Oxygen is the No. 1 drug the body needs to live. It can be strongly assumed that people who snore and stop breathing at night have apnea and are slowly killing themselves in a fascinating sequence of events described in this column. While sleep science is still in its infancy, there are things you, the reader, need to know.
Along with all animals, human evolution created a fight-or-flight system to protect the species. A seen or unseen rattlesnake, rattling its tail right under your feet, creates instant panic. Chemicals in the brain kick the decision-making process into overdrive. The heart starts racing, breathing becomes rapid and in order to fuel necessary actions, sugar is instantly released from reserves in liver, muscle and fat. At the same instant, nonurgent systems like digestion and the immune system virtually come to a stop. All energy is diverted into the survival mood of fight or flight. An instantaneous cascade of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol create this hyper state of awareness. All feelings and actions occur in a nanosecond. The body is truly amazing.
Once a safe distance from danger and out of harm’s way, everything starts to settle down; heartbeat and breathing slows, insulin cleans up the sugar in the bloodstream, digestion and the immune system are returned to normal: danger over allowing the body to self-regulate.
Holding one’s breath has little effect on the fight or flight response. Choking, while asleep or awake is in no way like holding one’s breath. Choking creates panic in the brain.
If one has sleep apnea, they are choking on their tongue, depriving the body of oxygen. This event is obviously less reactive than fear of a rattlesnake bite, but nonetheless, is real and the gasping is a fight or flight response. After all, choking is choking and the body responds. It is a minor scenario of the snake nevertheless, the same hormones are pumped into the bloodstream. Heart rate is increased, sugar floods into the bloodstream, muscles tighten, immune system and digestive system are turned off, mind races, etc. Sleep studies measure and confirm all this activity and more.
Severe apnea patients stop breathing from 30 to 50 times an hour. Cortisol is not only a stress hormone it is also a wake up hormone. Choking stresses the body, which releases cortisol that can and will keep the body from going through its needed and normal sleep stages.
People with apnea may appear to be dead to the world but in no way are they getting the needed, quality sleep. Quality sleep is necessary to maintain proper health. Daytime sleepiness is one of the more common symptoms of sleep apnea.
The released sugar increases problems for diabetics and makes it hard to lose weight. These events are so rapid, one behind the other, the insulin can’t keep up and can’t pull the sugar out of the blood. You can see how this could lead to some very serious problems.
The bottom line is that sleep apnea harms the body by creating oxidative stress, inflammation of the blood vessels which can cause cardiovascular problems, increases insulin intolerance, increases problems for existing diabetics, can create severe and dangerous daytime sleepiness, increase in weight, all due to a the protective fight or flight system designed to protect us.
The good news is apnea can be controlled and the body can make it through the night with no starvation of oxygen, no choking and no fight or flight events. Sleep apnea cannot be diagnosed without a sleep study. If the apnea can’t be measured, it can’t be sufficiently treated.
Diagnosis and treatment is only done by a properly trained sleep doctor. The gold standard of treatment is the CPAP, which pushes oxygen into the lungs. CPAPs are supplied by medical supplies companies and come in all types and shapes.
In many instances, oral appliances, which keep the tongue out of the back of the throat, will allow normal breathing while sleeping and have the same effect and relief as the CPAP. Only a dentist can fabricate and oral appliance. It is imperative that the doctor and dentist work together when oral appliances are used.
Your primary care physician and or your dentist can help you find a sleep doctor.
Hopefully, this layman’s article explains snoring and apnea in a way that makes sense; enough sense to take action for yourself or your loved ones.
If you order and use an over the counter device or something off the internet, you are playing Russian roulette for all the reasons stated above.