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August 6, 2018

5 Questions to Ask Your Sleep Doctor

If you recently made an appointment with a board-certified sleep specialist, congratulations! You’ve taken an important step toward becoming more educated and aware of your sleep health. For those who have never before spoken with a medical professional specializing in sleep, here are some simple questions to get this important conversation started.

Question 1:

Am I at risk for a sleep disorder?

Sleep disorders, and specifically sleep apnea, are increasingly common, with approximately 54 million Americans suffering from mild to severe cases. Sleep apnea has been linked to many health issues and chronic conditions, including diabetes, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Sleep apnea can strike anyone, no matter their age, gender, or fitness level. That said, here are the most common risk factors for sleep apnea:

  • Family history of sleep apnea or snoring
  • Small lower jaw
  • Male gender
  • Women after menopause
  • Overweight
  • Large tonsils
  • Mouth breathing
  • Alcohol consumption shortly before bedtime

Question 2:

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

While being overweight and having a larger neck circumference also play a part in sleep apnea risk, here are some common symptoms of sleep apnea that you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at someone:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling foggy or agitated
  • Very loud snoring
  • Gasping for breath during sleep
  • Waking frequently to urinate
  • Teeth grinding or clenching during sleep
  • Falling asleep unexpectedly

Some examples of unintentional daytime sleepiness include instances of falling asleep at work, at a movie matinee, or behind the wheel when you’re at a red light. That said, if you’ve ever fallen asleep while in the act of driving, stop driving and seek help from your doctor right away. It’s one thing to fall asleep while in a semi-passive state, but to nod off in the middle of a high-risk activity that requires full concentration points to a very real problem.

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Question 3:

How much sleep do I need?

There’s no cut-and-dry answer for this, but many professional sleep organizations have narrowed in on recommended lengths of time depending on a person’s age. You and your doctor can work together on coming up with an ideal number of hours to target based on your age, activity level, and other factors. If you feel sleepy during the day, you may not be getting enough--or the quality may be affected by a condition like sleep apnea.

Question 4:

What time should I go to bed?

The short answer? Ideally, at the same time every night. Yep, even on weekends. You’ll want to get in the habit of going to bed at the same time each night to ensure that your body goes through enough sleep cycles each night so you’re properly rested and your tissues, organs, and brain have ample time to repair and renew themselves.

Your doctor may recommend using a simple sleep calculator or other method to naturally determine how much sleep your body needs.

Question 5:

What are my options for addressing my sleep issues?

Although a formal diagnosis of a specific sleep disorder after a single doctor’s visit may not happen, it’s a smart idea to understand common ways to address sleep issues.

  • Losing weight
  • Sleeping in a different position. Side sleeping is notably effective in reducing snoring and instances of sleep apnea.
  • Cutting back on alcohol and caffeine before bed
  • After your doctor visit, don’t be surprised if you are referred to a dentist! Dentists can help you obtain a special mouthguard that helps keep your jaw aligned and your airways more open as you sleep. This may improve snoring and mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Don’t just run to the internet and buy one. Instead, seek the guidance of a professional.
  • Wearing a special breathing device called CPAP that is designed to open your airways and improve breathing during sleep.

A little bit of prep work can go a long way in ensuring a fruitful visit with your sleep doctor. If you’re not sure that you’ll remember everything you want to talk about, jot your questions down in a notebook or in a note-taking app on your phone. Also, have a sense of your family’s medical history, as some sleep disorders are hereditary.

One of the healthiest things you can do for yourself is to improve the quality of your sleep. With help from a medical professional, sweeter dreams may be in your future.

Brandon R. Peters, M.D., is board-certified in both neurology and sleep medicine and currently practices at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He is also a Clinical Affiliate at Stanford University's School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. His latest book, Insomnia Solved, is available on Amazon.