We all like to believe we don't snore and get defensive when we're accused of it—who, me? No way, never. But snoring is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea, a serious condition that you definitely shouldn't just brush off and ignore.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where you stop and start breathing repeatedly throughout the night. For most people, sleep apnea is caused by "some sort of obstruction in airflow in the back of the throat which blocks air from getting into the lungs as you sleep," Joseph Ojile, M.D., medical director of the Clayton Sleep Institute, tells SELF. This could be due to large tonsils, congested sinuses, or a variety of other factors. In rare cases, it can be caused by a problem in signaling, where your brain doesn't send the message to breathe correctly.
Being overweight or obese is a risk factor, Daniel Barone, M.D., sleep expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells SELF. "It's most common in men and usually increases as we age," he adds, "but women can have it as well." And women are often less likely to be diagnosed, according to experts at the National Sleep Foundation. Because the stereotypical sleep apnea patient is an overweight, middle-aged male, doctors may not think to check for the condition in women.
Untreated sleep apnea can, over the years, contribute to chronic disease like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, so getting a proper diagnosis is important for your long-term health. Here are the top symptoms of sleep apnea you need to know.
1. You're exhausted all day despite getting plenty of sleep.
When you stop breathing throughout the night, it disrupts your sleep. Even if you aren't conscious that you're waking up, people with sleep apnea tend to wake up frequently throughout the night. This "prevents people from getting deep rest, even if they sleep enough hours," Barone says. And that translates to complete an utter exhaustion during the day.
Ojile says that choking and gasping throughout the night can also cause elevations in stress hormones, which increase blood pressure and heart rate and prevent your body from getting restful shut-eye. "Instead of having your blood pressure and heart rate come down so your brain and heart can rest and take a break, everything is in overdrive," Ojile explains. "That’s what we think drives a lot of [the sleepiness]."
2. You wake up with headaches.
Ojile says they ask every patient in the sleep clinic if they have headaches in the morning because it's a very common complaint of people with sleep apnea. "Apnea itself can cause difficulty with blood flow, which causes oxygen level changes in the brain that can precipitate headaches," he explains.
3. You wake yourself up gasping or choking.
This is also really common in sleep apnea patients, and is exactly what it sounds like. It's not dangerous—just really disruptive for you and anyone who's sleeping in the same room as you.
4. Your bed partner says you snore, choke, gasp—or stop breathing—when you sleep.
You may snore or choke throughout the night but never consciously wake up, so the only way you'd know is if someone sleeping in the same room as you reports that you do it. Again, this disrupts your sleep and can leave you exhausted during the day, even if you're not aware of it happening.
Snoring doesn't always mean you have sleep apnea. "Snoring is a sign, but everyone who snores doesn’t have sleep apnea," Ojile says. "What snoring suggests is that there’s a narrowing at the back of the throat, which puts you at risk for sleep apnea. It’s when that narrowing gets so narrow there’s hardly any or no air going through throat, that you've got apnea," he explains.
5. You have high blood pressure.
Ojile says that the key here is that your blood pressure is difficult to control. If your doctor has been trying to treat hypertension with no success, testing for sleep apnea makes sense. The stress that sleep apnea puts on your body and heart throughout the night can cause issues with blood pressure and other aspects of cardiovascular health. The American Association for Respiratory Care estimates that up to 50 percent of people with sleep apnea also have high blood pressure.
6. You experience heart palpitations, "fluttering" in your chest, or your heart is pounding for no apparent reason.
The abrupt change in oxygen levels that happens when you stop breathing throughout the night can cause atrial fibrillation, or AFib, irregular heart rhythm that can lead to more serious conditions like stroke, blood clots, and heart failure. For some people, the abnormal heartbeat only happens at night, but more commonly, once it's thrown off it persists during the day, too.
7. You have high blood sugar.
Sleep apnea bas also been linked to high blood sugar that's tough to control despite treatment. Research also shows that being sleep deprived—a byproduct of sleep apnea—can mess with your body's ability to process glucose (blood sugar) and lead to insulin resistance. Over the years, this can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
8. You have insomnia.
The National Sleep Foundation says that people with sleep apnea sometimes report insomnia, though it's not so clear which causes which. Even if sleep apnea doesn't turn out to be the cause, insomnia itself should be treated.
9. Your mood is all over the place.
When you're excessively tired, chances are you're also irritable and moody. Feeling quick tempered, irritable, and even depressed can all be signs you're sleep deprived, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you seem to be logging enough sleep each night, sleep apnea may be the true underlying cause of your bad attitude.
Bottom line: "If you have any of these signs or symptoms and your bed partner says, 'Hey, you’re stopping breathing, you’re choking, you’re gasping,' that to me would warrant some evaluation," Ojile says. A sleep doctor can set you up with a sleep test at home, which Ojile says is really easy to do. "There's no glue, no needles, just several parts that look like oxygen tubing and a couple belts you wear. It doesn't give as much information as a test in a sleep lab, but for many patients, it's all they need for diagnosis." Your doctor may then bring you into the sleep clinic if they need to take a closer look. Possible treatments includes lifestyle changes like exercise, sleeping with a device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that regulates your breathing, and in some cases, surgery to clear an obstruction. Once you start getting real, quality sleep again, you'll be happy you spoke up.
This story originally appeared on Self.
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