Z-z-z… Snoring, sleep apnea, and your health

2 Apr

snoringHow many of you are aware of what you do while you’re sleeping? Do you think you sleep sweetly and silently, like an angel? Many of us think we’re quiet, restful sleepers, but this is often far from the truth. You could be one of hundreds of thousands of men who suffer from sleep-disordered breathing.

Snoring is the partial blockage of the airway by the tongue which causes the tissue in the throat to vibrate. Sleep apnea is a complete blockage of the air passage that jolts the sleeper awake when they do not receive oxygen. Both disturbances can result in daytime sleepiness which affects our ability to concentrate, manoeuver, and remember.

Oxygen and sleep deprivation are much more than feeling sleepy. Southern Ontario’s Sleep Well centres explains that snoring is a health risk that increases the risk of heart attacks and high blood pressure, and is associated with irritability, depression, and motor accidents. Sleep apnea is a more serious condition because it affects heart function. During an apneic episode, the sleeper’s tongue blocks the airway, and the oxygen deprivation causes the brain to release adrenaline which increases the heart rate. This can lead to a heart attack.

“Sleep apnea can affect people in three ways,” says Dr. David Engelberg of Altima Health’s Sleep Well Centres in downtown Toronto. “Sleep apnea puts patients at risk for developing cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), and is a risk factor for other medical illnesses like heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure (hypertension), and stroke. Sleep apnea also affects relationships with partners and spouses, and ultimately, your sleep quality.”

Sleep apnea and gender

Sleep apnea affects 1 in 10 Canadians and of those, 90% are men. Obesity is a key factor in sleep disturbance, and theories suggest that body mass make men more susceptible to sleep apnea. Men have larger tongues and soft palettes, and thicker necks than women, and these factors increase the likelihood of the airway to collapse.

Data published in sleep journals suggest varying symptoms between men and women; one gender-related article discusses women’s obstructed sleep apnea symptoms to include insomnia,  restless legs, depression, nightmares, heart palpitations, and hallucinations, while men are more likely to snore and experience full apneic episodes. Both sexes are susceptible to serious illnesses associated with sleep disturbances.

Even though sleep disturbances are not life-threatening on their own, they are often associated with other serious illnesses. Dr. Engelberg often encounters denial among his patients when he brings up snoring or sleep apnea. I don’t snore! they insist, to which he responds, How would you know? You’re asleep.

He sees the stigma around men and (admitting to) illness; men adhering to that inner voice that tells them to toughen up and suck it up, and men who proclaim, I’m a man and I can snore! I don’t have a problem! In other words, men who follow gender codes that prevent them from asking for help when they need it.

Interestingly, an Australian medical article reported on obstructive sleep apnea in women and found that socialization also plays a role in whether women will seek help for sleep disturbances. Though adults of any age can have sleep apnea, the risk of developing it increases with age. Gender roles taken on by older adults are still ingrained in many of them, so the researcher’s findings about women’s reluctance is not surprising: “Women may consider their own snoring “unladylike” and therefore be less likely to mention it.” Consequently, women are often misdiagnosed.

You don’t have to suffer

Taking the time to deny a condition can increase the severity and the risk of further damage. Deterrents like denial or finances can cause unnecessary suffering, but there are options.

If you are one of the wise who accept their sleep condition and seek help for it, you may have heard of the CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machine that helps sleepers breathe through a mask at night. A basic model is covered by OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan – check your provincial healthcare office to see if you are eligible for a CPAP). There are different CPAP models from little machines with an oxygen hose that sit on a stand beside the bed, to styles that carry the mechanism in wearable headgear. Not exactly the sexiest little number to wear to bed, but if it’s a matter of getting rest or not, it’s always worth a try. Some people have luck with it, others not.

Those who find the CPAP cumbersome will opt for a sleep appliance that is a mouth tray that forces the jaw forward to keep the throat open during sleep. Many patients see their health issues greatly lessen with the appliance, and they can finally have a good  sleep without disturbing anyone they happen to be sleeping beside. Dentists can often help with sleep appliances for snoring and sleep apnea, so visit yours if you suspect sleep disturbance.

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