The Secrets of Sleep, Part 2: When Snoring is Something More Serious

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According to the National Sleep Foundation, around 90 million adult Americans snore. Of those, approximately 18 million suffer from the serious sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea. Knowing the difference between the two could save your life.

Two of our sleep experts, neurologists Holly Skinner, DO, and Karen Baker, MD, co-directors at the Center for Sleep Disorders at AdventHealth, provide more insight on when snoring can affect your whole health.

"Snoring is a vibratory sound resulting from partially obstructed air movement in the upper airway during inhalation while sleeping," explains Dr. Skinner. She adds that certain lifestyle factors, like elevated body weight and alcohol consumption, can make the vibrations louder.

Dr. Baker adds, "Snoring can occur from a combination of factors - muscles becoming relaxed during sleep, a structurally narrow airway, increase in neck size and or fatty tissue. As you age your neck muscles relax and airway will close off more easily."

In sleep apnea, the airway becomes fully or partially obstructed, causing your body to have shallow respiratory or event to stop breathing for short periods. Dr. Skinner comments, "During times when air is not moving in and out of the lungs, oxygen levels can fall in the blood. Over time, drops in oxygen can lead to serious, even deadly consequences."

Dr. Baker says that in addition, healthy sleep cycles are disrupted: "Your brain triggers you to wake up so you can breathe better resulting in interrupted sleep."

When left untreated, sleep apnea can cause:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Sleep apnea can afflict both genders and any age group, but it's more common in men. There are a few other factors that raise a person's risk of having sleep apnea. "Individuals with elevated body mass index (BMI), large necks, narrow airways, large tonsils are at increased risk. Additionally, certain substances such as alcohol, opiate pain medications and other sedatives can increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea," advises Dr. Skinner.

So, how do you know if your snoring is sleep apnea? There are a few red flags to look for, but the only way to truly diagnose sleep apnea is by undergoing a sleep study.

If you're a known snorer, ask your spouse to observe your sleep and notice if you seem to stop breathing, choke or gasp for air during the night.

Also, pay attention to how sleepy you feel during the day. Do you often wake up feeling so tired that you can hardly get yourself out of bed? It happens to all of us from time to time, but if it becomes a daily struggle, signs could point to sleep apnea.

Other warning signs include morning headaches, inability to concentrate, memory problems, irritability and other mood changes, and dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up.

Once sleep apnea is diagnosed, there are several treatment options to consider. The most common is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

"Use of CPAP usually eliminate snoring and breathing pauses," says Dr. Skinner. Dr. Baker also comments, "In the majority of patients' CPAP is effective in treating sleep apnea and improves daytime sleepiness, level of alertness and quality of life."

Lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, exercising regularly and limiting alcohol are often recommended to help minimize sleep apnea symptoms. Rarely, more serious cases may be treated with surgery.

With these treatments, the dangers of sleep apnea can be all but eliminated. "Treatment can reduce the long-term consequences of untreated sleep apnea," says Dr. Skinner. "Additionally, sleep is more restorative and patients often experience other secondary affects including improved mood, school or work performance, and increased energy levels."

If you snore, don't ignore your warning signs. Your health may depend on it.

Dr. Baker concludes, "Sleep plays an important role in physical health - poor sleep is related to risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke."

The AdventHealth Center for Sleep Disorders offers sleep studies to screen for sleep apnea at five locations. If you'd like to schedule an evaluation, call us today at Call404-303-1558 or visit the AdventHealth Neuroscience Institute.

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