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July 13, 2018

Why healthy breathing is vital for deep, restorative sleep

The human body is a marvelous machine, capable of incredible things. We spend two-thirds of our lives awake and interacting with the world, and the remaining third recharging our bodies and minds, by way of sleep.

Healthy sleep—especially the state of restorative deep sleep—helps keep us functioning at our best. While we sleep, a whole host of activities take place at the cellular level. And it all starts with proper breathing.

The science of healthy sleep

With each breath, you replenish and renew what was depleted, thanks to fresh oxygen intake. During sleep, you need to be breathing well enough to ensure your blood is adequately saturated with oxygen. Quality breathing while you sleep provides cells and tissues with a sufficient amount of oxygen to function properly.

If your sleep health isn’t as good as it could be, the effects of depleted oxygen levels go far beyond a matter of just feeling tired. Every organ, tissue, and cell in the human body requires a steady supply of oxygen to work at their optimal capacity. If this isn’t happening, you can feel tired, get sick, or act irritable.

When we stop breathing repeatedly while we’re asleep, it reduces the amount of oxygen available to our bodies for recuperation and repair. The reason we stop breathing while we sleep could very well be sleep apnea.

When oxygen gets disrupted

Sleep apnea is a fairly common sleep disorder, and roughly 45 million Americans have it. “Apneas” refer to moments when we’re not breathing during sleep.

These occurrences, which often last 10-30 seconds, and occur hundreds of times each night, can be detrimental to our health.   

How do you know if you have sleep apnea? A doctor will be able to tell you for sure. Some common symptoms 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 when you don’t mean to
  • Waking often to urinate
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Morning headaches

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Every breath counts

Cells and tissues need oxygen constantly. They cannot store up oxygen reserves for future use. It’s important they receive adequate oxygen throughout the day and night.

Your blood’s oxygen levels may be slightly lower on average during sleep because your rate of breathing is somewhat reduced. This is a natural part of the sleep cycle. But sleep apnea causes distinct, significant drops in oxygen levels.

Sleep apnea also disrupts our circadian rhythms, causes imbalances in body and brain chemistry, interrupts cardiac and respiratory function, elevates blood pressure, and speeds up heart rate. And when a person isn't getting enough oxygen, all organs of the body can be affected, especially the brain, heart, and kidneys.

Into the deep

A steady supply of oxygen helps keeps our tissues and cells healthy, and it also helps our brain move through the different phases of sleep.

Deep sleep is wonderfully restorative, an important phase of sleep for your body and brain. A lot happens during this vital time of restoration:

  • Thanks to growth hormones, your body’s cells are repaired
  • Your brain has a chance to remove waste products that accumulate during the day
  • Healthy new cells appear in your organs and tissues
  • Your brain gets a chance to rest while still maintaining key functions

Sleep apnea also disrupts the REM sleep stage, which is essential for memory formation and storage through consolidation.

More benefits

Restorative sleep helps the body repair and maintain itself, but the benefits don’t end there. A good night’s sleep helps people stay emotionally balanced during the day. And during REM sleep, the brain processes events from the day before, causing dreams to form. REM sleep also helps the mind stay sharp by consolidating your memories.

Maintaining a steady flow of oxygen to your body during sleep is imperative to good sleep health. Most of us have experienced how a lack of sleep from the night before negatively affects us the next day. It’s not just a question of feeling lethargic and tired—your body is craving the oxygen it needs.

Our bodies are capable of some incredible things, and when our sleep is healthy and we’re breathing as we should, we’re setting ourselves up for success for the next day.

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.