|Health is not a condition of matter, but of mind|
|Written by Justin Newman, medical student|
Snoring and sleep apnea
In the mouth and the throat there are soft tissues—adenoids, extra lining of the nose, mouth and throat, septum in the nose and the soft tissue of the back of the tongue and throat—and all of these tissues can cause a person to have problems with snoring.
When a person is asleep, there is an extra relaxation in the muscles that hold these tissues open during the day that relax when the person is asleep. Sometimes they may relax to the point that they partially block off the flow of air into the person’s lungs. When the air has to squeak around these mostly closed airways, the resonating sound that is heard is that horrible sound that we have too often had to put our pillows over our ears to block out.
Sleep apnea is a lack of appropriate breathing while sleeping. Apnea is the Greek word for “without breath.” Sleep apnea is just that—a lack of breath while sleeping.
When snoring is very strong or when the snoring is the result of airways that have become completely blocked off, problems begin to occur for the body. When the air flow is completely blocked off or when not enough air is able to get into the snorer’s lungs while sleeping, then the sleeping brain will tell the body it is starving for oxygen. This will cause the person to wake up.
The person may wake only for a brief moment and often times the person is waking up but does not realize that he has woken up. The brain wakes the body up enough to get a deep breath of air into the lungs, and then the person is allowed to go back to sleep. The person will usually have no recollection of being awoken, but the person who is sharing the bed with them may notice that there is a pattern to their sleeping, snoring and becoming restless (when they are partially woken up).
Although sleeping, the person is not able to get the restful night’s sleep they need, since they are constantly being awoken before they get into the deep, quality sleep, and even if they are sleeping many hours per night, they are exhausted since they are not able to get good sleep.
There are a few things that can make snoring worse for someone. One is alcohol. When your body is asleep, the mind has to coordinate the rate you breath at, and the muscles in your throat and chest have to contract at just the right time to allow the breaths of air in while the person is asleep.
Alcohol slows many processes in the body down including this one. When the alcohol is on board, the brain often has difficulty coordinating the timing of the breaths with the contraction of the muscles in the throat and mouth, resulting in the breaths being partially blocked when they try to get in. Blocked breaths mean snoring noises and apnea if they are bad enough and the person is not able to get the restful sleep that they need.
Some other drugs and medications may worsen these symptoms in the same way. Also, if a person has a head cold, the soft tissues in the nose and throat may be swollen and inflamed, causing worse snoring.
Snoring is usually corrected mostly for social reasons. Which is a nice way to say the spouse and whoever else tries to sleep within earshot makes the snorer do something about their sawing of ZZZ’s.
However, apnea can cause many medical problems. The signs to look for are excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, awaking with a dry mouth, sore throat or a headache, and difficulty staying asleep or insomnia.
When the body cannot achieve a restful sleep, a number of processes are disrupted. Normal growth patterns are thrown off and the healing and immune system responses are unable to function correctly. The lack of oxygen can create changes in the cardiovascular system and sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure. This can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Even relationships can become strained as neither the person with the sleep apnea nor their significant other can achieve restful sleep.
Justin Newman is originally from Holyoke and is attending medical school at the University Of Chicago Pritzker School Of Medicine.
This column is about health related issues with a focus on a rural community. The purpose of this column is to be informative and to comment on interesting medical and health related topics. Any questions or concerns that may arise regarding topics covered by this article should be addressed to your primary care doctor.