Many of us have difficulty sleeping. Some of us sleep too much, while others sleep too little. Regardless, it can feel like you are living in your own personal Goldilocks story: it’s never just the right amount. However, for some Americans, the act of sleeping itself can be a minefield. Approximately 18 million of them suffer from a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea which can affect your day-to-day life in a number of ways, some of which can be very dangerous. Although sleep apnea is primarily regarded as a men’s disorder, sleep experts and medical authorities have recently discovered that women may be at a higher risk for this problem. Here is some background on sleep apnea, including how it affects women and men differently, as well as ways to cope with and prevent the disorder:
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which an individual has one or more pauses in breathing. If left untreated, it can be fatal. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea syndrome when an individual has both obstructive and central sleep apneas.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most common type, occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax, narrowing the airway. The brain senses the subsequent decrease in oxygen levels and wakes your body up in order to reopen the airway. The awakening is often brief but is sufficient to pull you out of a REM cycle. Typically, this occurs between five and 30 times per hour throughout the night thereby inhibiting a restful sleeping pattern.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the breathing muscles do not receive a signal from the brain for a short period of time. Typically, this causes you to wake up short of breath and prevents many individuals from staying asleep.
Many of the signs and symptoms of these types of apneas are the same. These include loud snoring, periods of no breathing during sleep, abrupt awakenings, morning headaches, difficulty getting to and staying asleep, excessive tiredness during the day and/or awakening with a dry mouth or a sore throat.
Why are Women at a Higher Risk than Men?
Although sleep apnea has often been considered the sleep disorder of older, overweight men, new research from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Nursing and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, indicates women are at higher risk. The researchers found that women with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea are 30 percent more likely to develop symptoms of heart disease. Additionally, women are highly underdiagnosed with sleep apnea largely because they present with different, non-specific symptoms than their male counterparts. Clinicians look for patients with larger necks as a symptom, however, many women have smaller necks and mouths that can make them more susceptible to blocked airways. Other symptoms can include insomnia, restless leg syndrome, depression, and morning headaches. Misdiagnoses of sleep apnea as another type of disorder can potentially lead to higher rates of related fatalities.
Women who are obese and those who have high blood pressure are at greater risk of exacerbated symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. Additionally, women who are pregnant, post-menopausal, have an endocrine disorder or polycystic ovary syndrome are all more likely to have sleep apnea, regardless of their weight. Many women do not realize they have sleep issues and thus, do not go to the doctor. However, even those with mild sleep apnea are at an increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, and anxiety.
Tips to Cope with and Prevent Sleep Apnea
Many women do not make sleep a priority. They often put their families and their careers before themselves and rarely make time to relax. Combined with the fact that their symptoms often differ from their male counterparts, it’s no wonder that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed in women.
If you are young and healthy but do not prioritize sleep, now is the time to take action. Talking to your doctor earlier in life about any sleep issues you have can potentially prevent more serious issues down the road. There are a number of easy solutions for individuals with sleep apnea. For those who like to sleep on their back, devices that keep the jaw in place, rather than allowing it to fall back and constrict the airway, are the best option. Those with mild to moderate sleep apnea who grind their teeth might be better off consulting a dentist to obtain a mouth guard or similar device. While sleep apnea can affect women of any size, obese patients should consider a weight loss program which is also beneficial in improving heart health and preventing Type 2 diabetes. Women who suffer from sleep apnea should also minimize the amount of alcohol they consume since liver problems are associated with the disorder.
Women who are suffering from poor sleep should not ignore potential symptoms. Make an appointment to see a medical professional today. Sleep apnea can be fatal if left untreated – make your health a priority so you are ready for whatever life throws at you, now and in the future!