Sleep Apnea FAQ

What exactly is an apnea and why is it important?

An apnea is a short pause in normal breathing when someone is asleep, often caused when lying on the back during sleep due to the tongue or other soft mouth tissue falling back and blocking the throat, as well as muscle relaxation that can narrow the airway. When this happens, the brain is alerted to an oxygen emergency: as Drs. Lynn and Edmund Lipskis note in Breathe, Sleep, Live, Smile, someone can go without food for 40 days and eight without water, but only a few minutes with no air. A signal is sent to the body to wake up and breathe deeply, but few people become fully conscious, just enough to take normal breaths before going back to a light sleep before the rhythm is disturbed again. This can happen up to 100 times a night without the individual even being aware of what has been happening, although she or he knows they are always tired.


What are the most common symptoms aside from feeling sleepy during the day?

The first signs that something unusual has happened during the night are usually a sore throat and the feeling that there is “cotton in the mouth,” both due to unconscious breathing through the mouth in an effort to get more oxygen. Others may be choking because of the airway blockage and morning migraines (headaches can also occur the rest of the day). But the lack of restorative sleep usually results in anxiety, irritability, and depression not attributable to life circumstances. And to put the risk of driving to work without a good night’s sleep: sleep deprivation due to all factors is responsible for 100,000 auto accidents a year and an average of 1,550 deaths.


What are the primary other risks from sleep apnea?

There is significant increased risk for all varieties of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and heart failure, but also diabetes, erectile dysfunction, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Less well-known is the impact of apneas on the brain. The Drs. Lipskis explain that there are five levels of consciousness: Stage 0 is fully awake; Stage 1 is light sleep; Stage 2 is fully asleep; Stage 3 is deep recuperative sleep when the body does its repairs; and REM (which standards for the rapid eye movement that occurs during this stage and all the voluntary muscles in the body relax). REM is vital for cognitive development because this is “when the brain forms new neural pathways, detoxifies, and recharges.” If REM is frequently disrupted for adults, this will “diminish what is known as the executive function–essentially memory, impulse control, decision-making, and activity levels.”

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