The First Subtle Signs of Sleep Apnea

Sleep is a crucial restorative tool for maintaining good overall health. Sleep apnea is a disorder which leads to fragmented sleep, as the body responds to drops in blood oxygen levels caused by breathing pauses. 

The brain prompts the body to awake for air and these micro-arousals, which may only last for seconds, can happen hundreds of times every night in more severe cases.

Heavy snoring is recognized as a prime symptom of sleep apnea. The following are six of the more subtle signs of sleep apnea.

  1. Daytime Sleepiness

Feeling drowsy and fatigued most days is a symptom of sleep apnea. It can be very easy to write daytime fatigue off as just a by-product of busy modern lives. 

However, sleep apnea disrupts sleep as you frequently awake through the night for air. Even someone with mild sleep apnea can experience up to 14 micro-arousals every hour. Someone with severe sleep apnea can awake over 30 times every hour.

Daytime sleepiness can soon affect both your personal and professional lives. As well as affecting performance and motivation, fatigue from sleep apnea increases your risk of work-related accidents. 

Studies report that daytime drowsiness from sleep apnea makes you 2.5 times more likely to be involved in a traffic accident.

  1. Morning Headaches

Waking up in the morning with a headache is one of the subtler clues that you may have sleep apnea. The occasional headache when waking up may be accounted for by one too many drinks the night before or perhaps by stress. 

However, recurring morning headaches are frequently reported by people with obstructive sleep apnea.

  1. Weight Gain

While obesity is one of the prime risk factors for sleep apnea, weight gain can also be one of the subtle signs of the disorder. The disrupted sleep resulting from sleep apnea wreaks havoc with your sleep cycle and your circadian rhythm. This in turn affects hormone production.

Hormones affected can include those which control our appetite and how hungry we feel. If these hormones are not reaching peak levels of production or are simply not released at all, then you may eat more as you feel hungrier than you otherwise might. An impact on the release of hormones can also see you become more resistant to insulin, placing you at increased risk from diabetes.

 4. Mood Swings

Sleep deprivation caused by sleep apnea can result in mood swings and increased irritability. This can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can increase feelings of stress and sadness, while people with obstructive sleep apnea are at an increased risk from depression and anxiety.

  1. Poor Concentration and Memory

We can all appreciate how just a single night of poor sleep can affect our concentration the next day. We struggle to focus on tasks properly and find it tougher than normal to remember information. A pointer to sleep apnea is when poor concentration and memory becomes a persistent theme. 

A lack of quality sleep is a by-product of sleep apnea resulting from the micro-arousals every hour to breathe. Night after night of poor sleep will take its toll on your concentration levels, your focus and memory, impacting on performance at work.

  1. Sexual Dysfunction

Sleep apnea can be pretty unnerving for a bed partner who watches your breathing difficulties at night. With snoring a prime symptom of sleep apnea, this can also put pressure on a relationship. Unfortunately, the issues don't end there, as sleep apnea can increase the risk of sexual dysfunction.

Erectile dysfunction can be a sign of sleep apnea for men. The sleep deprivation may result in a dip in testosterone levels and an increase in stress, resulting in an increase in the likelihood of sexual dysfunction. Healthy erections also depend on good oxygen levels, and each breathing cessation caused by sleep apnea sees a reduction in blood oxygen levels until the body is prompted to wake for air.

Sleep Apnea is Treatable

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea, where the collapse of the upper airways as you sleep blocks the flow of oxygen to the lungs. 

It is estimated that at least 85% of people with sleep apnea are unaware they have the disorder. 

Left undiagnosed, sleep apnea increases the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as placing you more at risk from traffic accidents.

Sleep apnea is treatable, which makes diagnosis so important. However, it is estimated that over 85% of sleep apnea goes undiagnosed, increasing people’s risk of developing serious health conditions. 

If you display any of these subtle signs for sleep apnea, you should consult with your doctor who can provide an in-home test or refer you for a sleep study.

The leading treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is CPAP therapy, which involves delivering pressurized air through a mask worn while you sleep. The air prevents the upper airways from collapsing and the subsequent breathing pauses which see you awake many times through the night.

Some people can find the set pressure of CPAP difficult to tolerate. However, other options such as Auto CPAP or BiPaP are available. Auto CPAP automatically adjusts the pressure setting as needed throughout the night or it can also be set to a fixed pressure.  BiPaP uses different pressure settings when inhaling and exhaling the air to make the treatment more comfortable, encouraging compliance.

Tips to Reduce Symptoms

As obesity is a prime risk factor in sleep apnea, lifestyle changes can also help reduce symptoms. Other ways to treat sleep apnea include:

  • Dental retainer that moves the tongue or lower jaw forward to keep the airways open
  • positional therapy to help you sleep on your side rather than on your back where gravity can pull tissues down to block the airways
  • surgery, which is usually the last option and can involve removing the tonsils and tissues which cause the throat to block.

Sleep is crucial for our health, so these subtle signs should not be ignored. If you have sleep apnea there are treatments available to reduce or eliminate the symptoms and restore good sleeping patterns.