Poor Sleep Can Mean Poor Health

Snoring and frequent awakenings throughout the night could signal sleep apnea

A tired man rests in his living room while seated at his couch with clasped hands

by Bradley Schnierow, Sleep Specialist

Did you wake refreshed and energized this morning? Or did you wake up several times during the night, unable to sleep peacefully? Did your partner’s snoring keep you awake?

A good night’s sleep is essential to feeling your best both physically and psychologically. Normal sleep is generally composed of two main stages, non-rapid eye movement (called non-REM) and rapid eye movement (called REM) sleep.

Non-REM sleep makes up about 80 percent of sleep; during non-REM sleep, your body releases hormones that are critical to good health. REM sleep accounts for about 20 percent of the night and is the stage of “deep” sleep when dreams occur.

Side effects of sleeplessness

Without both stages of sleep, you may struggle to find the energy to get through the next day. The longer you go without enough sleep, the greater the cumulative effects. Not only can lack of sleep leave you feeling irritable, fatigued and unable to concentrate, but drivers who get behind the wheel of a car while sleepy can be almost as dangerous as those who drive drunk.

What’s more, one of the major causes of poor sleep — a condition known as sleep apnea — can have much more serious consequences, including cardiac disease and glucose intolerance. Sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep, blocking the airway and cutting off oxygen as a result.

Each time this happens, the brain signals the sleeper to wake up and breathe. People with sleep apnea may stop breathing hundreds of times during the night. Since sleep apnea interrupts both non-REM and REM sleep, the constant disruption prevents your vital organs and systems from resting and recovering as they normally would.

Research has found that sleep apnea can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack, congestive heart failure or stroke. And in patients who have Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea may worsen glucose control, increase blood pressure and make it harder to lose weight and stick to an exercise regimen.

Sleep apnea solutions

About one in five adults has sleep apnea, but it can affect anyone at any age (even children). It is most common among men, people over age 40, and people who are overweight.

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, constant tiredness, poor concentration, high blood pressure and unexplained awakenings. In addition, people with sleep apnea may wake up choking or coughing, which re-opens the airway.

Fortunately, treating sleep apnea can reduce or even eliminate many of these health risks by lowering blood glucose and blood pressure, eliminating stress on the heart and other organs and increasing energy.

CPAP and surgery

One common approach is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a bedside device that gently delivers pressurized air through a small nasal mask or pillows system. The pressurized air acts like an “air splint” to keep the upper airway open throughout the night, enabling you to breathe without interruption. Insurance often covers CPAP therapy.

Surgery may be another option. A relatively new procedure known as somnoplasty uses controlled, low-power radiofrequency energy to shrink the soft palate and reduce the amount of tissue that blocks the airway. A sleep specialist can determine whether you are a good candidate for somnoplasty. As with CPAP, insurance may cover treatment.

Talk with your doctor

Healthy sleep is fundamental for a healthy life. If you suspect you have sleep apnea symptoms, or you recognize them in a family member, make an appointment with a sleep specialist. Life is sweeter with a good night’s sleep — and it may be healthier as well.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Dr. Bradley Schnierow, sleep specialist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.