Sleep Apnea, Explained in About 2 Minutes

Gasping while you sleep? Fatigued all day? This might be why.

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When you sleep, your body is basically on autopilot. While you are busy dreaming, your heart keeps beating, your lungs keep breathing, your stomach keeps digesting, and so on. But in some people, breathing gets disrupted during sleep, causing you to wake up multiple times a night. This may be caused by a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder, affecting over 18 million adults in the United States, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The numbers are likely much higher, since sleep apnea is believed to be under-diagnosed.

The Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea means the upper airway collapses, thus obstructing the back of the throat. This restricts breathing, like a kink in a garden hose.
  • Central sleep apnea means your brain doesn’t send the signal to breathe. Basically, your “command center” is sleeping on the job. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.

The reasoning behind the two types of sleep apnea may be very different, but the results are the same: Your breathing pauses for several seconds at a time, followed by snorting, gasping, or choking for air. You may not fully awaken, but the breathing pauses may disrupt your sleep cycles.

The disruption in sleep cycles causes you to feel extreme fatigue during the day. For this reason, sleep apnea is both a breathing problem and a type of sleep disorder.

Getting Better Sleep

The mainstay of treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. As the name implies, this is a device that uses a facemask to provide a constant flow of air, and the pressure helps keep the airway “inflated” so it doesn’t collapse.

Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes to treat obstructive sleep apnea, such as losing weight, exercising, changing your sleep position, and avoiding alcohol. All of these have been shown to reduce the number of “apneas,” or the episodes of paused breathing.

If you’re getting 8 hours of sleep a night but still feeling fatigued all day, talk to your doctor. You may have sleep apnea, or your fatigue could be caused by another underlying condition that needs treatment.