Sleep apnea can be a difficult condition to deal with. And to make matters worse, you may not even know you have it! It happens only while you are sleeping but the problems it causes will extend into your life even while you are awake. So it’s important to make sure you are taking the right steps to manage and treat your sleep apnea.
In this guide, you’ll get all the information you need to know about sleep apnea. We will also answer important questions like “Can sleep apnea be cured?” You’ll learn the sleep apnea definition, the main signs of sleep apnea, sleep apnea side effects, treatment for sleep apnea and more. So keep reading to become better educated about this increasingly common health condition.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which a person stops breathing while asleep. Breathing can stop multiple times throughout the night (as much as a hundred times in a single night!). These repeated episodes of not breathing add up and end up depleting your body of oxygen.
It’s like slowly suffocating without even knowing it! And as many as 18 million Americans deal with sleep apnea each year. Certain people are more at risk than others. And we’ll talk about risk factors in the next section on causes of sleep apnea.
Types Of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is broken into 2 main different types:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
This is the more common type. It is caused by some kind of blockage in your airway that prevents air from getting through.
Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
Rather than actual blockage, CSA is sleep apnea caused by your brain simply failing to signal to your muscles to perform the breathing function. Breathing is a semi-automatic process. That means that it generally occurs without you’re having to think about it (like blinking) but you are able to consciously control it.
At night, your brain has to take complete control. And if your respiratory control center is unstable, it might fail to fully automate the process. However, this is very uncommon. It is almost always due to actual blockage in the airways.
While it is pretty safe to assume that your sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea rather than central sleep apnea, the only way to truly know is to get an official diagnosis from a doctor. They will likely take a look at your various risk factors, do a monitored sleep study, and potentially even brain scans (if they think it might be CSA).
Is Sleep Apnea A Disability?
Severe sleep apnea can, indeed, be extremely debilitating. The lack of oxygen can end up causing real damage overtime. And, in many cases, sleep apnea is a sign of other conditions which are severely damaging to your healthy. A single episode of not breathing can last anywhere from 10 seconds to a full minute!
To understand exactly how problematic that is, exhale all of the air in your lungs right now. Now, close your mouth and pinch your nose shut and don’t inhale again for 60 seconds. Imagine that happening hundreds of time through the night!
You’ll see just how debilitating this can be when we talk more about the symptoms and signs of sleep apnea below.
How To Tell If You Have Sleep Apnea
The best way to figure out if you have sleep apnea is to go to your doctor and talk with them about the sleep apnea symptoms that you have recognized in your own life. To prepare you for that talk with your doctor, we’re now going to take a moment to go over some of the most common sleep apnea signs that you can look for.
Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea
- Grogginess and fatigue
- High blood pressure
- High stress levels and decreased ability to deal with stress
- Regular headaches
- Poor cognitive function, especially a lack of concentration
- Mild symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Heart problems
If allowed to continue, sleep apnea will put you at higher risk for stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. So if you noticed these symptoms in your own life, you should talk to your doctor for an official sleep apnea diagnosis and then discuss your options and the best way for you to reduce and treat it.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
In this section we’ll take a closer look at the risk factors and causes of sleep apnea:
Risk Factors & Causes Of Sleep Apnea
Because the most common type of sleep apnea is OSA (the one caused by blockage), we are going to focus on causes and risk factors for that. Causes of the neural malfunctioning leading to the second type (CSA) are less understood but most likely due to some kind of brain damage.
That said, those who are at the highest risk of having sleep apnea include:
- People who are overweight
- People over the age of 40
- People with a neck size larger than 16 inches.
- People with enlarged tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
- People with a family history of sleep apnea
- People with acid reflux or GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux)
- People with nasal obstructions caused by a deviated septum, sinus problems, or allergies.
The more of these risk factors that you can check off about yourself, the more likely you are to have sleep apnea (even if you’ve never even thought you might have it before).
There are many different potential causes of sleep apnea which are all related to the risk factors listed above. The most common causes include:
- Obesity and being overweight
- Swollen tonsils (more common among children than adults)
- Dental conditions like an overbite
There are other potential causes like tumors and birth defects but these are far less likely than the above three.
How To Prevent Sleep Apnea
The best cure for sleep apnea is to prevent it from happening at all. And fortunately, you do have the power to do that through certain healthy choices that can prevent this difficult condition from happening to you.
Here are the most important things you can do stop or prevent sleep apnea:
Excess weight can place a lot of extra pressure on your lungs and airways. That pressure may be too much for the muscles of your respiratory system to handle. So losing weight and getting back down to a healthy size can relieve a lot of pressure on your airways so that you are less likely to suffer from sleep apnea during the night.
Don’t try any extreme fasting or excessively low calorie diets to lose the weight. Do it through healthy lifestyle changes like eating healthier foods, cutting out junk and processed foods, and exercising more regularly.
All of these will not only help you lose weight but help you prevent sleep apnea on their own, too. So it’s definitely worth the effort!
Get More Exercise
Even if you are not overweight, exercise can still help prevent sleep apnea. That’s because exercise will do a few things in your body:
- Strengthen muscles so that they are less likely to collapse and block airways during the night.
- Strengthen your respiratory system and open up your airways.
- Burning any hidden “skinny fat”. This term refers to the fat deposits that build up between your organs. Even if your abdomen is completely flat and you look thin, you may just be storing your fat between organs. This is likely the case if you don’t exercise regularly. This hidden fat lodges between organs and can cause a lot of problems, including pinching airways closed.
Try to get at least 30 minutes of good physical activity (where your heart rate is elevated the entire time) at least 4 to 5 days a week. More is better but this is a good base target to start seeing a difference.
Avoid Muscle Relaxers, Tranquilizers, And Excess Alcohol
Sleeping pills, anesthesia, and any other substance that relaxes your muscles will also relax the muscles in your throat which could lead to them collapsing in the middle of the night and obstructing your breathing while you sleep.
You don’t have to cut these out of your life altogether forever but they should definitely not form part of your daily routine.
If there weren’t already enough reasons to quit smoking, here is another. Smoking fills up your airways with thick tar buildup which can obstruct your breathing, causing sleep apnea. Quitting smoking is a lot easier said than done. We know that.
But it is worth every grueling second of the painful process. And there are a lot of resources out there now to help you get through it. We recommend finding a support group (or at least an online community) that can help you through the tougher moments.
Drink More Water
Dehydration can cause your mucus to become thicker, your vessels and soft tissue to become drier and less able to expand fully, and a number of other problems that can make breathing difficult and cause sleep apnea during the night.
As much as 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated so if you’re thinking “sure, but I already drink enough water”, there is a pretty good chance you are wrong about that. Try drinking a gallon (3.5 liters) a day for 30 days and see if your symptoms improve.
Avoid Mucus Producing Foods
Excess mucus buildup can become a blockage in your airway and be the reason for any chronic congestion you may be feeling. And there are certain foods that cause your body to produce a lot of mucus.
So you can prevent sleep apnea by avoiding the following foods.
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.)
- Corn and corn byproducts (including foods with corn syrup, corn starch, or corn anything).
- Sugary foods
- Soy and soy products
- Deep fried foods
- Sunflower oil
- Jams and jellies
- Red meat
At the very least, avoid eating these within 5 hours of going to sleep. Many of them are unhealthy for a lot of other reasons and should be avoided altogether. But the ones that are healthy in moderation should only be eaten during breakfast and lunch.
In addition, there are also foods that decrease the amount of mucus in your body. So you can start increasing the amount of the following foods in your diet:
- Leafy greens
- Broccoli and cauliflower
- Citrus fruits
- Hot peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Bamboo shoots
It’s especially benefit to eat a dinner that contains a lot of these foods.
How To Manage Your Symptoms With Sleep Apnea Treatments
If you are suffering from sleep apnea, there are many sleep apnea aids that have been developed to help you get through the night without a problem. In this section, we’ll look through the various kinds of sleep apnea equipment that can help you manage your condition:
Sleep Apnea Mask
These sleep apnea devices help prevent your breathing passages from becoming blocked so that your breathing remains steady and consistent throughout the night. This usually comes with a CPAP machine which you will learn more about below.
Sleep Apnea Mouth Guard
A sleep apnea mouthpiece is an oral appliance for sleep apnea that you can wear through the night just as you would wear the mask but these are much less intrusive than the mask and CPAP machine. You can either get:
- Mandibular advancement device (MAD). This snaps over your dental arches and comes with metal hinges that pull your lower jaw forward. This will prevent your soft pallet from collapsing.
- Tongue retaining device. This is less common than the MAD mouthpiece but also an option. It basically holds your tongue in place to prevent it from falling back and blocking your airway.
Either one of these can be helpful but some might not enjoy the idea of wearing it every single night.
Sleep Apnea Pillow
A sleep apnea pillow is a specially designed pillow to help maintain a better sleeping posture through the night that takes the weight off of your lungs and respiratory system so that you are less likely to experience a blockage that stops your breathing.
Chin Strap For Sleep Apnea
Adjustable chin straps have been shown to help with sleep apnea and are a little less intrusive than mouth pieces. The strap works by holding your lower jaw forward to prevent your soft pallet from collapsing and blocking your airway.
How To Cure Sleep Apnea
The sleep apnea supplies above are great for helping you manage a life with sleep apnea but they won’t really do anything to actually cure it. Unfortunately there is no “cure” for sleep apnea in the true sense of the word.
Preventing it through the lifestyle changes we talked about earlier is your absolute best option. But depending on the severity, you may be able to reduce it by using natural cures for sleep apnea. And in more extreme cases, your doctor may recommend surgery. In the following sections, we’ll go over your different options:
Home Remedies For Sleep Apnea
At home, you can try a few changes to your sleeping habits:
- Sleep on your side or stomach instead of your back. Your lungs are closer to your back than your chest. So when you lie on your back, your lungs are crushed between the bed and the weight of your body on top of them. If you lay on your side or stomach, they will have more room to expand naturally.
- Elevate your head. This is basically what a sleep apnea pillow will do. But you can also actually elevate the head of your bed so that your whole body is on a downward slant. This helps remove some of the weight resting on top of your lungs by shifting it downward.
- Use a CPAP machine. This is a “continuous positive airway pressure” machine which helps prevent sleep apnea by literally force pushing air through your airway. This doesn’t cure it in any way but it is highly effective at preventing sleep apnea throughout the night.
- Treat your acid reflux. If you suffer from acid reflux, this can interfere with your breathing. Treating that may be enough to stop your sleep apnea or at least reduce it.
- Treat coughs or congestion. These things can also cause sleep apnea episodes so treating them helps you breathe through the night. However, don’t become dependent on nasal decongestants. If you find you are often “stuffed up”, try a natural essential oil like the ones below. These are safer for long term use than nasal sprays (which rely on steroids to be effective).
- Get a humidifier. Dry air can dry out your sinuses and cause mucus to become thicker. This prevents things from flowing easily and can cause blockage. Using a humidifier in your room will help naturally rehydrate your airways. It’s even more effective when you add an essential oil like one of the ones below to your humidifier!
There are also some essential oils for sleep apnea that can be extremely soothing and helpful. If you are interested in trying out essential oils, try a blend of these:
- Lavender. This is well known for its ability to aid in sleep and anxiety.
- Lemon. In one study, lemon (in an equal parts mixture with thyme, lavender, and peppermint) was able to reduce snoring up to 82%. This is promising for sufferers of sleep apnea as well.
- Marjoram. This helps you fall asleep while also relaxing your muscles and releasing tension in your body.
- Peppermint. This is an excellent decongestant that will clear out your respiratory system of any blockage that might be causing your sleep apnea.
- Eucalyptus. This is another good one for clearing out blockage but it also reduces inflammation which helps open up breathing passages even further. It’s great in combination with mint for a super powerful respiratory cleansing and opening.
Sleep Apnea Surgery
Surgery for sleep apnea is only used in severe cases when other options have not worked. However, if you have tried every remedy, both natural and medical and still found no relief, surgery can be a life saver.
If you are nearing the point where you think you might need surgery, here is what you can expect:
- If you still have your tonsils, they may try to remove those first to see if it helps.
- As an adult, you are most likely going to under what’s called “Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty.” Don’t worry about pronouncing it. You can just call it UPPP.
- You should ask your doctor about doing a monitored sleep study before any surgery so that they can better understand your sleep apnea.
- Depending on how the UPPP surgery is performed, it has a success rate between 40-80%. And you may still have mild, occasional sleep apnea even after the surgery.
- If you don’t make healthy changes to your lifestyle, your sleep apnea could again progress to severe levels even after surgery.
- There are many different types of surgery for sleep apnea and no one surgeon is an expert at all of them. Before undergoing surgery, talk to your doctor and find out where their expertise lies. Don’t demand they perform a surgery they aren’t familiar with.
- Get a second opinion—especially if your doctor seems too nonchalant or casual about surgery.
Basically, surgery should be used as a very last resort. And you need to remember that surgery is not a cure. If you don’t make changes to your lifestyle to prevent sleep apnea, it will come back again. And undergoing surgery every time your sleep apnea returns is not a practical option.
Sleep apnea can make your life difficult in so many ways. We hope that this guide has inspired to take charge of your health by helping you become better informed about what sleep apnea as well as what kind of sleep apnea solutions are available to you. If you think you might be suffering from sleep apnea, call your doctor right now!