You Wanted to Know: Sleep Apnea

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Not only is snoring a bother, it is also potentially dangerous. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a disruptive breathing condition that can raise the risk of a slew of health problems, including severe fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Jody reached out to us on Twitter to ask about the signs and causes of this sleep-ruining disease.


The most common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Waking up short of breath
  • Loud snoring or episodes of choking, gasping or breathing cessation while sleeping
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Frequent morning headaches

It’s time to see a doctor if your snoring is so loud that is disrupts your or your partner’s sleep, if someone notices that you seem to periodically choke or stop breathing while you are sleeping, if you wake up during the night feeling short of breath, or if you find yourself falling asleep at work or behind the wheel. If you aren’t sure if you have these symptoms, ask a friend or partner if they have noticed you demonstrating these sleep behaviors.

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat or your tongue slacken and block your airway while you are asleep, making it hard for you to breathe. As the oxygen level in your blood drops, your brain sends signals to briefly awaken you so that you breathe more actively. This pattern can repeat over and over throughout the night (possibly even 30 times or more an hour), preventing you from getting the restorative sleep you need. Most people don’t fully wake up or remember waking up at all and some people may even think they are sleeping well.

Central sleep apnea is much less common than obstructive sleep apnea, though many of the symptoms are the same. This type of sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to send signals to keep you breathing adequately during sleep. Central sleep apnea may be caused by heart failure or stroke.

Your risk of obstructive sleep apnea is increased if you are overweight or obese, if you have a large neck circumference or a naturally narrow airway, if you are male, if you are over 60, if you frequently drink alcohol or use sedatives or if you have problems with nasal congestion. Smokers are three times more likely to develop sleep apnea, though the risk drops if you quit.

Since many of these risk factors have genetic or hereditary components, having family members with the condition appears to raise your risk. Researchers have not yet pinpointed exactly how much genetic factors raise risk, but one small study found that people with one affected family member were 1.33-1.42 times as likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. Another study suggests that about a quarter of sleep apnea cases have a genetic basis.

Fortunately, with treatment, many sleep apnea sufferers not only feel better, but also live longer. If you are concerned that you or a loved one could have this condition, ask your doctor if you should be tested. To get more information about sleep disorders and how to improve your rest, check out the advice of expert Michael Breus, The Sleep Doctor™ on our blog.