Sleep apnoea is a condition, which affects the way you breathe at night. Although, it is a common condition, it has potentially serious consequences, as it causes irregular breathing patterns. Someone who suffers from sleep apnoea is unlikely to even know they have the condition and it is only usually recognised when a partners own sleep is disturbed by it. Breathing can stop for periods of between 10-20 seconds for literally hundreds of times throughout an average nights sleep and due to the break in natural sleep pattern, a sufferer is likely to feel lethargic, have slower reflexes, poor concentration and be at greater risk of accidents. If left untreated, sleep apnoea can also lead to more serious health problems such as, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.
Around 25% of the UK population suffer from some form of sleep disorder, ranging from snoring, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnoea. Treatment is available, which can help control the symptoms of these sleep disorders and ensure sufferers regain a good nights sleep. There are also certain lifestyle changes and breathing techniques that can help reduce the risk of suffering from these conditions and which will in some cases cure entirely:
Stop Smoking – Smoking increases fluid retention in the throat and upper airway, which is a contributing factor to sleep apnea. Quit smoking and you lower your chances of suffering.
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and sedatives – You would assume that all of these things would help get a good night’s sleep, but you’d be wrong. They actually help relax the muscles in the throat, which in turn affects the way you breathe. So, although you may think you are out for the count, it certainly isn’t good quality sleep and your sleep apnoea and snoring are likely to worsen.
Avoid caffeine and heavy meals – We’re not saying give these up entirely, just avoid having either or them within two hours of you going to bed.
Regular bedtime – By sticking to a routine bedtime your body gets used to knowing when it is time for it to relax and will naturally begin to wind down. This has the result not only improving the quality of sleep, but also the length of sleep and it has been proven that apnoea episodes decrease the more sleep you get.
Sleep on your side – If you sleep on your back, your tongue and soft tissues naturally drop down, causing your airway to become obstructed, which leads to sleep apnoea. Try shifting to your side and you should see a huge improvement.
Tennis ball – This is not just an old wives tale, simply a way of getting you to sleep on your side and stay off of your back. Sew a tennis ball into the back of your pyjama top or an old t-shirt, so that when you unknowingly roll over onto your back in the middle of the night, there’ll be a rather uncomfortable reminder that you shouldn’t be in that position.
Elevate your head – This is also a handy trick for when you have a cold and your nose is blocked up. Either raise the head of the bed by placing a few books under each of the top legs, or add another pillow under your head. This helps to keep airways unobstructed and therefore prevent snoring and sleep apnoea.
Open nasal passages – There are lots of nasal sprays, breathing strips, nasal dilators or even something called a neti pot available from either online of from your local chemists. These all help to open the nasal passages when you’re sleeping and prevent unusual breathing.
You will be at a higher risk of suffering from sleep apnoea if you are:
- It runs in the family
- Over the age of 65
- Black, Hispanic or a Pacific Islander
- A smoker
The author and trained physician, Dr Andrew Weil, also advocates the 4-7-8 breathing technique along with practising meditation, yoga and mindfulness to aid sleep.
Dr Weil claims, “The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere”. It is suggested you complete the breathing exercises twice daily for up to 6-8 weeks until you have mastered the technique and begin to see a marked difference in the quality of your sleep. Here’s what to do:
- Sitting with your back straight, take a big breath and then exhale completely through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound.
- Inhale back through the nose, with your mouth closed and count up to four in your head.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds and then repeat step 1. to the count of eight.
- This process counts as one breath so you now need to repeat this process three more times until you reach a total of four breaths.
Weil explains you should “always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important.” The extra oxygen that is taken in by the body helps with relaxation, which is a key element to good sleep.
If you are feeling lethargic, struggle to concentrate at work or find yourself slumping mid afternoon then it could be that you are suffering from form of sleep deprivation. It is hard to self diagnose sleep apnoea, but there are certain signs you can watch out for:
- Headaches in the morning
- Lack of concentration or memory problems
- Irritability, mood swings or changes to your personality
- Waking up frequently to urinate
- A dry mouth and/or sore throat when you first wake up
It’s also worth asking a partner if they can stay awake whilst you fall asleep to see if you are displaying any of the signs of sleep apnoea and if you are, it is advisable to go and see your GP for advice.