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October 8, 2018

Learn about the link between your nightly oxygen levels and good health

At night, it’s important that you breath at a consistent rate in order to ensure your blood is adequately saturated with oxygen while you sleep. Thanks to oxygen distribution, not only are your cells and tissues renewed and repaired, but your brain gets to consolidate memories and do its own version of “resting.” However, when you sleep, your health can be jeopardized if your oxygen levels are reduced.

When you’re awake, the frequency of your breathing patterns can vary a lot. This is because you’re involved in many activities throughout day that affect how you take air in. Normal activities like talking and exercising as well as other factors like posture and emotions play a role in oxygen intake during the day.

Breathing patterns may change throughout the day, but you are always breathing. However, when you’re asleep, things are different. As you make the slow transition from being awake to entering the early stages of sleep, your breathing rate becomes slightly slower, very regular, and is accompanied by a slight dip in your body’s temperature. These are all normal functions that come with falling asleep.

As we move into deeper phases of sleep, your heartbeat slightly slows down as your body relaxes and your brain activity patterns change. Growth hormone is released, 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 wake up. The oxygen we took in during sleep has done its job in assisting in cellular and brain functions, provided that we took in sufficient amounts.

Oxygen can’t be stored within your body for later use; you can only work with what you immediately have at any given time. Low levels of oxygen can be associated with stopped breathing events, and if these events are in excess, a number of side effects can happen that are detrimental to your health:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • Weight gain
  • Stroke
  • Dementia  

So, why would oxygen levels drop suddenly during sleep? A condition called sleep apnea may be the reason.

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Sleep apnea is a relatively common breathing-related sleep disorder affecting 54 million Americans, and is characterized by recurrent lapses in breathing during sleep, when the soft palate and throat collapse and block your airway. Whether you’ve been formally diagnosed with sleep apnea or are just looking for more information, there are many treatment options, and a board-certified sleep physician can help you arrive at a solution.

Maybe at this point you’re just looking to harness the power of your oxygen intake during sleep. Here are our recommendations for getting optimal nightly oxygen levels:

Reduce alcohol use near bedtime

The effects alcohol has on sleep quality are well documented. Alcohol is a sedative, which means it causes your muscles to relax. 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 intake over the course of the night. Alcohol consumption is often followed by fragmented sleep, which inhibits the deep, restorative sleep our bodies need to fully renew themselves.

Most people breathe better when they sleep on their side compared to any other position. Sleep doctors call this “positional therapy.” The reason why side sleeping works so well is amazingly simple: gravity. When you sleep on your back, the natural weight of your body’s tissues can press down on your airway or lungs, causing unnecessary obstructions. Side-sleeping has long been known to protect the airway from unwanted collapse, and it can reduce snoring too.

Visit your dentist to consider oral appliance therapy. A visit to a sleep dentist may help keep your airways open and oxygen flowing at night. Sleep dentists can fit you for an oral device that is specially molded to fit over your teeth, similar to how orthodontic retainers and mouth guards are made. The appliance is worn during sleep, and gently slides the jaw forward to keep your airway open. It also helps keep your tongue from getting in the way. Oral appliance therapy is usually recommended for patients who have more mild or moderate cases of sleep apnea.

Find relief with CPAP therapy. After visiting a sleep doctor, some sleep apnea patients choose to use a CPAP therapy to mitigate their stopped breathing events. CPAP is a special machine that delivers a continuous stream of pressurized oxygen-rich air to your respiratory system, and when used consistently, can be quite effective in getting better quality sleep and improved functioning in the respiratory and circulatory system. In one study, some sleep apnea patients were given a CPAP, which resulted in a significant reduction in blood pressure compared to those who were not given treatment.

Getting a good night’s sleep sets you up for success for the next day. So many factors in the quality of your sleep can be traced back to how much oxygen you’re taking in during the night. 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.


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.