Does the bedroom sometimes leave you breathless? No, it’s not about the romantic hours with your partner. Instead, you could be one of the 5% of women who do not breathe properly at night and suffer unnoticed from so-called sleep apnea. This leads to exhaustion or irritability during the day, which is often misinterpreted as depression in women. A sleep doctor will explain how to recognise impaired breathing.
What is sleep apnea?
The word A-pnea means “without breath”, so sleep apnea means that at some point during sleep you stop breathing. For a few seconds you can’t breathe for a few seconds until you wake up, take a breath and fall asleep again. In the morning, you don’t remember this at all.
In individual cases, this is no worse than holding your breath for a few seconds during the day. But if this happens again and again throughout the night, it disturbs your sleep and oxygen intake. This is why people often feel tired and exhausted, even though they actually sleep enough. “Due to the constant waking up and taking a breath, sleep is much less deep, so body and mind cannot recover”, explains Hartmut Schneider, a sleep physician from Frankfurt.
Why does my breathing sometimes stop?
“During sleep, especially during dream phases, all muscles in the body relax,” explains Schneider. This also includes the area of the mouth and jaw in the so-called pharynx. In some people, these muscles relax so much that they “fall” into the airways and constrict the windpipe. If you breathe now, the muscles begin to flutter and the typical snoring sound is produced.
“In some cases, however, the muscles become so flabby that no air can get past them,” says the sleep researcher. The airways are then completely blocked and you can no longer breathe. This takes an average of 20 to 40 seconds, but can last up to 3 minutes. This respiratory arrest can occur about 60 times per hour throughout the night, but most often in the morning. This is the phase of deepest sleep, when we dream.
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By the way, twice as many men as women suffer from breathing difficulties. Not necessarily because they snore more, but because they store fat differently. While women tend to have the bacon rolls on their hips, buttocks and legs, men gain weight mainly on their stomachs. “Abdominal fat promotes the slackening of the muscles of the respiratory tract in addition to the genetic condition,” Schneider explains. People who are overweight therefore snore more often than slim people.
The shape of your jaw also determines whether you get enough air at night. “Some people have a lower jaw that is too small, which can also block the airways,” says the physician. “This can be congenital or it can be due to the fact that you had long enlarged tonsils in childhood and breathed a lot through your mouth.
If you often wake up with a headache in the morning, it may be due to breathing stops during the night © Dean Drobot / Shutterstock.com
What happens in case of respiratory arrest?
In sleep apnea, air can no longer get into your lungs because of your flabby muscles, but your body protects you from suffocation. If you stop breathing for too long, you will be startled from sleep. You will wake up with a beating heart and gasp for air. After a few seconds, however, you calm down and fall asleep again.
If the airways are only partially blocked, breathe more strongly and snore. “Due to the effort, however, affected people are too active in their sleep and are sometimes awakened by their own snoring. Many therefore only manage to go into a half-sleep at night,” explains Schneider.
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Why is sleep apnea dangerous?
Whether you snore or cannot breathe for a short time: you will suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. Because in both cases they may be woken up every few minutes all night long without remembering it later. So you will never get into a deep sleep and in addition you have far too much effort and stress due to your breathing problem. In the long term, this can cause you serious problems in your daily life.
Sleep expert Schneider names these 7 dangers of nocturnal respiratory arrest:
1. they are always hungry The brain needs the recovery in deep sleep to recharge its reserves. “But if it can’t, it thinks the whole body is lacking energy,” the doctor says. “The next day this ‘hungry brain’ therefore wants to make sure that you have enough energy for the next night.” The result: a ravenous appetite for unhealthy food, which quickly makes itself felt on the scales.
2. Your blood pressure is too high In order to get air again after a respiratory arrest, you will get a little frightened each time and the heart will pump strongly at first. “If this happens repeatedly at night, blood pressure rises during the day, which in turn increases the risk of suffering a heart attack,” warns Schneider.
3. you get sick more often If you sleep too little, your immune system suffers too. If you are chronically tired, you will also catch infections more often. Especially during the cold season it is therefore important that you get enough sleep.
4. complications can occur during pregnancy Night-time breathing is a tricky thing, especially for expectant mothers: because abdominal fat causes the muscles of the respiratory tract to relax, almost all women snore in the last 3 months of pregnancy. On the other hand, it is particularly important for the unborn child to have enough oxygen. The mother has only a very light sleep and therefore is more easily startled.
All of this further intensifies the above symptoms and increases the risk of gestational diabetes or gestational hypertension, i.e. increased blood pressure. The child may also develop worse due to the poor sleep.
5. your relationship suffers A person who lies next to a human sawmill every night gets as little sleep as the snoring person himself. If both partners in a relationship are constantly overtired and one of them curses the other’s snoring even at night, this can put a strain on your relationship. Even people with sleep apnea are irritable and often grouchy because of the lack of sleep, so quarrelling is inevitable.
6. they have problems in coping with everyday life “If you can never really recover, you will eventually lack the mental resilience to cope with everyday life,” says Schneider. Even after a single night with too little sleep, you may notice that you are less able to concentrate, become irritable and feel stressed more quickly. When that becomes a permanent condition, small challenges become more and more problems that quickly become too much to bear.
7. you feel depressed People who feel constantly tired and overstrained are often irritated and in a bad mood. In the long run, this can go so far that you suffer from mood swings due to the chronic lack of sleep or you are permanently depressed and stressed. “Especially with women, psychologists misinterpret these symptoms as depression or burn-out. But the cause lies elsewhere,” explains Schneider.
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People who sleep on their side are less likely to suffer from sleep apnea © Dean Drobot / Shutterstock.com
How can I tell if I suffer from sleep apnea?
“Snoring and sleep apnea are very serious things that can seriously affect your life,” emphasizes Schneider. If you actually get enough sleep and yet are constantly tired for no reason, you may not sleep well. To find out whether this is due to your breathing, the sleep physician advises you to pay attention to the following signs:
1. You wake up with a dry mouth Ideally, we breathe at night, especially through the nose. However, during snoring and sleep apnea, the body has to exert more force and therefore breathes more through the mouth. “This causes the mucous membranes to dry out, which you notice in the morning through an unpleasant feeling on the tongue or throat,” explains Schneider.
2. you have a headache at night or in the morning “The disturbed breathing causes too little oxygen to enter the bloodstream and instead too much carbon dioxide,” says the sleep physician. This leads to morning headaches.
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3. you have to go to the bathroom all night If you are young and not pregnant and do not drink too much in the evening, you should not actually have to go to the toilet at night. But if this happens regularly, you may not be able to breathe properly in your sleep. “The increased effort of breathing puts pressure on the heart. This registers as ‘too much fluid in the body’ and triggers the urge to urinate,” explains the sleep physician.
4. they startle in the night Most of the time, you don’t remember those brief waking moments. However, if you remember waking up breathless in the morning, this is a clear indication that you have not been able to breathe before.
5. you hear it from others You share a bed with your partner? Then it’s best to ask him if he hears you snoring or wheezing at night and that he should pay attention to it for a few nights. “However, women rarely come to us because the men have pointed them out. Most of the time it’s the other way round,” says Schneider.
Therefore, if you want to be on the safe side or have the bed mostly to yourself, you can also record yourself with your mobile phone. “There are now more and more devices that measure breathing, pulse and oxygen uptake at night without having to go to the laboratory,” says the expert. Talk to your family doctor about this and he can help you.
What can I do about sleep apnea?
The best way to tackle the problem is on two fronts: “First of all, those affected must get rid of the fatigue for a short time and get a good night’s sleep. At the same time, we try to eliminate the cause of the problem in the long term, so that the quality of sleep improves permanently,” explains Schneider. So if you suffer from snoring or sleep apnoea, the sleep physician advises you to do the following:
- See a doctor. Only an expert can best tell you what exactly is the reason for your impaired breathing. You can then work out with him how to treat the problem
- Wear a mask or braces at night! “There are various aids that keep the windpipe open at night and support breathing,” said Schneider. These could be splints that you wear in your mouth and which open your jaw, or masks that you put on your face. It takes about 1 to 2 weeks before you get used to them
- Lie on your side at night! “The breathing problems are worst in the supine position, because the flabby muscles fall backwards into the airways,” explains the sleep physician. So try to get used to a lateral position for sleeping. There are special side sleeping pillows for this purpose, for example, or you can cuddle up with your partner in the spoon position at night.
- Get your tonsils checked! “Not only children, but also adults sometimes have enlarged tonsils in the throat and on the palate, which hinder breathing,” the expert says. They could therefore also be a trigger for night-time breathing problems, which can be easily remedied.
- Mind your weight! Especially the fat on the belly promotes snoring and breathing stops, therefore overweight people snore more often. Ask your family doctor whether your weight may be a cause of your problem. In this case, you can plan together with him how you can lose weight in the healthiest way to sleep better.
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- Make sure you get enough sleep! “Women in particular often get too little sleep due to multiple stress in everyday life,” explains the sleep physician. If you then also breathe poorly at night, this makes the fatigue worse. Therefore, with the other tips you should not only ensure that you breathe better at night in the long term, but also that you sleep long enough.
- Think about an operation! If all previous tips do not help, it is possible that a OP Helping you. Especially in younger years, malpositions of the jaw or nose, but also the tonsils can heal well afterwards.
Good sleep is essential for a healthy life. Because only those who can recover properly at night are fit for the day. Therefore, if you take your nocturnal breathing problems and possible dangers of sleep apnea seriously and treat them consistently, you will be prepared for the stressful everyday life.