Imagine this (and maybe you don’t have to, because you’ve lived it):
It’s a destination weekend with some of your best friends. It might be a bachelorette party or a birthday or a ski trip (this could also happen on a work trip, but since we’re imagining it, we can at least make it a good situation). Some of them you haven’t seen since high school. There’s a twinge of nostalgia knowing you’ll be rooming a few nights with you used to have sleepovers with.
As you’ve aged and grown apart and priorities changed, times like this have gotten fewer and further between. You appreciate every second, taking it all in and making sure everyone else does, too. The night is perfect, and it’s only the first night – so you go to bed, ready for more. The weekend is filled with endless possibilities, especially since you have hydration packets that will ward off hangovers.
Then, in the middle of the night, you wake up to a disturbing and unfamiliar sound. The sound is getting louder and more terrifying. Maybe you think there’s a wild animal in the room, or something else seriously wrong that you can’t figure out because it’s the middle of the night.
But then you realize that it isn’t any kind of animal or other bizarre threat, at least not to you: it’s your friend, doing the loudest snoring you’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s not really just loud snoring – it’s something much more sinister: it’s sleep apnea.
Your friend is probably familiar with their sleep apnea, and if they’re not, they should be. And sadly, its impact on their life will be much worse than it is on yours, because it’s a serious medical condition.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to stop during sleep. Obviously, that’s bad. This stoppage of sleep may last seconds or even minutes.
The disturbing noises you heard in that imaginary scenario happen when breathing is stopping or about to start again. It’s important to know just what are the symptoms of sleep apnea; it can affect everything from daily life to long-term health.
Many of us struggle with feelings of tiredness during the day, but it’s much worse for anyone living with sleep apnea. The disruption in breathing means a disruption in sleep, and someone with apnea experiences these breathing disruptions over five times a night. Exhaustion from apnea can increase the risk for anything from heart attack to car accidents related to their impaired rest – specifically, their lack of consistent REM sleep.
There can be a number of factors when it comes to determining what causes sleep apnea. It can affect anyone, so its associated risk factors aren’t any kind of a guarantee in diagnoses. The condition is often related to being overweight, especially when weight is carried in the neck.
This is why people with sleep apnea may be at especially higher risk for heart failure or other cardiac issues. It can affect someone with allergies and other nasal blockage, or someone well as physical conditions like enlarged tonsils or narrow air passages.
There are plenty of options for how to treat sleep apnea, but only with treatment and monitoring does sleep apnea go away. Even then, it “goes away” in the sense that it stops occurring: the underlying causes may still exist, but they are manageable. The first obvious step is trying to lose any excess weight. This will reduce cardiac stress even if it doesn’t affect apnea.
Maybe the most well-known and extreme form of treatment for sleep apnea is a pap therapy called a CPAP mask. It stands for continuous positive airway pressure, and it looks similar to a small respirator. The mask is often considered a cumbersome but necessary device.
There are also phone apps that can monitor your sleep patterns, including the volume of your snoring. It’s serious, but it’s possible that without taking precautions when possible, you die from sleep apnea. If breathing stops for long enough, lack of oxygen can also lead to seizures.
Sleep apnea’s root causes make it different from other conditions that disrupt sleep. Because of this, some over the counter medications meant to aid sleep can actually exacerbate issues related to apnea. Tylenol-PM, Advil-PM, and Benadryl may all induce muscle relaxation in the upper airway, which is actually harder on your body and can lower its oxygen level.
Because melatonin is naturally-occuring in your body, it isn’t a drug, and it doesn’t have muscle-relaxing side effects as a result of treating pain, illness, or discomfort. At least one study showed that apnea patients who took melatonin doses were more likely to get better rest than those who received a placebo. Melatonin production requires serotonin, and because it’s possible for sleep apnea to affect serotonin levels, apnea patients may experience a melatonin deficiency.
Apnea symptoms are extremely important to recognize and treat. At best, the resulting daytime sleepiness can affect your everyday life, and at worst you’ll stop breathing for a very long time while you’re asleep. The good news is that once it’s been recognized, the disorder is increasingly easier to treat and monitor, with everything from CPAP masks to phone apps.