Boost your body's oxygen saturation for maximum sleep recovery
Sleep is an amazingly restorative time for our bodies. So much healthy, transformative change happens, even though we’re completely unaware of it. Many of these transformations, like cell renewal, tissue repair, and memory consolidation, can be attributed to the saturation level of oxygen in our bodies. A consistent oxygen supply is essential to these processes.
Sometimes, our sleep health is jeopardized by reduced oxygen levels. Thankfully, there are a lot of tools and techniques available to harness the power of our oxygen intake and maximize recovery during sleep.
The role of oxygen in each stage of sleep
When we are awake, our breathing patterns vary frequently. This is because we’re so busy doing other things that affect how we take air in. Normal activities like talking and exercising and other factors such as our posture and our emotions play a role in our daytime oxygen intake.
During our waking lives, our breathing patterns may change, but we’re always breathing. When we’re asleep, however, it can be a different story. As we slowly make the transition from being awake to the early stages of sleep, our breathing rate becomes slightly slower, very regular, and there is a slight dip in body temperature.
As we move into deeper phases of sleep, our heartbeat slightly slows down as our body relaxes further and brain activity patterns change. Growth hormone is produced, promoting tissue growth and repair. Extra oxygen is supplied to muscles as we enter REM sleep. Our brain activity starts to increase again, our eyes dart rapidly beneath our eyelids, and vivid dreams most commonly occur in this stage. Eventually, we journey out of REM sleep and awaken.
When oxygen gets interrupted
In a perfect world, consistent, uninterrupted breathing for the entire length of time we’re asleep would have us waking up feeling remarkably refreshed, and our bodies ready to function at their optimal capacities. However, this is not a reality for everyone.
Roughly 100 million people in the United States alone are sleep deprived, meaning the amount or quality of the sleep they get on any given night is not adequate. It is estimated that as many as 45 million people in the United States--and up to one billion worldwide--have sleep apnea, a condition where breathing stops periodically during sleep.
A lack of breath means a lack of oxygen, and this is exactly what happens when sleep apnea occurs.
What causes blood oxygen to be low?
There are a multitude of factors that can contribute to low blood oxygen levels.
In addition to sleep apnea, various diseases and medical conditions may impair the respiratory system in providing optimal oxygen amounts to the body. These conditions include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, asthma, anemia, and heart disease or heart failure.
How to increase your oxygen levels while you sleep
There are many ways for you to naturally boost your oxygen saturation, and many of them cost little to no money. Developing good habits during the day that promote a healthy intake of oxygen can often set you up for success when it’s time to fall asleep.
Here are a few strategies.
1. Practice taking deep breaths
Performing deep-breathing exercises can have a calming effect, but the benefits go far beyond a more relaxed mind--your blood oxygen levels can rise, too. Taking deeper breaths can also increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. Bonus points for getting out in the fresh air, away from vehicle emissions.
2. Sleep on your side
Most people breathe better when they sleep on their side compared to any other position. The reason is amazingly simple: gravity. When we sleep on our backs, the weight of our bodies can press down on our airway or lungs, causing unnecessary obstructions. Side-sleeping has long been known to protect the airway from unwanted collapse and reduce snoring too.
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3. Decrease and manage your stress
There are many strategies for stress management: exercise, meditation, coaching, yoga, and even mindfulness apps. We live in a stressful world, but thankfully there is an abundance of resources to help us overcome it.
Oxygen levels naturally increase during exercise when our respiration rate increases. Cells use oxygen more quickly during exercise than they do while we’re just going about our day. When the brain recognizes a shift in the amount of carbon dioxide being produced by the body, it increases our respiration rate in order to expel it and supply more oxygen to our bodies.
5. Avoid alcohol before bed
Alcohol and other sedatives sometimes cause the throat to relax more than it needs to, resulting in a higher rate of sleep apnea. These over-relaxed muscles make airway collapse more likely to occur. Avoiding alcohol within 4 hours of going to bed can dramatically improve your breathing and oxygen overnight. Alcohol consumption is often followed by fragmented sleep, which inhibits the deep, restorative sleep our bodies need to fully renew themselves.
When you need extra help
Sometimes, low oxygen levels are a problem you can’t solve on your own, so you visit a sleep dentist or sleep doctor who specializes in sleep health. It’s possible that you’ll come away from your appointment with a diagnosis of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a relatively common breathing-related sleep disorder and is characterized by recurrent lapses in breathing during sleep. These lapses, or apneas, most commonly occur because of relaxation of the structures of the airway. The airway sometimes relaxes to a point where normal breathing is interrupted.
Sleep apnea has been linked to many health issues, including irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. A lack of deep, restorative sleep can also impair cognitive functioning and may contribute to dementia. Whether you’ve been formally diagnosed, or are just looking for more information, there are a wealth of treatment options available, and a board-certified sleep physician can help you arrive at a solution.
Thankfully, we live in a time when many options abound for those who want to boost their body’s oxygen saturation, either to treat their diagnosed sleep apnea, or to simply enjoy all the benefits of more restorative sleep. If you feel you are not getting enough oxygen and suspect your breathing during sleep could be the issue, see a doctor who specializes in sleep health. Hopefully, you’ll breathe easier soon.
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.