Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. One of the most commonly prescribed sleep apnea treatments is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves wearing a mask that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open.
In addition to medical interventions like using a CPAP machine, certain lifestyle changes can significantly improve sleep apnea and overall sleep quality.
There are three types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): This is the most common type of sleep apnea, occurring when the muscles in the throat relax and block the airway.1
- Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): This uncommon type of sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to signal your breathing muscles. This means that your body makes no effort to breathe for a short period. You might wake suddenly with shortness of breath or have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.1
- Mixed or Complex Sleep Apnea: As the name suggests, mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
During a sleep apnea episode, the airway becomes partially or completely blocked, resulting in a short pause in breathing. These pauses, called apneas, can last for several seconds to minutes and occur several times at night.
The lack of oxygen triggers the brain to briefly wake up and resume breathing, often accompanied by choking or gasping. Common sleep apnea symptoms include loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
In this article, you’ll learn about several lifestyle changes and tips to help alleviate sleep apnea and improve sleep quality.
What Causes Sleep Apnea? Most Common Causes
The main cause of sleep apnea is often the relaxation or collapse of throat muscles, resulting in a blocked or narrowed airway. Other causes include obesity, anatomical factors, aging, family history, smoking, and alcohol use.
Certain things can increase the risk of this form of OSA. Risk factors include:
- Excess weight. Obesity significantly increases the risk of OSA as fat deposits around your upper airway can obstruct your breathing.2
- Neck circumference. People with larger neck circumferences might have narrower airways.2
- Narrow airway. Your genetics may have given you a narrow throat. Tonsils or adenoids also can enlarge and block the airway.2
- Being biologically male. Men are more likely to have sleep apnea than women.
- Age. Sleep apnea occurs more often in older adults.2
- Family history. You might have an increased risk of OSA if your family members have it.2
- Using alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers. Using these substances causes the muscles in your throat to relax, which can worsen obstructive sleep apnea.2
- Smoking. Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than people who don’t. Smoking can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.3
- Nasal congestion. If you have trouble breathing through your nose, you're more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.2
- Medical conditions. Congestive heart failure, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes may increase the risk of OSA. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hormonal disorders, prior stroke, and chronic lung diseases such as asthma may also increase risk.2
Risk factors for central sleep apnea (CSA) include:
- Age. Middle-aged and older people have a higher risk of CSA.
- Being biologically male. Central sleep apnea is more common in men than it is in women.
- Cardiovascular events. Cardiovascular disease increases the risk of CSA, particularly congestive heart failure and stroke.
- Use of narcotic pain medicines. Long-acting opioid medicines can increase the risk of CSA.
12 Most Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
Common signs of sleep apnea include:
- Waking up gasping for breath
- Sleep fragmentation, or waking up often during the night
- Waking up often to use the bathroom during the night
- Waking up with a dry mouth
- Morning headaches
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Sore throat after sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Mood swings
- Your bed partner noticing pauses in your breathing at night
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms but have not been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you should consult with a sleep medicine specialist. A sleep specialist may order a polysomnograph, a sleep study.
A sleep study is used to diagnose sleep disorders by recording your brain waves, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing during sleep. It also measures eye and leg movements.
In addition to an official diagnosis, a sleep study might help determine a treatment plan if you've already been diagnosed with a sleep disorder. It also might be used to make changes to your treatment.
Sleep Apnea Side Effects
Sleep apnea can have a range of negative effects on overall health and well-being. When left untreated, repeated disruptions to breathing during sleep can lead to several complications and health conditions.4
Here are some of the most common side effects associated with sleep apnea:
- High blood pressure
Sleep apnea can contribute to elevated blood pressure levels, increasing the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular problems.4
- Erectile dysfunction
The disruptions in oxygen supply and decreased blood flow associated with sleep apnea can lead to sexual dysfunction in men, including erectile dysfunction.5
- Low sex drive
Sleep apnea can also cause a decrease in libido and overall interest in sexual activity.5
Individuals with sleep apnea have a higher risk of experiencing strokes due to the effects of interrupted breathing and reduced oxygen levels.4
- Heart disease
Sleep apnea has been linked to an increased risk of various heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart failure, and irregular heart rhythms.4
Sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, likely due to the impact of interrupted sleep on insulin resistance.6
There is a reciprocal relationship between sleep apnea and obesity, as excess weight can contribute to the development of sleep apnea, and sleep apnea, in turn, can make it challenging to lose weight.
Researchers are studying the relationship between OSA, obesity, and eating behaviors, such as night-eating syndrome.13
Sleep apnea has been linked to an increased risk of depression and mood disorders, likely due to the impact of disrupted sleep on mental health.7,
- Decline in brain health and dementia
Studies suggest that untreated sleep apnea may contribute to cognitive decline and an increased risk of developing conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.8
While it’s uncommon, especially in cases of mild sleep apnea, observational studies suggest that untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to an increased risk of sudden death. This appears to affect older individuals, those with critical illnesses, and individuals with severe sleep apnea.9
Can Sleep Apnea Be Cured?
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition, and currently, there is no known cure for it. However, there are various sleep apnea treatment options.
CPAP therapy is a common and effective treatment method for OSA. This treatment involves wearing a CPAP mask during sleep that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open.
Bilevel-positive airway pressure (BPAP) is another treatment option for CSA. A BPAP machine is a mechanical breathing device with a mask used to treat sleep apnea and other health conditions affecting your breathing patterns. BPAP is also beneficial in cases of mixed sleep apnea or severe OSA.12
Additionally, lifestyle changes and healthy habits can significantly improve the quality of life for people with sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Self-Care: 9 Healthy Habits to Improve and Get Rid of Sleep Apnea
The primary goal of sleep apnea treatment is to manage and reduce the symptoms and associated risks.
In addition to medical interventions like CPAP, BPAP, and other oral devices, lifestyle changes, and habits can greatly contribute to managing sleep apnea and improving overall well-being. Let's explore some of these lifestyle changes and home remedies in more detail.
Keep a Healthy Weight
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy body weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise can help reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms.
Improve your Physical Activity
Being physically active has so many benefits for individuals with sleep apnea. Exercise can help with weight management, improve cardiovascular health and respiratory function, and promote better sleep quality. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activities such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming per week.
Give Yoga a Chance
Yoga is amazing for people with sleep apnea due to its focus on deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and postural alignment. Regular yoga practice can help strengthen respiratory muscles, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality, and promote overall relaxation.
Alter your Sleep Position
Sleeping on your side instead of your back is one of the home remedies that can help manage sleep apnea. Side-sleeping may prevent the tongue and soft tissues from blocking the airway, reducing the occurrence of apnea episodes. Pillows or positional devices that encourage side sleeping can be beneficial.
Get a Humidifier
Another home remedy for sleep apnea is a humidifier. Adding moisture to the air with a humidifier can prevent dryness in the nasal passages and throat. This can help reduce snoring and alleviate congestion, making breathing easier for those with sleep apnea.
Reduce Alcohol and Quit Smoking
Drinking alcohol and smoking can worsen the symptoms of sleep apnea. Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the airway, making it more prone to collapse, while smoking irritates the airway and can cause inflammation. Reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking can improve sleep apnea symptoms and promote better overall health.
Add In Supplements
The effectiveness and safety of supplements can vary from person to person, so it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before starting anything new.
Some supplements, such as magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids, have been associated with potential benefits for sleep apnea.10
Allergies can worsen sleep apnea symptoms by causing nasal congestion and inflammation. Treating allergies with antihistamines, nasal sprays, or allergy shots can help reduce congestion and improve breathing, which may help alleviate sleep apnea symptoms.
Improving sleep hygiene practices can have a positive impact on sleep apnea. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a cool, dark, and comfortable sleep environment, avoiding eating or using stimulants close to bedtime, and implementing relaxation techniques to promote better sleep quality. Certain foods might help you sleep better, too.
Remember, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional to discuss specific lifestyle changes and supplements that may be suitable for you and your condition.
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Topics discussed in this article:
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March 24). Sleep Apnea - What Is Sleep Apnea? NHLBI. Retrieved July 9, 2023, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-apnea
- Mitra, A. K., Bhuiyan, A. R., & Jones, E. A. (2021). Association and Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Diseases: A Systematic Review. Diseases (Basel, Switzerland), 9(4), 88. https://doi.org/10.3390/diseases9040088
- Jang, Y.S., Nerobkova, N., Hurh, K. et al. (2023). Association between smoking and obstructive sleep apnea based on the STOP-Bang index. Sci Rep 13, 9085. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-34956-5
- American Heart Association. (2023, June 26). Sleep Apnea and Heart Health. American Heart Association. Retrieved July 9, 2023, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea-and-heart-disease-stroke
- Gu, Y., Wu, C., Qin, F., & Yuan, J. (2022). Erectile Dysfunction and Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 13, 766639. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.766639
- Siwasaranond, N., Nimitphong, H., Manodpitipong, A., Saetung, S., Chirakalwasan, N., Thakkinstian, A., & Reutrakul, S. (2018). The Relationship between Diabetes-Related Complications and Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Type 2 Diabetes. Journal of diabetes research, 2018, 9269170. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/9269170
- Jehan, S., Auguste, E., Pandi-Perumal, S. R., Kalinowski, J., Myers, A. K., Zizi, F., Rajanna, M. G., Jean-Louis, G., & McFarlane, S. I. (2017). Depression, Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Psychosocial Health. Sleep medicine and disorders : international journal, 1(3), 00012.
- Guay-Gagnon, M., Vat, S., Forget, M. F., Tremblay-Gravel, M., Ducharme, S., Nguyen, Q. D., & Desmarais, P. (2022). Sleep apnea and the risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sleep research, 31(5), e13589. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.13589
- Heilbrunn, E. S., Ssentongo, P., Chinchilli, V. M., Oh, J., & Ssentongo, A. E. (2021). Sudden death in individuals with obstructive sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ open respiratory research, 8(1), e000656. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjresp-2020-000656
- Archontogeorgis, K., Nena, E., Papanas, N., & Steiropoulos, P. (2018). The role of vitamin D in obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Breathe (Sheffield, England), 14(3), 206–215. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.000618
- Jung, S. Y., Kim, H. S., Min, J. Y., Hwang, K. J., & Kim, S. W. (2019). Sleep hygiene-related conditions in patients with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Auris, nasus, larynx, 46(1), 95–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anl.2018.06.003
- Mansukhani, M. P., Kolla, B. P., Olson, E. J., Ramar, K., & Morgenthaler, T. I. (2014). Bilevel positive airway pressure for obstructive sleep apnea. Expert review of medical devices, 11(3), 283–294. https://doi.org/10.1586/17434440.2014.900435
- Cassidy, S., Harvey, L., & Smyth, S. (2023). Examining the relationship between obstructive sleep apnoea and eating behaviours and attitudes: A systematic review. Appetite, 181, 106390. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2022.106390