Natural Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea
Also referred to as obstructive sleep apnea or OSA, sleep apnea is a condition where the walls of the throat start to relax and narrow during sleep, partially or entirely blocking the airway and interrupting the normal breathing pattern. The condition is one of the leading causes of disrupted sleep, and is thought to impact approximately one in five people across the world.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the common cause of sleep apnea, the risks involved, and the potential treatment options.
What Occurs During Sleep Apnea?
During sleep, the muscles in the back of your throats begin to relax. This is a normal process in the body.
However, for some people, these relaxing muscles can sometimes cause a blockage in the airway, reducing the amount of oxygen available to the body. This triggers the brain to wake you up, interrupting your normal sleeping pattern, allowing your airways to re-open.
With chronic sleep apnea, this process can occur several times throughout the night, often accompanied by loud snoring, laboured breathing and gasping or snorting as you attempt to take in oxygen.
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Interestingly, people with sleep apnea often don’t realise that it occurs unless pointed out by a partner or family member.
Symptoms and Risks of Sleep Apnea
People with sleep apnea may experience repeated episodes throughout the night, sometimes up to one every few minutes, leading to disturbed sleep patterns.
This can lead to extreme fatigue and tiredness the following day. Many people with sleep apnea wake up in the morning feeling like they haven’t slept at all.
This chronic tiredness can cause cognitive issues such as poor memory and concentration during the day, which can increase the risk of injury during work related tasks or driving.
Tiredness can also affect the mood, leading to irritability and even depression (which brings in a whole host of other potential problems).
Sleep apnea is also sometimes accompanied by a loss of libido, and erectile dysfunction in men.
It can also lead to issues further down the line. As noted by the NHS:
“Poorly controlled OSA can also increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, having a serious accident caused by tiredness (such as a car crash), having a stroke or heart attack, and developing an irregular heartbeat (such as atrial fibrillation)”.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Whilst it is normal for the muscles in the throat to relax and collapse to some degree while you are sleeping, there are a number of factors that can make this problematic in some people, including:
- being overweight
- having an abnormally shaped jaw or neck.
- smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, particularly before bed
- taking sleeping tablets
Any combination of the above factors can lead to the airway restrictions associated with sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Treatment Options
As the causes of sleep apnea can vary significantly, there is no single treatment that will work effectively for everyone. Deciding the most appropriate course of treatment is best achieved with the help of a medical professional.
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Here are some of the potential routes you and your doctor could consider:
1. Weight Loss
As explained in a 2013 Harvard Health Publication, “The link between excess weight and sleep apnea is well established. People who are overweight have extra tissue in the back of their throat, which can fall down over the airway and block the flow of air into the lungs while they sleep.”
Even a minor loss in excess body weight may be enough to relieve the constriction of your throat and open up your airways.
In many cases, sleep apnea will go into complete remission if you are able to reach a healthy weight. There are many ways in which you can do that, including:
- A combination of strength training and high intensity interval training is one of the most effective ways to lose weight and maintain your health at the same time. Shoot for
- Move more: Hitting the gym a few times a week definitely isn’t a substitute for upping your overall amount of movement throughout the day. Simple things like taking the stairs, walking more often, having a standing desk and performing a stretching routine upon waking and before bed can keep your metabolism firing and make a massive difference where weight loss is concerned.
- Eat healthily: A healthy diet is one based around plenty of natural, whole, plant foods like leafy greens, pulses, pseudo grains, nuts and seeds. Avoid overly refined or processed foods, and eat slowly.
- Control your stress: Stress is a major contributor to being overweight for most people. The stress hormone cortisol is a storage hormone – signalling to the body to retain fat, particularly around the midsection. De-stress with meditation, yoga, journaling, being in nature and spending time with loved ones.
- Try cold thermogenesis: When done the right way, frequent cold exposure can help to activate brown adipose tissue, which helps the body burn regular white fat as a fuel. It also activates adinopectin, a hormone that breaks down fat. You can achieve this effect with regular cold showers, ice baths, outdoor exercise in the cold, or by using a cold thermogenesis vest.
2. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Device
A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device delivers continuous air pressure through a mask placed over your nose whilst you sleep.
The air pressure is slightly greater than the surrounding air, helping to prevent your airway from closing while you sleep, preventing apnea and snoring.
CPAP is regarded as one of the most common and effective methods of treating sleep apnea, however some people find that the device can be uncomfortable.
Here are some tips to help you get comfortable, courtesy of the Help Guide:
- Make sure your CPAP device fits correctly. A correct fit makes a huge difference. Make sure the straps are not too tight or too loose and that the mask seals completely over your nose and mouth. Schedule regular appointments with your doctor to check the fit and evaluate your treatment progress.
- Ease into it. Start by using your CPAP device for short periods during the day. Use the “ramp” setting to gradually increase air pressure. It’s normal to need several months to get used to sleeping this way.
- Upgrade your CPAP device with customized options. Customize the mask, tubing and straps, to find the right fit. Ask your doctor about soft pads to reduce skin irritation, nasal pillows for nose discomfort, and chinstraps to keep your mouth closed and reduce throat irritation.
- Use a humidifier to decrease dryness and skin irritation. Try a special face moisturizer for dry skin. Many CPAP devices now come with a built-in humidifier.
- Try a saline nasal spray or a nasal decongestant for nasal congestion.
- Keep your mask, tubing and headgear clean. To ensure maximum comfort and benefit, replace CPAP and humidifier filters regularly and keep the unit clean.
- Mask the sound of the CPAP machine. If the sound of the CPAP machine bothers you, place it beneath the bed to reduce the noise. You can also try using a sound machine or white noise machine to help you sleep.
If you try the above tips and still can’t get used to the CPAP, there is a new form of treatment available called Provent, a smaller and less intrusive device.
Some people find that it is easier to get used to that the traditional CPAP, however, it’s important to note that Provent is currently more expensive than regular CPAP machines, and does not have the proven track record.
3. Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP)
BiPAP devices are similar to CPAP in that they both supply oxygen to the airway, however the mechanism by which they do so is slightly different.
As explained by the Mayo Clinic, “Unlike CPAP, which supplies steady, constant pressure to your upper airway as you breathe in and out, BiPAP builds to a higher pressure when you inhale and decreases to a lower pressure when you exhale”.
It’s essentially designed to complement the apnea sufferer’s own respiratory cycle, optimising the efficiency of their lungs.
Some of the more advanced BiPAP devices can also be set to automatically deliver a breath if the device detects you haven't taken one after so many seconds.
4. Mandibular Advancement Device (MAD)
As an alternative to the breathing assistance devices mentioned above, there are also dental devices such as the MAD, which is used to alter the position of the jaw.
The device appears similar to a gum shield, and works by bringing your lower jaw and tongue forward during sleep to increase the space at the back of your throat, opening up the airway.
Whilst they are often less costly than the CPAP and BiPAP devices, the MAD are only really effective for moderate sleep apnea issues.
Users of these types of devices have also reported a number of unwanted side effects, including damage to the jaw and teeth, increased soreness, clicking and even nausea.
It is crucial that you have the MAD fitted by a dentist who regular deals with cases of sleep apnea, and that you revisit the dentist regularly to get the device adjusted.
5. Altering Sleep Habits
If you find that the dental or airway devices are too cumbersome, changing your sleep habits is another way in which you can help to remedy your sleep apnea.
Be warned however, that changing how you sleep is not always as easy as it sounds.
Your sleep habits have been built up over many years, and will take some work to change. To maximise your success with changing your sleep habits, you should really consider what it actually takes to form a new habit and get rid of an old one. If you can stick at it, you’ll hopefully find lasting relief.
Some of the most effective tips include:
- Sleeping on your side rather than on your back. Lying on your back allows your tongue and soft palate to rest against the back of your throat and block your airway. A neat little trick that can prevent you from rolling onto your back in the night is to sew a tennis ball into the back of your pajama top.
- Prop your head up. If you find it too uncomfortable to lie on your side and you’d prefer to stay lying on your back, prop your head up with a cervical pillow to provide support and to reduce the likelihood of your airway closing.
- Open your nasal passages. You can use breathing strips, a saline nasal spray or a nasal dilator to help keep your nasal airway open.
6. Throat Exercises
Practicing specific exercises for the neck, throat and tongue can help to strengthen the muscles surrounding the airways, which may reduce the severity of your sleep apnea.
A 2009 study showed that specific exercises for the tongue and throat reduced sleep apnea occurrences by 39%.
Some of the most effective exercises from the guys at the Sleep Apnea Guide include:
Exercise 1 - Place your tongue on the upper alveolar ridge just behind teeth. To find that spot, say door, and it's the spot that your tongue touches the soft palate. Leave your tongue for 5 minutes, and if you need to swallow, do so.
Exercise 2 - Place the tip of the tongue on that same spot (behind teeth), and make that clicking noise when you tsk, tsk someone.
Exercise 3 - Lightly anchor your tongue between your teeth. Swallow five times. Repeat this exercise 5 times daily.
Exercise 4 - Start by sitting up straight, your head in a chin tuck and looking ahead. Your lips and mouth should be closed. Place the tip of your tongue behind your teeth. slowly raise your chin towards the ceiling. While tilting your chin towards the ceiling, with constant pressure of your tongue towards the palate, slowly slide your tongue from the front of your teeth to the back of your mouth. When your tongue is at the back of your mouth, lift the tongue and move it to the front. Repeat this movement ten times.
Exercise 5 - Clinch a pen or a pencil between your teeth for ten minutes or until your jaw is sore, just before bedtime. This exercise will strengthen the muscles of the jaw.
Exercise 6 - To tighten the muscles that keep the mouth closed, you can chew gum before bedtime until the jaw is tender.
Repeat these exercises daily, and keep in mind that it may take several weeks to start to see result.
There are a number of supplements that may also help to alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea.
Vitamin D - One of the most widely used sleep supplement is Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin.
As stated on the Natural Society site, “Neurologist Dr. Stasha Gominak, a specialist on sleep, found that the majority of her patients complaining of sleep apnea also had a Vitamin D deficiency. By increasing Vitamin D consumption, they decreased or even eliminated the symptoms associated with sleep apnea. Who would have thought that simply spending time outdoors could be among natural sleep apnea treatments?”
You can obtain adequate amounts of Vitamin D through regular sun exposure, but in some cases a supplement is also necessary.
Valerian - Valerian is another supplement often recommended to sleep apnea sufferers. The herbal remedy has been used for centuries to treat a variety of sleep disorders.
It evokes a mild sedative effect, helping the body to fall asleep faster and reducing the number of apnea related interruptions.
DHA - A DHA supplement may also be beneficial - the long chain omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil or algae.
As explained by the Natural Health Advisory, “Low omega-three levels, especially DHA levels, are related to more severe sleep apnea (higher apnea-hypopnea indices). Omega-3 fats are one of the top natural remedies for sleep apnea because they protect cells against stress; sleep apnea causes long-term oxidative stress and puts severe demands on the body which is thought to deplete the omega-three levels.”
Magnesium - Found in abundance in seeds and nuts, this important micronutrient acts as a muscle regulator, which may help you stay in more control of the muscles in the top of your throat.
It is even more effective when combined with other natural sleep boosters such as Vitamin D, zinc, and 5-HTP.
For extreme cases of sleep apnea, if other treatment methods have failed, surgery may be the only viable option.
Typically, the goal with any surgical procedure for sleep apnea is to enlarge the airway, reducing the likelihood that it will become blocked.
Some of the most commonly used surgical techniques include:
- Jaw repositioning: This is typically used if there is an underlying structural issue with the jaw that may be causing the apnea. In a procedure called maxillomandibular advancement, the jawbone is translated forward, enlarging the space behind the tongue and soft palate.
- Removal of tissue: In an uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, tissues are extracted from the rear of the mouth and upper part of the throat, sometimes including the tonsils.
- Airway implants: In some cases, rods are surgically implanted into the soft palate (or throat in extreme cases) to open up the airway.
- Deviated septum: In some cases, straightening out a crooked nose can help to open the nasal pathways, reducing the likelihood of sleep apnea reoccurring.
Have you ever experienced any of the symptoms of sleep apnea? What are some of the most effective remedies that you have stumbled across?