This Common Habit May Be Killing You While You Sleep

Next time you catch yourself snoring, think of Princess Leia...

On December 23, 2016, Carrie Fisher (who famously portrayed Princess Leia in several Star Wars films) was traveling to celebrate Christmas at her mother's home in Los Angeles.

But she never made it.

Mid-flight, her heart stopped.

Once the plane landed, she was rushed to the intensive care unit of the UCLA Medical Center. Four days later – after experiencing another cardiac arrest – Fisher's life tragically ended in the hospital.

She was just 60 years old.

Following her death, Fisher's medical team uncovered several contributing factors. But the primary cause of death may surprise you...

It was her sleep apnea...

Officially, it was listed as "sleep apnea and other factors."

Turns out, Fisher had been living with severe sleep apnea for several years. And eventually, it caused her to develop heart problems.

So if you think your nightly snoring is harmless... think again.

If your snoring is caused by sleep apnea, it could lead to major health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and decreased brain volume.

What's more, the dry winter air tends to make sleep apnea even worse. That's because the winter air dries out your nasal passages and makes you more vulnerable to colds and congestion, which constrict your airways.

And unfortunately, many folks don't even realize they have sleep apnea...

According to the National Council on Aging, around 39 million people have the most common form of sleep apnea, called obstructive sleep apnea (or "OSA"). However, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine estimates that a staggering 80% of folks with OSA are undiagnosed.

Today, I'm going to cover some sleep apnea basics, so you know exactly what you're up against...

Hopefully, this will encourage you to take your snoring seriously and remedy your sleep apnea before it causes major problems.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where your breathing periodically stops and restarts while you're asleep. It occurs when the airway in the back of your mouth becomes very narrow or closes when you breathe in.

The obstruction generally wakes you up because you can't breathe. However, the waking period is typically so short that you don't remember it. This pattern of airway closing, snorting or gasping, waking, and falling back to sleep can occur as often as every two minutes throughout the night, in some severe cases.

In addition to these micro-disruptions, sleep apnea reduces the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream, which has a detrimental effect on your organs (including your heart), tissues (like your muscles, for instance), and brain.

The three main types of sleep apnea are OSA (which was mentioned earlier), central sleep apnea (or "CSA"), and treatment-emergent CSA.

  • OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles in your throat relax so much that they obstruct your airways when you breathe in.
  • CSA stems from a signaling problem in the brain, which causes your breathing muscles to malfunction.
  • Treatment-emergent CSA describes a situation when someone who is being treated for OSA starts to develop CSA.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea?

One of the hallmark sleep apnea symptoms is snoring... and most likely, someone else will have to tell you that you snore, since it happens while you're asleep.

But an easier way to find out is by using an app on your phone that'll record your snoring while you sleep. One such app is called SnoreLab, and it's available for Apple and Android phones.

SnoreLab will let you play back your snores and will categorize whether your snores are relatively loud or quiet. You can also use SnoreLab for free (just hit the "skip" button in the top right when they ask if you want to "go premium" while signing up).

All you have to do is plug in your phone, get the app started, and put it next to your head while you sleep.

Keep in mind, apps on your phone are not designed to diagnose sleep apnea... but they could illuminate an issue that's worth bringing up with your doctor.

Other signs that you might have sleep apnea include:

  • Breathing lapses while sleeping
  • Gasping for air while sleeping
  • Frequently waking with a dry mouth or headache
  • Getting up more than twice a night to pee
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Night sweating
  • Teeth grinding
  • Lack of attention
  • Irritability 

If this sounds familiar, talk to your primary care doctor about what the next steps might be. Chances are you'll need to undergo some sleep monitoring to get a clearer picture of the issue.

This sleep monitoring could be done in a doctor's office during a sleep study or at home. During the monitoring, you'll be hooked up to polysomnography equipment that will monitor your heart, lungs, brain activity, and breathing patterns.

Once you have the results of the polysomnography session, you will know how to best proceed.

If I do have sleep apnea, what can I do about it?

First, you'll want to participate in a sleep study and get a formal diagnosis. This will help shed light on your sleeping issues. It will also help you get monetary support from your health insurance company for certain types of treatment.

One potential treatment option is getting a continuous positive airway pressure ("CPAP") machine, which helps keep your airways open while you sleep. Most insurance plans will cover part of the costs of a CPAP machine.

Another way to treat your sleep apnea is with exercise. Studies show that regular aerobic exercise reduced participants' apnea-hypopnea index score (or "AHI" score, a measure of sleep apnea severity) by an average of nearly six points.

This means that participants experienced six fewer apnea events per hour, on average. This is enough of a difference to change your sleep apnea level of severity from severe (30-plus events per hour) to moderate (15 to 30 events per hour), from moderate to mild (five to 15 events per hour), or from mild to nonexistent.

Researchers have also found that combining resistance training with aerobic exercise tends to improve sleep apnea outcomes even further.

Additionally, certain face exercises can help strengthen the muscles in your throat to help improve your sleep apnea. Here's a 14-minute YouTube video in which an ear, nose, and throat surgeon walks you through five throat-strengthening exercises.

And if you know you have sleep apnea already and use a CPAP machine, make sure you're cleaning the machine and all its parts every day with warm water and soap. This will reduce the accumulation of germs inside the machine and help boost its operating efficiency.

Also, make sure you're using your machine consistently. And keep a humidifier in your room during this time of year to help combat the dryness in the air.

Don't let your snoring go on unchecked. Find out what's really happening in your airways while you sleep and take these steps to make sure you're breathing as well as possible.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 30, 2024