Rest easier after learning about sleep apnea

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Adequate sleep can recharge and rejuvenate the body, while interruptions to sleep can have the exact opposite effect.

Anyone who has woken up feeling tired after a full night's sleep may be experiencing sleep apnea. According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder. Through the night, breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when throat muscles relax and cut off air flow.

A study published in the journal "Sleep Medicine Review" indicates sleep apnea affects millions of Americans. Sleep apnea can be associated with increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, stroke, motor vehicle accidents and diminished quality of life.

Furthermore, sleep apnea, which is sometimes accompanied by heavy snoring, can be disruptive not only to the sufferer, but also to a bed partner kept awake by snoring. It is important to note that sleep apnea may be present without much snoring.

While sleep apnea can affect both men and women, the Mayo Clinic says men are two to three times more likely to have it than women. It is believed that inherent differences in length and collapsibility of the upper airway, neurochemical control mechanisms, fat distribution, and hormones all contribute to the disparity of sleep apnea between men and women.

Jonathan Jun, M.D., a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, says during sleep apnea episodes, breathing may pause for 10 seconds or more at a time until reflexes kick in and a person starts breathing again. Breathing interruptions continually wake a person and prevent him or her from getting into a deep, nourishing sleep. The consequences can be mood swings, grogginess, lost productivity, and daytime car accidents. Other sufferers experience headaches from low oxygen or high carbon dioxide levels during sleep.

If sleep apnea is suspected, people are urged to first consult with their primary care doctors. In turn, these medical professionals can refer patients to sleep specialists. A test called nocturnal polysomnography monitors various markers while one sleeps to determine if sleep apnea is occurring. Age, being overweight, thin neck circumference, smoking, and family history of sleep apnea are risk factors for many individuals.

"Weight control is very important," said Dr. Jun. "There are many studies showing that losing weight can either completely cure you of sleep apnea or at least make it less severe."

In addition, doctors may prescribe a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. With a CPAP device, the air pressure is somewhat greater than that of the surrounding air so it keeps the upper airway passages open, preventing sleep apnea and snoring.

Sleep apnea is serious and should be addressed promptly to improve health and quality of life.

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