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Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea: What Are the Dangers?

You have likely heard that a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise are two of the most important things that you can do for the health of your heart. However, the truth of the matter is that the quality of sleep that you receive each night is also important to the well-being of your heart.

In particular, undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea is directly associated with an increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular health. The scariest part of it all is that you probably aren’t even aware that you have this problem.

Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when the upper part of your airway muscles relax while you are asleep and pinch off your airway, preventing you from getting an adequate amount of air. You breathing may stop for 10 or more seconds at a time—until your reflexes end up kicking in and you begin breathing once again.

This medical condition occurs in roughly three percent of individuals of normal weight, but it impacts more than 20 percent of individuals who are considered obese. Overall, sleep apnea tends to affect more men than women. However, after menopause, women are more at risk. Sleep apnea has been often linked to metabolic issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Signs of Sleep Apnea

There are basically two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air is unable to flow in or out of the mouth or nose, even though you are attempting to breathe. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles to get you to begin breathing (this type is the less common form of sleep apnea).

More often than not, sleep apnea is noticed by the person sleeping in your bed rather than yourself. Your partner may notice that your breathing stops while you are sleeping, or he or she may complain of your constantly loud snoring.

With that being said, snoring—while very annoying—is not the same thing as sleep apnea. Snoring is simply the vibration sound that is created by the resistance of the airway. It is 100 percent possible to snore loudly and not have the sleep apnea condition, and it is also possible to have sleep apnea and not snore much.

Individuals with sleep apnea can sometimes suffer from unexplained mood swings and fatigue due to the fact that their breathing interruptions wake them up continuously and keep them from settling into a deep and nourishing sleep each night. The consequences can be severe. Some people lose productivity at work, get into accidents during the day, have mood swings, wake up during the day feeling groggy, fall asleep during class, and more.

Other individuals may wake up with a severe dry mouth due to the fact that sleep apnea causes you to breathe with your mouth open, which dries out the saliva. Some individuals wake up with a terrible headache, which is likely a result of the deprived oxygen or higher-than-usual carbon dioxide levels during sleep.

Cardiovascular Risk, Metabolism, and Sleep Apnea

There have been numerous studies that have shown a link between sleep apnea and issues with heart attacks, strokes, type II diabetes, and a shortened lifespan. One reason this connection likely exists is because obesity is very common in patients with sleep apnea, and obesity increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. As a general rule, obesity is the primary culprit for these conditions.

Regardless, it is important to understand that not all sleep apnea patients are obese. In addition, evidence has suggested that there is an independent association between diabetes and sleep apnea. Some labs have shown that sleep apnea is linked with an increased risk of diabetes (which is independent of obesity) and that blood sugar levels may increase as a result of sleep apnea.

For individuals who are overweight or obese, the key for avoiding or treating sleep apnea is indeed weight loss. Individuals who accumulate fat in the upper belly, tongue or neck are particularly vulnerable to sleep apnea. This excess weight reduces the throat’s diameter and pushes against the lungs, which contributes to the collapse of the airway while asleep.

Women should be most careful as they get older. It isn’t uncommon for premenopausal women to gain weight in the lower body and hips rather than the belly, but this can change over time. Weight will often begin to accumulate in the stomach area, which leads to an increased risk of sleep apnea.

Following menopause, hormones will change, leaving women beginning to look like men in regard to where the weight starts to go. It is at this time that women start to catch up to men when it comes to the rates of sleep apnea, so women must be careful.

Diagnosing and Treating Sleep Apnea to Improve Health

It is incredibly important for sleep apnea to be diagnosed and treated since it can have long-term health-related consequences. Though there have been some sleep apnea deaths, the actual risk of this is a result of damage that occurs over time.

Obstructive sleep apnea ranges from mild to severe, and it is based on a measurement system that is known as the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI). This system measures the number of pauses in breath that you make per hour during your sleep.

  • Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea – ADI between five and 15
  • Moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea – ADI between 15 and 30
  • Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea – ADI more than 30

Whether you require treatment of sleep apnea will depend on the severity of the condition and whether you have symptoms like sleepiness and other medical conditions. For instance, if you have heart disease risk factors, your healthcare provider may choose to treat you for mild sleep apnea. However, if you have a severe case of sleep apnea, you may be recommended for treatment regardless of whether you are sleepy or not.

The primary choice of sleep apnea treatment is a CPAP machine, which is a continuous positive airway pressure breathing device. This machine sends humidified air through your nose, creating air pressure that allows the throat to remain open during sleep, preventing breathing pauses.

CPAP is generally the first line of treatment and is incredibly effective. A recent study examined what occurs to a patient’s metabolism during the night when they fail to wear their CPAP machine. The results showed that there was a spike in heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, as well as stress hormones—similar to what may occur if you were to stand up in front of a big crowd to give a speech. So, sleep apnea can be compared to a stress response—but it is something that occurs nightly.

That is definitely not relaxing—at a time when you should be relaxing—but the good news is that it is completely treatable.

Numerous studies have shown that the regular use of a CPAP breathing device can improve wakefulness throughout the day and reduce blood pressure. Individuals who have sleep apnea and use the CPAP have reported an overall improved quality of life. In some studies that compare individuals who use the machine and those who do not, those who use the CPAP have a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke as well as lower blood glucose levels.

If you or your partner have noticed any symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your healthcare provider. A sleep apnea test can be administered by a sleep specialist using equipment that monitoring your oxygen levels and breathing while you sleep. In some cases, you will spend the night in a laboratory for overnight monitoring. In other cases, you may be able to use a take-home kit. Either way, you will feel better knowing the results.

For more information, contact us at Fountain of Youth Dental.

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