By Moira Cue
The importance of good sleep can never be underestimated. Lack of proper sleep can lead to obesity, depression, memory and concentration problems, car accidents, poor judgment, disease, and more.
We’ve all heard the recommendations for better sleep: turn off your devices before bed, don’t go to bed until you’re sleepy, avoid caffeinated beverages, don’t drink or eat for a few hours before bed, keep a regular sleep schedule, take a warm bath before bed, and keep your bedroom a cool, comfortable temperature.
What many people who struggle with daytime sleepiness and quality of rest never discover is that they have a sleep apnea. Case in point: I once worked with a man who would fall asleep at his desk, his head in his hands. I asked him if he had been checked for sleep apnea. He said he had done a sleep study, been diagnosed with sleep apnea, and never bought the CPAP.* He figured the sleep study people would make a profit off of the CPAP and that they had a conflict of interest. (See: sleep deprivation and poor judgement.) While such instances are rare, mortality rates for untreated sleep apnea are higher than the general public.
If you don’t know what sleep apnea is, it means that one gets woken up at night because they stop breathing in their sleep. When that happens the heart rate goes up as one struggles for oxygen. Eventually they wake up, briefly, and then fall back asleep. Four hours of non-interrupted sleep are required to go into REM sleep, but if you keep waking up for a few seconds at a time, those cycles are interrupted. The apnea can be caused by weight gain, when there’s too much fat around the throat and it closes up. Or it can be caused by the brain. Or, in children, it can be caused by tonsils or adenoids that are too large.
The crazy thing about sleep apnea is that 90% of people with a sleep apnea will never get treated. That’s millions of Americans each year, and God only knows how many car accidents, ineffective anti-depressant prescriptions, disease, and bad decisions are the result of those millions of untreated sufferers.
You would think that doctors would be proactively screening for apnea and encouraging their patients to do sleep studies. In my experience, it was just the opposite. My insurance company did everything they could to prevent me from getting a sleep study. I want everyone to know how important it is that we raise awareness of sleep apnea and get the millions of untreated people the help they need. You could save a life!
The CPAP machine forces air through the nasal passageways so that when the pauses in breathing occur, there is still oxygen going into the lungs. Sure, lots of people have a hard time getting used to the devices. There are also dental guards that work too by manually keeping the airway open.
I can’t think of any other physical condition with so many implications on other areas of health that is so under-treated. Symptoms can include fatigue, depression, obesity, snoring during sleep, night terrors and night mares, and a general sense of drowsiness / spaciness. Even chronic pain can be exacerbated by poor sleep.
If you or someone you love may have a sleep apnea, talk to your doctor! Don’t delay, and don’t give up if they don’t help you. Be your own advocate and stand up for yourself. Spread the word. Ninety percent untreated is unacceptable. But, together, we can change the statistics.
*Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a form of positive airway pressure (PAP) ventilation in which a constant level of pressure greater than atmospheric pressure is continuously applied to the upper respiratory tract of a person. (Source: wikipedia)
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