Waking up tired? Why sleep apnea might be to blame

Almost one billion people experience sleep apnea – a common respiratory disorder – but it regularly goes undiagnosed.

Can you imagine if you stopped breathing at least 30 times an hour, during what’s supposed to be a restful night’s sleep?

That’s the reality for people suffering severe sleep apnea, says sleep neurophysiologist Dr Angela D’Rozario, who says almost one billion people globally suffer from the disorder, to varying degrees.

“It affects just under a quarter of middle-aged women and almost half of middle-aged men,” Dr D’Rozario says.

What is sleep apnea?

Dr D’Rozario says sleep apnea is a sleep breathing disorder that results in sufferers getting reduced air flow.

“Basically when you go to sleep, what happens is that your airway closes.

“It either completely closes and that’s an apnea where you have a pause in breathing, or it partially closes and that’s called a hypopnea,” she explains.

Because you’re not breathing, your oxygen levels dip, sending a message to your brain to wake up so that you can breathe again.

“And then you go back to sleep again, the airway closes again and so it keeps happening.”

What causes sleep apnea?

While obesity or being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for sleep apnea, you can be “stick thin” as well, says Dr D’Rozario.

Other factors that may play a role include anatomical characteristics, use of drugs and or alcohol, family history, smoking, sleeping position and hormonal abnormalities.

“It might be more about your facial structure, your airway structure, if you’ve got big tonsils and a big uvula, a deviated septum, anything that may obstruct breathing,” Dr D’Rozario says.

Is sleep apnea dangerous?

Dr D’Rozario says people with the most common type, obstructive sleep apnea, have two to three times the risk of having a motor vehicle accident.

Mishaps in the workplace are also more likely.

“That comes back to that dampened alertness and reaction times,” Dr D’Rozario says.

Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health director, Professor Danny Eckert, explains on a day-to-day level, every organ and cell can be adversely affected by poor slumber if sleep apnea goes untreated.

“Your brain function can be impaired, so an inability to think clearly, you’re more likely to make rash decisions, more likely to be depressed,” Prof Eckert says.

“If you look at other organs, you’re more likely to have heart problems and metabolic problems, so your metabolic system, and your glucose control and all these things are more likely to be impaired.”

What are the warning signs of sleep apnea?

For some, sleep apnea will result in a distinct lack of energy, brain fog, memory problems, or daytime sleepiness.

Prof Eckert says most people with the disorder don’t know they have it, but may be prompted to seek help because of a near-accident, or because they’re waking up unrefreshed with headaches.

Often a trip to the doctor will be instigated by a partner who’s either disturbed by loud snoring, or worried about their loved one gasping for air during the night.

How to treat sleep apnea

The “gold standard” treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, says Dr D’Rozario.

It blows air down your airway like a reverse vacuum cleaner, if you like, and keeps your airway open.

“One problem with CPAP treatment is although it’s very effective, not everybody can tolerate it.

“Only about half of people that are prescribed it can actually stick with it.”

Trialling different masks, which range from full face masks, to nasal masks or a more lightweight “nasal pillow”, can help.

Other potential treatments for sleep apnea include dental devices that pull the jaw forward, upper airway surgery, or positional therapy – which helps prevent overweight people from lying on their backs.

Lifestyle changes such as weight loss, quitting alcohol and smoking, and eating better, can also be effective.

If you’re concerned about sleep apnea, consult your GP.

The Woolcock Institute is currently conducting a major sleep disorder study and is looking for volunteers. Click here to find out more. 

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Written by Larissa Ham.