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Sleep apnea is obstructed breathing at night. For most people it is an anatomic problem, so medications or supplements are not helpful. Sleep apnea can range from mild to severe. For moderate to severe cases, the most effective treatment is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). [1,2]
CPAP is a machine and a mask you wear at night that forces air through your nose and throat. CPAP can be hard to get used to for some people. If CPAP does not work, the next step may be surgery. However, before resorting to CPAP, or surgery as a last resort, lifestyle changes may help, especially for mild sleep apnea. [1,2]
How Do You Know You Have Sleep Apnea?
The obvious symptoms of sleep apnea happen while you are asleep, so lots of people have it and don’t know it unless a sleep partner tells them. For most people sleep apnea happens when the tissues at the back of your throat collapse inward enough to obstruct breathing. The result is loud, noisy snoring with short, quiet periods of apnea, which is not breathing. [1,2]
In you don’t have a sleep partner to tell you about night time symptoms, you can suspect sleep apnea if you wake up with a dry sore throat, you wake up with a headache and feeling sleepy, or you have daytime sleepiness that causes you to be tired, irritable, and brain fogged. Having restless nights and waking up frequently is another warning sign. [1,2]
You may be at higher risk for sleep apnea as you get older. Tissues in the throat tend to get weaker and with age. You may also be at risk of you have a family history of sleep apnea or if you have a short, thick neck. Men are at higher risk than women. There is not much you can do about these risk factors, but other risk factors for sleep apnea can be changed. That’s where lifestyle changes come in. [1,2]
Lifestyle Changes to Help Sleep Apnea
In most cases, a doctor will recommend lifestyle changes for sleep apnea before CPAP. Even if you do need CPAP, these changes are still an important part of treatment:
1. Lose weight.
Being obese or overweight is the most important risk factor for sleep apnea. Losing weight may be the best treatment.
2. Get exercise.
Thirty minutes of brisk walking or another aerobic exercise can help you lose weight, but even without weight loss, exercise has been shown to improve sleep apnea.
3. Avoid alcohol.
Alcohol causes a deeper sleep and more collapse of your airway. Drink only in moderation, or avoid alcohol. Alcohol is most likely to cause sleep apnea if you drink before bedtime.
4. Don’t take sedative medications to help you sleep.
Sedative medications relax the muscles in your throat and make sleep apnea worse.
5. Don’t smoke.
Smoking triples the effect of sleep apnea. It causes your airway to be inflamed.
6. Don’t sleep on your back.
Sleeping on your back causes your soft palate to drop down into the back of your throat. Sleep on your side. It can also help to sleep with your chest and head elevated. You can prop up the head of your bed or sleep on a wedge. [1-3]
Other changeable risk factors can be treated with medication. Having long-term nasal congestion from allergies or sinusitis can contribute to sleep apnea. You doctor may treat these conditions along with lifestyle changes. [1,2]
Don’t Ignore Sleep Apnea
If you suspect sleep apnea let your doctor know. Your doctor may suspect sleep apnea from your symptoms, but the best way to diagnose this condition and determine severity is to do a sleep study, called nocturnal polysomnography. This test is done while you sleep to measure your breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen level. [1,2]
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious problem. It can increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. The good news is that it doesn’t always mean CPAP or surgery. Lifestyle changes may do the trick and give you and your sleeping partner a better night’s sleep. [1-2]
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