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You may consider sleep to be your body’s autopilot mode. During sleep, your brain regulates automatic functions like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Though it remains a complex process that is yet to be fully understood, sleep is a definite factor in optimal health and functioning. Sleep apnea occurs when breathing repeatedly...

Introduction
 
Sleep apnea is under-diagnosed but common sleep disorder that causes multiple episodes of stopped breathing, gasping for air, or startling during sleep. Many people with sleep apnea do not even know that they have it. However, the consequences of untreated sleep apnea can be life threatening, making early diagnosis and treatment very important. It is a disorder that can be treated or managed with surgery, breathing assist devices at night, or lifestyle changes.
 
Anatomy
 
Sleep is a vital life process that allows your body to rest. It is just as important as breathing and eating. Your brain performs critical functions during sleep, such as processing brain chemicals and storing memory.
 
You may consider sleep to be your body’s autopilot mode. During sleep, your brain regulates automatic functions like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Though it remains a complex process that is yet to be fully understood, sleep is a definite factor in optimal health and functioning.
 
Causes
 
Sleep apnea occurs when breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. The word “apnea” means lack of breathing. Most cases of sleep apnea are due to obstructions in the throat or nose that block the breathing airway. Airway muscles relax during sleep, meaning that the airway blocks or closes.
 
A low level of carbon dioxide in the blood causes central sleep apnea, which is less common. Carbon dioxide is actually a powerful signal to breathe and if carbon dioxide levels are too low, the brain will not signal the lungs to breathe.
 
Symptoms
 
People with sleep apnea may not be aware of their condition, even though they stop breathing multiple times a night. Usually, a household member is the one to notice that someone is snoring loudly, gasping or snorting during sleep, and not breathing for some time. Signs of sleep apnea include headache upon awakening, depression, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, daytime drowsiness, leg swelling, and difficulty thinking or remembering. Sleep apnea is a risk factor for high blood pressure, and up to half of all people with sleep apnea may also have high blood pressure. Sleep apnea can lead to heart attack, stroke, or even death.
 
Diagnosis
 
If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, consult with your doctor. Your doctor will examine your throat and nose for structural abnormalities and may recommend a sleep study, which will help diagnose and determine the severity of your sleep apnea.
 
A sleep study can be done at a sleep disorders clinic or at home with special equipment. Polysomnography testing will record functions such as your blood oxygen levels, heart rate, eye movements, airflow, breathing, muscle movements, and brain activity. To determine how quickly you fall asleep, your doctor may order a multiple sleep latency test, which is helpful in ascertaining the extent of daytime drowsiness.
 
Treatment
 
Treatment will be based on the cause and extent of your sleep apnea. Treatment may involve use of an air device, dental appliance, lifestyle changes, and surgery. In some cases, more than one type of treatment is used.
 
Mild cases can be treated with lifestyle changes. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding alcohol, sedatives, tobacco, and sleeping pills can be beneficial. Sleeping on your side may also be helpful.
 
The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure, which entails wearing a device over your nose while you sleep. The nasal device is hooked up to a small machine that provides airflow and gentle air pressure that allows the airway to stay open. Continuous positive airway pressure is an effective treatment for sleep apnea.
 
Another method of treatment is dental appliances that position the lower jaw and tongue during sleep. These devices are suitable for cases of mild to moderate sleep apnea.
 
Sometimes, the size of an airway can be increased through surgery; common surgeries include removal of excess throat or palate tissue, adenoids, and tonsils. Nasal surgery can remove obstructions like polyps. Surgery appears to be more beneficial for children than adults.
 
Prevention
 
You can help prevent sleep apnea by reducing controllable risk factors like not smoking, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, and maintaining a healthy weight. Early diagnosis and treatment is important in reducing sleep apnea’s potential serious consequences.
 
Am I At Risk
 
Although people of all ages experience sleep apnea, it occurs most often in people over 40 years of age. Sleep apnea occurs more frequently in obese or elderly individuals. Other risk factors include being overweight, high blood pressure, alcohol consumption, loud snoring, family history of sleep apnea, and structural problems like blocked nasal passage or narrow throat.
 
Complications
 
Sleep apnea is a contributing factor to other medical conditions like high blood pressure. Sleep apnea can result in sleep deprivation, which in turn may cause hallucinations, confusion, and personality changes. It can also contribute to serious, life-threatening complications such as irregular heartbeat, stroke, heart attack, and sudden death. It is crucial to treat sleep apnea.
 
Advancements
 
Recent research has focused on the effects of cytokines, the signaling chemicals that may be in charge of regulating immune responses to inflammation. Cytokines may be responsible for making us sleepier during sicknesses. Sleep apnea increases the level of cytokines in the body, possibly causing the daytime drowsiness often seen in sleep apnea patients.