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Breathe - My Cure for Sleep Apnea

Updated on June 4, 2011

Do I have Sleep Apnea?

I first heard of sleep apnea after my mother was diagnosed with it. I didn't understand what it was at first, only that she had to hook up some machine to help her breathe at night. She was overweight and had problems with snoring, so for a long time I associated those with sleep apnea, and pushed it to the back of my mind. It never occurred to me that I might have it, too.

A couple years after I got married, I started having trouble getting enough sleep. At first I thought it was just a side effect of pregnancy, having my lungs and all my other parts crowded so tightly they just didn't have the room for a deep breath. Certainly it was a contributing factor - but even after delivery, it didn't go away.

For months I struggled to get enough sleep to not be tired in the morning - I could sometimes sleep for ten hours or more and still be ready to nod off within moments of lying down. It didn't seem to make a difference how long I slept, I was always exhausted the next day.

Eventually, I saw the connection between tiredness and feeling short of breath, and dug up the memory of my mother's sleep apnea, and was able to begin research into its causes and cures. Here's what I found.

Image credit: Bertil Videt

What is Sleep Apnea?

An apnea is defined as a ten second pause between breaths, which is long enough to stimulate conscious parts of the brain to kick in and force the body to breathe. Sometimes this is enough stimulation to actually cause you to wake up, but usually not. If this happens more than 5 times an hour, it is considered clinical sleep apnea.

In an apneic episode, two things happen. The first is that during apnea, no new oxygen is being cycled to your cells, which keeps them from performing their usual tasks, many of which can only happen when the body is resting. The second is that when your brain responds to this lack of oxygen, it draws you out of the deep sleep that your body needs each night. This is why no matter how long you continue to sleep, your fatigue doesn't go away.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

There are 3 types of apnea - obstructive, central, and complex apnea.

Obstructive apnea is when the muscles around the larynx relax too much and allow it to collapse, blocking air flow. This is the most common cause of apnea, and is often associated with snoring and obesity.

Central apnea is when the respiration control centers in the brain don't react quickly enough to decreased levels of oxygen. The brain actually forgets to signal the lungs to inhale.

Complex apnea is a combination of the two types. It is believed that chronic obstructive apnea trains the respiratory control centers to stop sending what they perceive as unnecessary signals, upgrading it to complex apnea.

Central apnea can also be induced by many depressants, including alcohol, opiates, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines. These can aggravate chronic apnea, and should be avoided by sufferers.

Medical Treatments for Sleep Apnea

The most commonly prescribed treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine. It consists of an air flow device connected to a face mask which is worn at night. A CPAP machine uses continuous air pressure to keep the airway open, with programmed pauses to allow the patient to exhale.

Many insurance plans will cover the cost of a CPAP device, if prescribed by an accredited sleep clinic. Many optional features can increase the comfort of the wearer, or even record data for the physician to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment. Other equipment such as specially shaped pillows may also be prescribed.

Surgery is another option. Many parts of the neck and throat can contribute to obstructive sleep apnea, and surgically reshaping these can provide a more permanent solution.

Medications which lower blood pH are sometimes used to treat central sleep apnea. Oxygen is also used to treat apnea, but is discouraged due to the possibility of hyperoxia.

My Cure for Sleep Apnea

My simple method for preventing apnea episodes starts by evaluating your breathing patterns during the day. After doing this, I realized that I was unconsciously pausing between each breath, actually letting my windpipe close after exhaling. Take a moment and concentrate on the way you're breathing. Do you stop or make a small clicking sound in your throat after exhaling? If you do, my method might help you, too.

Here's how it works. For a few minutes, focus on your breathing. You can use the video below to help you relax and to time yourself. Concentrate on not letting your windpipe close between breaths. It may help you to start breathing in again just before your lungs are completely empty. Like a hiccup, this reflex can be hard to suppress if your body is too used to you breathing this way, but try to go the full four minutes (if you're using the video) without letting your throat catch.

Remember: the way you breathe when you're awake is the way you're going to breathe when you're asleep. Repeat this breathing exercise throughout the day as often as you remember it, but the most important time is right before you fall asleep. As you lay down, do the exercise with an even tempo as you fall asleep. You should find that re-training your body this way will help you feel refreshed in the morning and give you more energy during the day.

Remember - just breathe.

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