Sleep Apnea: Causes and Treatments

Do you crave sleep the way a dieter craves dessert? Rule out sleep apnea to help ensure you get adequate rest.

At a talk he gave at Team CrossFit Academy in Monrovia, CA, in August 2010, biochemist and The Paleo Solution author Robb Wolf noted that the single most influential factor in our health is the amount of sleep we are able to get. The capacity to get eight hours of unbroken sleep per night appears to have more of a positive influence on health, weight maintenance, and disposition than diet or exercise.

Unfortunately, many readers are likely to scoff at the possibility that they could get this much sleep on a regular basis. Indeed, many factors conspire to keep us from getting sufficient sleep, among them stress, parenting infant children, depression, overreliance on caffeinated beverages, and the like.

Another factor affecting the quality and amount of sleep some of us are able to get is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when an individual stops breathing periodically while asleep. There are two types. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat obstructs the airway. Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain neglects to signal the muscles that control breathing to do their job.1

In addition to causing fatigue and making it difficult to get restful sleep, sleep apnea can exacerbate high blood pressure; result in stroke, diabetes, or heart problems; and/or contribute to depression2. Symptoms include loud snoring, daytime tiredness, periods of breathing cessation during sleep, and insomnia.

Frequently there is a correlation between obesity and incidence of sleep apnea. Thus, a healthy lifestyle, including maintenance of a healthy weight and refraining from smoking, is one treatment for sleep apnea. Other treatments involve the use of air pressure. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), for instance, forces air into the nose of a sleeping individual via a mask attached to a portable machine. This keeps the airways open. There are also several types of surgeries that can remove tissue from the throat or nose to improve the flow of air3.

If you have difficulty sleeping or feel that you do not get restful sleep, a sleep test might help you rule out sleep apnea as a potential cause.