Today (7 April 2022) is World Health Day and while this year’s theme is “our planet, our health”, we want to use the platform to talk about a sleep disorder that is significantly impacting on an increasing number of people’s health – obstructive sleep apnea.
If you are one of the millions of Australians who suffer from this potentially serious sleep disorder, you are far from alone. It is estimated that around one in ten Australians (around 2.5 million people) suffer from some degree of it. It is more common in men than in women, with around 25% of men and 13.3% of women suffering from it. Worryingly, around 80% of people remain undiagnosed. This is because the signs are not always evident and so it commonly goes unnoticed. Sleep apnea varies in severity. Based on a rating system called the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), those diagnosed are classified as mild through to severe.
What causes it?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a blockage of the flow of air into your lungs caused, most often, by throat muscles that relax intermittently. Those who suffer from it stop breathing repeatedly through the night for 10 seconds at a time or longer. This can occur between five to thirty times (or even more) within an hour all through the night, which impairs your ability to drop into the most restful phases of deep sleep. As it is not always apparent that you have had interrupted sleep, you may not even realise you are experiencing episodes of apnea.
Some of the known risk factors include chronic nasal congestion, smoking, a family history of obstructive sleep apnea, thyroid disorder, post menopause and carrying excessive weight. Ageing too is a risk factor as the older we get, the more likely we are to develop it. Those who sleep on their backs are also more prone to apnea events.
What are some of the signs?
The most common symptom of this sleep disorder is snoring, although only around 60% of people who snore will have obstructive sleep apnea. Other signs may include regularly waking up in the morning with a headache, feeling fatigued through the day regardless of how much sleep you got, difficulty remembering things, brain fog, a short fuse, awakening in the morning with a dry mouth or sore throat and high blood pressure.
Why can it be so serious?
Obstructive sleep apnea is considered a serious medical condition. This is mostly due to the health complications it can cause. Primarily, the sudden drops in blood oxygen levels raise blood pressure and add strain to the cardiovascular system which can increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, people who suffer from sleep apnea are six times more likely to have heart disease or experience a stroke event.
The unrelenting fatigue that can come along with this sleep disorder can put sufferers at a much higher risk of work- or vehicle-related accidents as well. Australians with sleep apnea are four times more likely to have a car accident due to a loss of concentration. It can also impact on your body’s response to insulin and glucose putting you in danger of developing or worsening type 2 diabetes.
What can you do to manage it?
If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, it would be wise to book a consultation with your GP to get an assessment so that you can begin to manage it. You may be advised to participate in a sleep study, or your doctor may give you a monitor to take home and wear while you sleep to measure your heart rate and oxygen levels.
While there are surgical options which can help in the most severe cases, most of the time symptoms are managed with changes to your lifestyle and sleep habits. You may be advised to shed any excess weight, avoid alcohol and sedatives that may contribute to your airways relaxing and to sleep on your side instead of your back. If sleeping on your side is not comfortable for you, using an adjustable bed base that can elevate your head and back can be a great way around it.
This slight head elevation improves air flow and reduces obstructions from the nasal passage. You will also benefit immensely from addressing the cause of any chronic nasal congestion so you can breathe freely and easily through your nose while you sleep.
Troublingly, sleep apnea is on the rise. While this is in part because more research is raising awareness, it is also because lifestyle choices are driving health challenges that are increasing the pressure placed on airways. The quality of your sleep is vital for great health. Don’t be one of the 80% who suffers unknowingly with this potentially serious sleep disorder. Go and get a check-up with your GP today and take control of your health.