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What is Sleep Apnea, and How Does it Affect Your Health?

Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing during sleep and is an alarmingly common issue. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s estimated that around 18 million Americans have severe sleep apnea, but it’s very likely that many more cases go undiagnosed. There are two distinct types of sleep apnea: Obstructive and Central. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common, and occurs when the airway becomes blocked during sleep. It typically features snoring and is most often seen in large-bodied individuals and people with severe allergies. Central sleep apnea is neurological in origin and occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate nerve signals that prompt breathing.

The end result of both is the same. The body and brain become hypoxic, or oxygen-deficient. Many times, this causes the person to wake up out of breath, and sometimes gasping for air. In most cases, sleep apnea victims don’t awaken fully, so they’re often not aware there is even a problem. Yet these episodes can occur dozens, or even hundreds, of times each night, resulting in severe sleep deprivation. The next day, the sufferer may feel tired and sluggish, dizzy, short of breath and physically weak. They may also wake up with a headache or dry mouth. It’s not uncommon for people with the disorder to experience significant cognitive impairments. However, these are just the immediate complications of sleep apnea. If left untreated, it can have a much more serious impact on overall health.

Heart Disease
Sleep apnea sufferers have a much higher chance of dying in their sleep from a stroke or heart attack brought on by heart disease. Over time, the accumulated combination of sleep deprivation, high stress levels and oxygen deficiency take a dire toll on the cardiovascular system. This can result in ventricular hypertrophy (heart enlargement), cardiac arrhythmias, decreased cardiac efficiency, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and heart failure.

Cognitive Problems
When you awaken frequently at night because you stop breathing, it’s naturally going to have an effect on your cognitive abilities. Most people with sleep apnea struggle with concentration, focus, memory, and thought clarity. This can present considerable challenges with everyday tasks like grocery shopping, budgeting, remembering schedules and communicating effectively with others. Cognitive impairment can even interfere with your ability to function optimally at work, which only increases your stress.

Increased Injuries
The impaired cognitive function that occurs as a result of sleep apnea isn’t just a burden on everyday life. Prolonged sleep deprivation and oxygen starvation can also hinder judgment, coordination, awareness and reaction time. Furthermore, because it causes chronic exhaustion, sleep apnea victims are more likely to fall asleep during the day. Any combination of these factors will greatly increase the likelihood of injury, most often from work-related accidents and automobile crashes.

Mood Disorders
Sleep apnea is also a threat to mental health. With time, the effects of the disorder can do more than leave you feeling constantly tired and out of sorts. It can also ruin your ability to feel pleasure and derive enjoyment from hobbies or fun activities. Ultimately, you’re left in a state of chronic stress with no way to relax. Under these circumstances, it’s little wonder that so many sleep apnea victims struggle with depression, hopelessness and anxiety.

Although it may seem like sleep apnea can ruin your life, it doesn’t have to stay that way. There are treatments available that can help you get back to a more normal way of living. Talk to your sleep professional about what options are available to you.

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