Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing is disrupted. A pause in breathing from 10 seconds to several minutes is called an apnea, and when this occurs 5+ times per hour, there is cause for concern. Alternately, very shallow breathing is referred to as hypopnea. An overnight oxymetry test can be administered to check for periods of low blood-oxygen levels that might indicate a need for a more comprehensive study called a polysomnogram. These tests measure the oxygen and pulse like the preliminary test, but also measure brain activity, eye movement, muscle activity, and heart rhythm.
Sleep apnea comes in different forms. The most common is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, the one we associate with snoring, and it is caused by a true physical blockage of airflow. Less common is Central Sleep Apnea which is actually due to weak respiratory function. The brain’s control centers do not respond quickly enough. It’s difficult to say whether obesity is a cause or a symptom, because the daytime sleepiness caused by lack of restful sleep at night can exacerbate an already sedentary lifestyle. Another important factor may be thyroid function, as low thyroid function can lead to decreased energy levels too. This could be the factor that sets obesity and apnea into self-perpetuating cycle. In order to break the cycle, you will have to tackle all three things at once; get your thyroid regulated with supplemental medication, establish and maintain a regular exercise plan, and in extreme cases you may need to use a breathing mask at night to help you stay asleep and feel rested enough to get through your busy day.
Some daytime problems caused by sleep apnea (besides fatigue) include slowed reaction, vision problems, memory and learning difficulties, attention deficit, mood swings/depression, liver disease, and insomnia or sleep paralysis. Sleep apnea is more common in men, elderly people, and people who are obese, though it can happen to anyone. The problem is usually first noticed by a partner or spouse who has difficulty sleeping due to the loud snoring. Some suggested methods for dealing with sleep apnea and snoring include avoiding cigarettes, alcohol and muscle relaxers, losing weight, and sleeping with your upper body elevated or on your side. You can even do tongue exercises to strengthen the muscles if that is the cause of the obstruction. In severe cases, breathing machines or even corrective surgery may be necessary. A CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) provides a steady flow of oxygen throughout the night, while surgery involves tightening soft tissue in the airway (tonsils, uvula, and the surrounding tissue). Both can end up being very expensive, so weight loss and other lifestyle adjustments are highly recommended as preventative measures.
Sleep apnea is also associated with heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and auto accidents. If you can prevent or avoid it by simple tweaks like walking, eating healthier foods, or cutting back on drinking, the benefits are tremendous.
You can check out the results of my oxymetry test here.