Sleep Apnea Affects You More Than You Think

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Understanding the impact sleep apnea can have on your health.

Did you know that the average person spends about one-third of their life sleeping? That sounds like a lot, but sleep is essential for our health—we need it just as much as we need food and water. It’s while you sleep that your brain stores new information and removes waste while the rest of your body produces essential immune cells, releases hormones, repairs damaged cells, restores your energy, and more. If you’re suffering from sleep apnea, you’re not getting the amount or quality of sleep that you need to function well.

This leaves you exhausted, but you may be surprised to learn that it can also contribute to a wide range of serious health issues. When it goes undiagnosed, sleep apnea can even cause health effects that could shorten your lifespan! This is why it’s so important to consult a sleep doctor to rule out or diagnose the condition if you suspect that you or your partner has this condition. We know just how vital it is to understand and recognize signs of this condition, so we’ve put together a guide to help you better understand sleep apnea, its effects, and how your dentist could help.

What actually happens when you have sleep apnea?

When you have sleep apnea, you stop breathing in your sleep at least 30 times an hour throughout the night. In the most common form of this condition, obstructive sleep apnea, this is caused by the airway becoming blocked, often from muscles in the throat or tongue becoming too relaxed and collapsing. Once you’ve stopped breathing, your oxygen levels and heart rate begin to drop. In response, your body suddenly rouses you from sleep just enough to tense those muscles again, opening your airways and restoring your breathing.

This pulls you closer to consciousness suddenly enough that it causes a spike in your heart rate and blood pressure, but it still only rouses you lightly—many people don’t even remember it. Despite this, it still has a significant impact on you. Even if you don’t remember it, waking up so often in the night prevents you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep that your body needs to truly rest and repair itself. Additionally, your body waking this suddenly so often has long-term effects on your health.

What are the common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea?

Since sleep is so essential for the health and functioning of your body, sleep apnea and the sleep deprivation it causes both have a wide range of symptoms, some of which are well-known and others that aren’t. These include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Snoring.
  • Night sweats.
  • Insomnia.
  • Restless sleep where you shift or move around a lot in your sleep.
  • Waking up frequently in the night, sometimes gasping or choking.
  • Frequent headaches, particularly in the morning.
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning.
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things.
  • Moodiness.
  • Increased depression or anxiety.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

If you have sleep apnea, you likely won’t have all of these symptoms. Sleep apnea is often overlooked, though, so it’s important to know what to look for and keep an eye out for these symptoms in yourself and your partner. After all, some symptoms are more likely to be noticed by partners, like snoring, gasping or choking sounds, and restless sleep.

What other health issues can result from sleep apnea?

Over time, the effects of constantly startling awake from sleep apnea put a strain on your body. This can lead to several serious health concerns just on its own, in part by causing high blood pressure and putting a heavier workload on your heart.  The walls of your heart thicken under this stress and more fibrous cells grow between muscle cells, causing it to lose flexibility and instead become more rigid. This makes your heart pump less efficiently and increases the risk of developing heart issues like heart failure, heart attack, and atrial or ventricular arrhythmias. Sleep apnea also increases your risk of having a stroke or developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and liver problems. Since people with sleep apnea are more prone to breathing problems, the condition also increases the likelihood that you’ll experience complications from certain medications or after undergoing procedures with general anesthesia.

Who’s at risk for sleep apnea?

There are a lot of factors that can increase your risk of developing sleep apnea, not all of which are under your control. Gender, age, and the presence of certain pre-existing conditions all play a role in your likelihood of developing the condition; for example, it’s two to three times more likely to affect men and tends to affect older people more. Everyone’s risk of developing it goes up as they age, but women’s risk, in particular, goes up after menopause. Like many other health conditions, if there’s a family history of this condition, you might be more likely to develop it. Factors that cause your airway to narrow or be obstructed, such as a thicker neck, enlarged adenoids or tonsils, a large tongue, and chronic congestion or allergies can also increase your risk.

Some risk factors are a little easier to control, though. If you’re overweight, extra fat around your airway could collapse and block your airway when you fall asleep. Similarly, drinking alcohol or using sedatives or tranquilizers can obstruct your airway by causing the muscles in your throat or tongue to relax too much, blocking your airway. Smoking can also narrow your airway by irritating it and causing inflammation. This is why some of the best advice to improve sleep apnea is to make lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption or stopping drinking a few hours before bed, working with your doctor to change up certain medications, and doing your best to lose weight if necessary.

Why does it often go undiagnosed?

Despite the serious impact that sleep apnea can have on your health, it often goes undiagnosed simply because many people don’t realize that they have it. Sleep apnea’s most obvious symptoms are easily overlooked or dismissed as “not a big deal.” Fatigue and its related symptoms as well as headaches are all easy to dismiss or attribute to some other cause. Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, which makes snoring just as easy to dismiss. Even people who remember struggling to sleep or waking up frequently in the night often simply attribute this struggle to standard insomnia and nothing else.

Additionally, many people who do suspect that they have sleep apnea don’t seek a diagnosis because they don’t want to go through the process of a formal diagnosis or they’re worried about the associated costs. Getting diagnosed with sleep apnea requires seeing a sleep specialist and undergoing a sleep study, either at home or in a sleep clinic, followed by another appointment with your doctor to discuss the results. This takes time and money, both because of the cost of appointments and tests themselves and because of money lost due to taking time off of work. Plus, a diagnosis of sleep apnea often comes with the additional cost of getting a CPAP machine.

While these factors can understandably provide a very real barrier to treatment, insurance should help with many of these costs—and getting treatment will help you feel better daily and can add years to your life.

How can your dentist help treat sleep apnea?

While CPAP machines are often considered the go-to sleep apnea treatment, they’re not the only option out there! If you have mild to moderate sleep apnea, you could benefit from a simple custom-made nightguard instead of a CPAP machine. Nightguards are used to treat sleep apnea by gently holding your jaw in an ideal position that keeps your airway as open as possible or by preventing your tongue from falling back in your mouth while you sleep. If you’re interested in learning whether a custom oral appliance for sleep apnea is right for you, Dr. Alhadef will work with you to choose the best treatment for your case.

Once he’s determined that a custom oral appliance is right for you, he’ll design your nightguard specifically for you. This ensures that your custom oral appliance will meet your treatment needs and fit your mouth comfortably. Dr. Alhadef studied physiologic and neuromuscular dentistry at the Las Vegas Institute and is always studying the latest science around sleep apnea. This knowledge, as well as his extensive experience in treating sleep apnea with custom oral appliances, makes him the best dentist in Dallas, TX, for sleep apnea treatment.

Don’t put up with another night of poor sleep.

While we spend a significant portion of our lives sleeping, that time isn’t lost—it’s vital for our health and quality of life, so it’s time well spent! Untreated sleep apnea can affect every area of your life, but with a diagnosis, it doesn’t have to prevent you from getting the sleep you need or living the happy, healthy, and long life you deserve. Your dentist may even be able to help you treat your sleep apnea without resorting to a CPAP machine! If you’d like to learn more about custom oral appliances and how they could treat your sleep apnea, feel free to schedule a consultation with Dr. Alhadef at any time.