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July 30, 2018

You could have sleep apnea and not know it. These are the most common symptoms.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects 1 in 4 adult men and 1 in 9 adult women in the United States alone, and the deficits it can create are far-reaching. Varying degrees of cognitive, emotional, job, and school-related performance issues are linked to patients who have OSA. It is also a potential risk factor for dementia.

Maybe you’re prone to falling asleep at the drop of a hat, or have been told that you’re a particularly loud snorer. But how do you know if you have sleep apnea? Below are the most common symptoms that you should watch out for.

What is sleep apnea?

People of all ages and body types can have sleep apnea. The second-most common sleep disorder, just behind insomnia, sleep apnea refers to moments when you’re not breathing during sleep. Some shorter pauses, which last a few seconds, are fairly normal, even among those with good sleep health. But when they last longer, for 10 or more seconds, and occur at a higher frequency, then special attention should be paid.

During the day, when you’re awake and upright, the muscles in your throat coordinate to allow you to perform multiple functions like breathing, swallowing, and speaking. At night, many of your muscles relax during sleep, and this can result in a reduction of your airway function.  This can lead to the temporary collapse of the airway and the cessation of airflow.    

Common sleep apnea symptoms

1. You feel tired almost all the time

One of the most widely reported symptoms of sleep apnea is feeling tired during the day. This can come as a mystery to some with sleep apnea, because if it seems like you’re sleeping through the night and getting the recommended number of hours. How could you still be tired the next morning?

The explanation behind this symptom is that during episodes of sleep apnea, your brain can sense that your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, when you stop breathing. When there’s a lack of oxygen, your brain springs into action and sends your body a signal to wake up to kick-start the flow of air which contains oxygen once more. If your sleep is repeatedly interrupted, you aren’t able to fully enter deep, restorative sleep.

If your brain has to send your body this signal every time apnea sets in, this could mean that you wake up up to hundreds of times throughout the course of a single night without realizing it. This is because if you’re awake for just a few seconds, you will have no memory of these waking episodes. The next morning, you’ll feel more tired than usual. But even if you don’t know it’s happening, it’s still a problem.

2. You feel foggy and agitated

Deep sleep is a vital and wonderfully restorative time. So much happens:

  • Your body’s cells are repaired, thanks to growth hormones
  • Your brain waves become slower and larger
  • Healthy new cells appear in your organs and tissues
  • Your brain gets a chance to rest while still maintaining key functions

A lack of actual deep, restorative sleep can also impair cognitive functioning and affect your mood. Though different from deep sleep, the REM sleep stage can also be disrupted by sleep apnea. REM sleep is essential for memory formation and storage.

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3. Your snoring is loud

Another common indicator of sleep apnea is snoring. There are about 90 million people in the U.S. that snore, and many of them also have sleep apnea. In this instance, we’re talking unusually loud snoring. If your spouse or partner regularly mentions your loud, persistent snoring, it may be worth looking into—not just for your sleep health, but theirs as well.

Snoring happens because the tissue along your airway is vibrating due to partial collapse. More concerning than snoring is  the moments between snores when you may stop breathing, which would indicate sleep apnea.

4. You gasp for breath

A telltale sign of sleep apnea is if your spouse or bed partner has ever told you that you sometimes gasp for breath between snores or seem to be struggling to take a breath while you sleep. This can be a scary thing to witness, but more often or not, you will sleep right through it.

A deep, sudden gasp for air may indicate you had not been breathing for a short period of time. These relatively “short” instances of not breathing could be a cause for concern and a contributor to other health issues.

5. You fall asleep unexpectedly

Have you ever felt unusually drowsy or have fallen asleep during the day without meaning to? See if you doze off under any of these circumstances:

  • At your desk
  • While parked at a red light
  • In a movie theater
  • In a meeting

The tendency to easily fall asleep during the day—or excessive drowsiness—occurs because your body never had the chance to fall into a stage of deep sleep at night. Traffic accidents, interpersonal relationship issues and decreased productivity are all well-documented daytime consequences of patients with sleep apnea.

What does this mean for me?

Long-term, pathological sleep apnea has been linked to a wide variety of health issues and chronic conditions, including irregular heartbeat, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and depression.

Speaking with a sleep specialist or a board-certified doctor well-versed in sleep disorders is the first step in learning more about how sleep apnea specifically affects you, as well as the wide array of treatments available. Treatment for sleep apnea in the field of sleep medicine varies, and usually include some kind of lifestyle change, such as:

  • Losing weight
  • Sleeping in a different position
  • Cutting back on alcohol and caffeine
  • Obtaining a special breathing device designed to keep your airway open
  • Wearing a special mouthguard that helps keep your airway more open while you sleep

One of the healthiest, most helpful first steps you can take when it comes to your sleep health is learning the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. With a little education, help from a medical professional, and a desire to take control of your sleep health, you’ll be resting much easier.

Meir Kryger, MD, FRCPC was perhaps the first to diagnose and report obstructive sleep apnea in North America. He has published more than 200 research articles and book chapters and is the chief editor of the most widely used textbook in sleep medicine, “The Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine”. Dr. Kryger is a Professor of Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, the former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and is on the Board of Directors of the National Sleep Foundation. His latest book, The Mystery of Sleep, is available on Amazon.