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Sleep Apnea


Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder which causes interruptions in breathing during sleep.  This is caused by the muscles of the throat relaxing, blocking the airway in the region at the rear of the throat.  The lack of oxygen causes a person to come out of deep sleep into a lighter stage of sleep, or wake up, in order to restart breathing.  This process can be repeated throughout the night.  These interruptions to sleep that are caused by sleep apnea often cause daytime exhaustion.  A person with sleep apnea will usually have no recall of what has occurred overnight, so are often unaware that they are not sleeping through the night. The condition is most common in people aged 40 or over, although it can affect people of all ages.  It is more common in men, particularly overweight middle-aged or older men.

Because of the sleep deprivation that results, sleep apnea often has a significant impact on an individual's health.  If left untreated, this disorder can lead to a compromised immune system, heart disease, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, and learning/memory problems.  Judgement and reaction times are also impaired making undiagnosed drivers a danger on the road.  One in five cases of sleep apnea are linked to depression in the sufferer.  Sleep apnea does seem to run in families and may therefore be genetic, though physical factors can contribute.  Apnea should not be confused with snoring, which does not involve complete blockage of the airway, though sufferers can often snore as well.


Some of the associated symptoms that characterise sleep apnea include:

  • Frequent silences during sleep due to interruptions in breathing
  • Daytime fatigue and tiredness
  • Poor concentration
  • Choking or gasping during sleep to get air into the lungs
  • Loud snoring
  • Sudden awakenings to restart breathing or waking up in a sweat
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Impotence and reduced sex drive


  • Obesity is one of the most common causes of sleep apnea.  Loss of weight is likely to reduce the severity of the disorder.
  • Alcohol relaxes the throat muscles and increases the likelihood of apnea occurring
  • Illnesses that affect the throat area such as thyroid hormone deficieny
  • Medication, such as sleeping tablets and sedatives affect the muscles in the throat
  • Nasalcongestion and obstruction from cold, sinusitis, allergies or smoking

Treating sleep apnea

There are some simple measures and lifestyle changes you can make to alleviate sleep apnea.  These include:

  • Losing weightwill often reduce and often eliminate sleep apnea and improve sleep quality.
  • Avoid using alcohol, nicotine or any medication that relaxes the muscles of the throat and encourages snoring.
  • Sleep on your side. Many people only experience sleep apnea when they sleep on their back.
  • Elevating the head of your bed often opens the airways and makes breathing easier.  Dedicated pillows to relieve sleep apnea are often very helpful in this regard.
  • Maintain regular sleep hours.
  • Use a nasal dilator or nasal spray to help open nasal passages.

If you suffer from a more serious case of sleep apnea you may require a consultation with a medical doctor.  The following may be recommended:

  • A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) is a mask a sufferer wears whilst sleeping, which provides pressurized air to prevent your airway from collapsing.
  • Orthodontic andoral devices similar to mouthguards can be effective for mild to moderate sleep apnea. These keep your airway open.
  • Surgery can be an affective treatment to remedy a physical obstruction, with tonsils and/or adenoids removed to increase the size of your airway.

If you suspect you or a partner suffer from sleep apnea see your doctor or naturopath.


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