you will be advised to wean yourself off them – it’s not uncommon for sleep apnea patients to abuse over the counter drugs, particularly headache tablets. You may be advised to avoid dairy products in the evening, as they can trigger allergies such as allergic rhinitis.
It is important to note that some sleep apnea sufferers are not overweight, do not smoke or drink, and do not suffer from allergies. In some cases, it’s a purely genetic condition.
Solutions For Snoring
The most common solution for moderate to severe sleep apnea is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airways Pressure) device. This is a small, unobtrusive device that serves to gently push air into the airways via a mask. The gentle air pressure holds the soft tissue clear and prevents the airways from closing, ensuring a peaceful night of decent quality sleep for both parties.
The device is almost completely silent and comes in a portable carry bag. It may take a bit of getting used to, but those who have used it, have felt the difference immediately. “For the first time in years, I woke up alert, clearheaded and refreshed”, said one user. CPAP users have a choice of a full-face mask, or a nasal mask.
The initial assessment will monitor if the patient is nose or mouth breather. The mask is selected based on that information. The devices are relatively expensive, but many marriages will vouch for the fact that it is “money well spent”.
There is nothing more important – or rewarding – than a good night’s sleep. Sleep is how the body recovers from the daily grind and sleep is how the brain “reboots” to start fresh the next day. If you suspect you, or someone you love, may be suffering from this condition, please do consult with your doctor.