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What is ‘stopped breathing’ and why is it important?

Breathing. It’s an activity that we don’t think much about. Day in and day out, breathing happens consistently and naturally, all on its own.

Yet the second most common sleep disorder in the United States, sleep apnea, affects an estimated 54 million people, 80 percent of whom are currently undiagnosed and don’t even know their breathing stops abnormally during the night. The word “apnea” refers to the actual moments when breathing stops during sleep.

The impacts of sleep apnea and stopped breathing during sleep

Although stereotypes of a “typical” sleep apnea patient are out there, sleep apnea affects people of all ages, genders, body types, and fitness levels. In fact, the global prevalence of sleep apnea hovers around 1 billion people worldwide. Sleep apnea has also been linked to numerous chronic conditions, including irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

It’s important to be aware of sleep apnea, and how stopped breathing during sleep can affect the health of you and your loved ones.

Quality breathing—whether you’re awake or asleep—provides cells and tissues with a sufficient amount of oxygen to function properly throughout the day and night. With each breath you take, you replenish and renew what was depleted, thanks to fresh oxygen intake. This is because your cells and tissues need a constant supply of fresh oxygen, as your body cannot store up oxygen reserves when it is plentiful to use later when it is scarce.

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When you’re laying down in bed, the muscles in your throat, as well as your soft palate and tongue, can sometimes relax to the point of collapsing and blocking the airway. This causes a momentary lapse in your airflow. These stopped breathing occurrences, or apnea events, often last 10-30 seconds at a time. They can occur anywhere from dozens to hundreds of times each night. If the episodes happen more than 5 times per hour of sleep, this is considered to be consistent with a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea.

What happens with your oxygen levels and your brain when breathings stops

During sleep apnea, your brain and heart are fairly quick to pick up on the fact that your oxygen numbers are sharply falling. When you stop breathing during sleeping, there’s a lack of oxygen, your heart beats faster and your brain sends a signal to wake up to kick-start the flow of air again. At this point, you do awaken—usually with no memory of doing so—and fall back asleep again.

At high frequency, these events can partially awaken you over and over again during the course of the night. This activity prevents you from achieving a deep, restorative sleep. Imagine someone coming into your room and waking you up every two minutes. Or picture holding your breath for 30 seconds hundreds of times a night. How tired would you be the next day?

The effects of less-than-adequate oxygen intake can be detrimental to our health. But since you’re asleep when the sleep apnea occurs, how do you even know if these episodes are happening? A doctor will be able to tell you for sure. Some common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Feeling tired all the time, despite getting adequate hours of sleep
  • Snoring at a loud volume
  • Gasping for breath while you sleep
  • Feeling foggy or agitated during the day
  • Falling asleep during the day when you don’t mean to
  • Waking often to urinate
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Morning headaches

Being on the lookout for symptoms like these, and perhaps finding a product that measures stopped breathing events could be helpful, as this type of information could be shared with your doctor.

When to consult a health professional about stopped breathing while sleeping

If you notice your bed partner has unusually loud snoring, has long pauses in breath or sometimes gasps for air during the night, it is possible that they have sleep apnea. And if your own bed partner mentions that these traits describe you, you’ll need to visit a sleep health professional for a formal sleep apnea diagnosis.

One of the healthiest, most helpful first steps you can take when it comes to taking control of your sleep health is learning the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. Speaking with a sleep specialist or a board-certified doctor well-versed in sleep disorders is important in learning more about how sleep apnea specifically affects you and your loved ones. A clinical sleep professional will also be able to educate you on the wide array of treatments that are available.

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.

October 5, 2018