By: Chiarina Iregui,DDS
What would happen to your body if you encountered a bear in the middle of the woods? Your heart rate would rise, your stress hormones would increase, and your body would go into fight or flight mode. Snoring is an indicator that you are not breathing properly while you sleep, your body responds in the same way.
Sleep is a time for the body to relax, for cells to regenerate, and for the body to repair from the work it has done during the day. In people who suffer from unmanaged obstructive sleep apnea, their bodies are not given the opportunity to do this. Over time this can lead to physical conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia to name a few.
Why does obstructive sleep apnea have such a profound effect on the body’s function? Let’s first discuss what happens when someone suffers from obstructive sleep apnea. As they sleep, their muscles relax, this becomes more significant as they enter the deeper stages of sleep. This relaxation occurs in the lower jaw, the tongue, and the tissues in the back of the throat. As deeper stages of sleep occur, so does increased relaxation. In addition, as people age, their tissues lose tone, causing this relaxation to be more profound. As the tongue and lower jaw relax, they fall back into the airway space and significantly narrow or completely close the airway. Despite the brain signaling the body to breathe, the airway will not allow a sufficient amount of air, if any, to enter the lungs. Thus, preventing the body from receiving the oxygen it needs to function properly.
As the body begins to realize that it is not receiving oxygen, sleep is interrupted, consciously or unconsciously, so that the airway opens, enabling breathing. Breathing becomes deeper and more rapid to make up for the lack of oxygen that occurred during the narrowing or closure of the airway. The heart will beat at a rate of almost twice what it was during the airway closure.
When this happens several times an hour, the body experiences stress; stress hormones are released, and the heart suffers from a cycle of beating slowly to having to beat rapidly to supply oxygen to the organs.
This continuous cycle also prevents the deeper stages of sleep from occurring. It is in the deeper stages of sleep that the body does most of its repair work, cells regenerate, and memory is stored.
Over time, the stress of trying to breathe properly during sleep will take its toll in the form of physical effects. In addition, if a person is not getting into deep sleep for an adequate amount of time, they will feel tired when they wake up despite being “asleep” for 7-8 hours. This will manifest itself in a lack of energy, a decrease in cognitive ability, overeating, and the desire to seek sleep at dangerous times such as when working machinery or driving a car.
If you or someone you know is running from a bear every night when they sleep, it is important to seek medical attention. A proper diagnosis and treatment, of which there are options, are essential to sleeping like a lamb.
Author: Chiarina Iregui, DDS, is a dental sleep medicine specialist on the team at Pittsburgh Dental Sleep Medicine.