Not sleeping well? Sleep apnea could be the culprit

If you snore loudly and wake up feeling tired even when you get a full night’s sleep, sleep apnea could be to blame.

The disorder is more common — and dangerous — than you might think, says Jeffrey Plemons, a registered polysomnographic technologist (sleep technician) and manager of the HonorHealth Sleep Health Center. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 18 million people are affected by sleep apnea. You’re often unaware that it’s the reason you’re always tired.

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing repeatedly starts and stops during sleep. The stop in the flow of air lasts 10 seconds or more, and is followed by a shift in brainwaves that takes you from a deep sleep to lighter sleep. It sometimes causes you to wake up throughout the night, though you have no recollection since you’re awake for such short periods of time.

Sleep apnea is about more than just being tired. It reduces oxygen intake and increases carbon dioxide, which impairs brain function. It’s also linked to an array of health conditions, including:

  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Diabetes: Sleep apnea can accelerate the onset of diabetes, if you’re at risk for the disease

Causes and symptoms

Sleep apnea is most common among those 40 and older. Plemons says body type, family history and genetics have a lot to do with who gets sleep apnea. Obesity is a common cause because extra fatty tissue can press against the airway and restrict airflow while you sleep. He says sleep apnea can also be caused by physical attributes such as large tonsils or adenoids, a long or large tongue, deviated septum, narrow palate/roof of the mouth or even a short neck.

Symptoms that may indicate you have sleep apnea include:

  • Memory loss, particularly short-term memory loss
  • Increased irritability
  • Nocturia (nighttime urination)
  • Night sweats
  • Chronic headaches
  • Dry mouth upon waking
  • Slower reflexes
  • Poor concentration
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight gain

Diagnosing sleep apnea

A sleep study is the only way to definitively diagnose sleep apnea, Plemons says. A sleep study may include an overnight stay at a sleep center where professionals can observe your sleep and monitor your brainwaves. Studies may also be done at home using a device to measure your airflow, oxygen levels, and the rise and fall of your chest throughout the night. Plemons estimates that 85% of patients referred to the HonorHealth Sleep Health Center are diagnosed with sleep apnea, underscoring the prevalence of the condition.

The first line of defense and most common option for treating sleep apnea is a CPAP machine, or continuous positive airway pressure machine, which supplies constant air pressure via a special mask that’s worn during sleep. Another option is a mouthpiece called a mandibular device. It’s worn during sleep and can help open the airway by moving the lower jaw forward to clear any obstructions. For those whose sleep apnea is linked to a deviated septum, surgery may be the only effective treatment.

Sleep studies are generally covered by insurance, and require a referral from a physician or dentist. Talk to your HonorHealth doctor to see if a sleep study may be helpful in diagnosing your sleep issues or other health concerns.

Gadgets may be getting in the way of a good night’s sleep

Do you watch TV, read emails, scan social media sites or use tablet to read in bed? According to sleep experts, the screen glow from televisions and electronic devices may affect the duration and quality of your sleep.

Televisions, smartphones and other hand-held electronic devices affect sleep on both hormonal and behavioral levels, says Plemons.

“We have adults who come in for sleep studies and absolutely refuse to turn off their cell phones,” he says. “They’ll maintain a grip on their phone all night and wake up instantly if it rings once. Sometimes, it seems more like a tech problem than a sleep problem.”

Impact on hormones

A sleep study evaluates sleep patterns on a physiological level, but Plemons says the effects of technological devices are hormonal. The blue light from electronics triggers the brain to stop producing melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. Not only does reducing melatonin delay sleep, it makes it harder to stay asleep, he says.

Electronic devices also impact sleep quality. The content you read and/or respond to before bed keeps the brain thinking it needs to stay alert. Also, the sounds made by gadgets are proven to interrupt sleep, sometimes without you even realizing it.

Plemons recommends turning off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed and keeping gadgets like cell phones, tablets and laptops out of the bedroom. Doing so minimizes the temptation to use the devices and ensures the blue light they emit won’t keep you from getting your zzzz’s.

Are you getting enough sleep?

Sleep recommendations vary by age. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep to keep your brain and body functioning at their best.

  • 3 years and younger: 16 hours in a 24-hour period
  • 3 - 14 years: 10 hours
  • Past puberty to 60 years: 7 - 8 hours
  • 60 years and up: 6 hours

Questions? Call the HonorHealth Sleep Health Center at 480-882-7740.