Snoring and Sleep Apnea
Snoring and Sleep Apnea
But as people age, their sleep becomes lighter and more fragmented. Your spouse’s snoring, which you may have been able to put up with 20 years ago, may be too disturbing now. And if you’re the snorer, you may even be waking yourself up now.
What’s more, the snoring may actually be a signal of a more serious problem. If the snoring occurs in loud gasping snorts that may ultimately cause you or your bedmate to stop breathing for brief periods of time, then there’s a good chance that snore isn’t just a snore—it’s sleep apnea.
To avoid confusion, let’s define the two right here: Snoring occurs as you inhale during your sleep and the soft tissues of your throat—the uvula and soft palate—vibrate against the back of your throat or tongue.
Sleep apnea, however, occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax during sleep. With this relaxation, breathing passages become narrower and may completely obstruct the passage for as long as 60 seconds. This causes a gasping type of snoring that can be serious if it isn’t controlled, says Nancy Collop, M.D., pulmonary/critical-care doctor specializing in sleep medicine and associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Apnea puts you at risk for high blood pressure. During apnea, when you obstruct the breathing passage, the levels of oxygen in your blood decrease. Your body treats this as a panic situation and starts pouring hormones into your bloodstream to wake you up or get you breathing again. An unfortunate side effect of this strategy is that the hormones cause your blood pressure to climb. When people with apnea are monitored all night long in sleep labs, researchers have found that their blood pressures go up at a time when blood pressure is normally at its lowest. In fact, that’s one way researchers can tell if you have apnea.
“It’s clear from research that in its severe form produces high blood pressure and heart failure and depression and mental clouding,” says Daniel Kripke, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. For that reason, if you suspect that you have sleep apnea, it’s important to see a sleep specialist to determine how serious the problem is.
If it turns out that you do have a less severe apnea or just a serious case of snoring, consider some of these tips to improve your slumber.
Try This First
Because people move around in their sleep, you might be turning over on your back even if you start out in another position. Dr. Kripke says the easiest way to keep yourself from rolling onto your back is to sew a tennis ball into the back of your pajamas; you’ll feel it when you roll onto it. “It’s a very inexpensive way to train people not to sleep on their backs,” he observes.
Other Wise Ways
Clear the airways. Any type of congestion, from colds to allergies, can aggravate a snoring problem. “The more resistance there is in your nose, the more you have to suck in to breathe,” says Dr. Kripke. And that action can cause apnea. You can treat stuffy nose with a nonaddicting nasal spray that contains cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom). Use this over-the-counter product before bedtime to help you breathe more easily.
Keep your nostrils spread. For some people, collapsing nostrils are a problem that can be helped with Breathe Right nasal strips. These strips, which are taped over the outside bridge of the nose to keep the nostrils from collapsing, are available at most pharmacies. There’s a quick way to see if these strips might be helpful to you, Dr. Kripke says. Stand in front of a mirror, take deep breaths in through your nose, and observe whether the sides of your nostrils get sucked in as you breathe. If they do, then you can probably benefit from using the strip since it will help force your nostrils to stay open.
Don’t do the dinner drinks. Alcohol has an initial sedating effect, and this can worsen snoring and apnea by increasing muscle relaxation, Dr. Kripke says. So you may want to avoid alcohol in the evening.
Snooze without sleeping pills. If you take sleeping pills, the medication might be contributing to apnea or making snoring worse, Dr. Kripke says. The pills relax your muscles, including those around your tongue and throat.
Managing Your Meds
The following types of drugs can all make snoring and sleep apnea worse, according to Daniel Kripke, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Talk to your doctor if you’re taking:
• Sleeping pills (either prescription or over-the-counter) such as zolpidem (Ambien), flurazepam (Dalmane), temazepam (Restoril), or triazolam (Halcion)
• Sedatives such as diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan)
Humidify the house. A lack of humidity can cause the membranes in your airways to dry out and swell, increasing the potential for one tissue to rub against another and vibrate, says Peter Hauri, M.D., co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester, Minnesota, and author of No More Sleepless Nights. A humidifier in the bedroom can help you remain moist and may help you sleep more quietly.
Check for allergies. Allergies can cause swelling in the airway membranes, Dr. Collop says, leading to more friction, more snoring, and worse apnea. If you know you have allergies, take your medication regularly. If you suspect that allergies may be causing snoring, talk to your doctor about being tested for allergies.
Put down the cigarette. Besides all of the serious health consequences, smoking irritates the nose and throat, causing swelling that can make the vibrations of snoring more likely and make apnea worse, Dr. Hauri says. Kick the habit, and you’ll snore less.
Get a good night’s sleep. Most people, even seniors, need about eight hours of sleep a night. If you don’t get enough, your body has a tendency to make up for a lack of rest by making your sleep deeper the next time you sleep, explains Dr. Collop. In deeper sleep, your muscles become more relaxed, setting the scene for increased snoring. So try to get your full night’s rest. If you can’t, try to take a nap during the day. You’ll be better rested and less apt to snore.