Sleep Apnea

Many people treat snoring as a joke or something they feel embarrassed about. But loud snoring—especially when accompanied by daytime fatigue—may be a sign of sleep apnea, a common disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts as you sleep. Sleep apnea can leave you feeling exhausted during the day, affect your mood and your relationship with your bed partner, and even be dangerous to your health. But there are things you can do to sleep better at night and feel sharper and more energetic during the day. The first step is to overcome any embarrassment you feel about your snoring and learn to recognize the symptoms of sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder where your breathing is briefly interrupted when you’re asleep. If you have sleep apnea, you’re probably not aware of these short breathing pauses that occur hundreds of times a night, jolting you out of your natural sleep rhythm. All you know is that you don’t feel as energetic, mentally sharp, or productive during the day as you should do.

The most common type of sleep apnea—obstructive sleep apnea—occurs when the airway is blocked, causing pauses in breathing and loud snoring. Since sleep apnea only occurs while you’re sleeping, you may only discover you have a problem when a bed partner or roommate complains about your snoring. Though you may feel self-conscious about it or tempted to just make light of your snoring, it’s something you shouldn’t ignore. Sleep apnea can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health.

The chronic sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can result in daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration, and an increased risk of accidents. Sleep apnea can cause moodiness, irritability, and even lead to depression, as well as serious physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, liver problems, and weight gain. With the right treatment and self-help strategies, however, you can control your snoring and the symptoms of sleep apnea, get your sleep back on track, and feel refreshed and alert during the day.

Anatomy of a sleep apnea episode

As airflow stops during a sleep apnea episode, the oxygen level in your blood drops. Your brain responds by briefly disturbing your sleep enough to kick start breathing—which often resumes with a gasp or a choking sound. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you probably won’t remember these awakenings. Most of the time, you’ll stir just enough to tighten your throat muscles and open your windpipe. In central sleep apnea, you may be conscious of your awakenings.

Types of sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly.

Central sleep apnea is a much less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system, occuring when the brain fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. People with central sleep apnea seldom snore.

Complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Signs and symptoms

It can be tough to identify sleep apnea on your own, since the most prominent symptoms only occur when you’re asleep. But you can get around this difficulty by asking a bed partner to observe your sleep habits, or by recording yourself during sleep. If pauses occur while you snore, and if choking or gasping follows the pauses, these are major warning signs that you have sleep apnea.

Major warning signs
Loud and chronic snoring almost every night
Choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep
Pauses in breathing
Waking up at night feeling short of breath
Daytime sleepiness and fatigue, no matter how much time you spend in bed

Other warning signs
Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
Insomnia or nighttime awakenings; restless or fitful sleep
Going to the bathroom frequently during the night
Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
Uncharacteristic moodiness, irritability, or depression
Morning headaches
Impotence

Is it sleep apnea or just snoring?

Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. So how do you tell the difference between normal snoring and a more serious case of sleep apnea?

The biggest telltale sign is how you feel during the day. Normal snoring doesn’t interfere with the quality of your sleep as much as sleep apnea does, so you’re less likely to suffer from extreme fatigue and sleepiness during the day.

Record yourself sleeping or ask your sleep partner to keep track of your snoring, noting how loud and frequent it is, and if you’re gasping, choking, or making other unusual sounds. Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, a snoring problem can get in the way of your bed partner’s rest and affect your own sleep quality and health.

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