Sleep apnea is a term you might have heard, but did you know that it is a serious health concern? The American Sleep Apnea Association reports that 38,000 Americans die annually from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disease that causes symptoms such as breathing muscles that stop working, obstructed airways, or both of these life-threatening symptoms at once. Though sleep apnea is often associated with older men, it can occur at any age, whether you are male or female. Sleep apnea could intrude on your life at any time.

Sleep apnea causes more than just snoring.

No matter what causes of sleep apnea, this condition leads to multiple health problems. Most noticeably, it keeps you awake at night. By definition, sleep apnea (“apnea” is the Greek word for “without breath”) means you stop breathing while you are sleeping. When you stop breathing, you wake up, often multiple times in the night. In short, you don’t get a good night’s sleep, which keeps your body and brain from rebooting. Your inability to reboot leads to stress and can increase your chances of insulin resistance which could cause diabetes, and from there we could go down a long list of sleep apnea problems. But how can we avoid sleep apnea? The answer is easy: by learning what causes it and avoiding those risks. 

Here are 4 causes of sleep apnea that you should be aware of to keep your healthy lifestyle rolling.

1. Obesity

Obesity is the number one of the major causes of sleep apnea in America. Harvard Medical School’s blog asserts that there is a definite link between obesity and sleep apnea disorders. Excess weight causes excess tissue in your throat. This excess tissue can block your airway when your mouth and throat muscles relax during sleep and simply put, you begin to suffocate in your sleep. For patients who have obesity-caused sleep apnea, the drop in oxygen in their blood causes them to wake up and start breathing again. However, oxygen deprivation can damage your vital organs, including your heart. This was the case of Star Wars star, Carrie Fisher, who died of a heart attack that was related to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a type of sleep apnea that is often caused by obesity. 

Though it may be difficult to do, losing weight is a good way to reduce your risk of sleep apnea. Harvard Medical School’s blog says that losing just 10% of your body weight can significantly reduce symptoms. In the long run, it is easier to step on a treadmill than to struggle with the health problems caused by sleep apnea.

2. Smoking

In 1604, King James I wrote “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” a pamphlet that denounced smoking as a major health problem. Though smoking has fallen in and out of society’s graces since 1604, most people agree that smoking is bad for you and should be avoided. But whether society agrees on it or not, we should also avoid smoking because it can cause sleep apnea. Researchers believe that, besides running the risk of cancer, heart troubles, and strokes, smokers have three times the risk of getting sleep apnea in comparison to non-smokers. This is because smoking causes the airways to become inflamed, reducing the space for oxygen to get through. 

Nicotine withdrawal can also create sleep apnea symptoms, but these symptoms are only a temporary withdrawal effect. The main problem is smoking. Any way you look at it, not smoking is a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of your health.

3. Alcohol

Although alcohol is not the number one cause of sleep apnea, it can make symptoms more pronounced. Alcohol can even cause symptoms in people who don’t have sleep apnea. Some sleep apnea patients drink alcohol to decrease their “wake up” times, but what they don’t realize is that alcohol doesn’t fix the problem. Alcohol actually makes these symptoms worse, leading to possibly fatal consequences. For instance, alcohol relaxes your muscles, including your throat muscles, which makes it easier for airway obstruction to occur and harder for your body to wake up when your oxygen levels decrease. 

Alcohol also contributes to weight gain, which leads to obesity, the number one cause of sleep apnea disorders. And unfortunately, even if you drink alcohol earlier in the day, you aren’t really helping yourself. Diet, weight, medication, and gender all play a factor in how long alcohol effects last, meaning the relaxed state alcohol induces in you could last until the next time you go to sleep. To be on the safe side, quitting alcohol consumption altogether is the most beneficial course to take.

4. Pregnancy

Sometimes we can’t avoid things that cause this condition; one of the biggest causes of sleep apnea is pregnancy, but it never hurts to be aware that you may be in a situation that can cause it. For potential moms, pregnancy is one of those unavoidable situations. Having a baby is a wonderful thing, but along with your doctor’s list of things not to eat while pregnant, you should probably also be aware that sleep apnea is a possibility during the nine months your bundle of joy is taking to grow. When women are pregnant, they normally gain some weight. Though this type of weight gain is normal, it can lead to obstructed air passages. In addition, pregnancy can cause extra breathing effort, allergies, and an enlarged tongue, all things that can cause sleep apnea. Though these problems will most likely cease after pregnancy, it is good to keep the possibility of sleep apnea in mind during your pregnancy and talk with your doctor about any concerns you have.

Treating Sleep Apnea with Dental Appliances

One of the easiest ways to treat sleep apnea is with dental appliances. Now your dentist can prescribe oral appliance therapy which uses dental devices to open your airway while you sleep. Similar to a retainer and quieter than a CPAP machine, these devices either suction your tongue forward or position your jaw in a forward position to keep your airways open. Though there are over-the-counter dental appliances available, you will find that your dentist is better able to ensure you receive the best type and fit. Speak to your dentist to see if dental appliances can help treat your sleep apnea.