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Sleep apnea is a common sleep-related breathing disorder that prevents continuous airflow to the brain. It causes your breathing to momentarily become shallow or stop altogether while you sleep. The results include abrupt snoring followed by fatigue throughout the following day due to poor sleep quality from the night prior. There are two main forms of sleep apnea; central and obstructive – obstructive sleep apnea being the most common. Millions of Canadian adults have been diagnosed or are at high risk of experiencing obstructive sleep apnea. Previous studies have found sleep apnea is associated with numerous health risks to your physical and cognitive wellbeing. If left untreated, sleep apnea can progress into more serious health conditions including but not limited to depression, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

This condition is accompanied by chronic fatigue and can cause numerous impaired cognitive functions including but not limited to excessive daytime sleepiness due to restless sleep, snoring and frequent urination. Morning headaches, poor judgement and concentration, irritability and memory loss will occur due to lack of sleep from the night before. Additionally, because of these cognitive side effects, there are increased risks of a motor vehicle and workplace accidents. The oxygen deprivation that occurs during an apnea puts a serious strain on your body. The heart struggles to pump enough blood around the body, which can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. Other conditions like diabetes, liver damage, low fertility and sexual dysfunction like erectile dysfunction have also been connected to sleep apnea. Patients with sleep apnea have also been noticed serious physical health conditions such as obesity, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Stroke and sleep apnea are often related to one another. In recent studies, 65% of stroke patients have had symptoms of sleep apnea. 

The word apnea means “no breathing” and sleep apnea refers to pauses in breathing that occur during sleep which, on average will last a span of 10 to 30 seconds. The individual stops breathing, which can prevent the brain from receiving sufficient oxygen. With each episode of apnea, blood oxygen levels are reduced (hypoxia), and sleep is disturbed, as the sleeper must wake briefly to resume breathing. In normal sleep, a person’s breathing will slow and become consistent, delivering a regular supply of oxygen to the blood. For individuals with sleep apnea, the frequent recessions in oxygen level signal to the brain that there’s something irregular resulting in the individual to feel the need to partially wake up. As a result, the person’s sleep is disturbed, making it impossible to drift into the deep, restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stages. Individuals with severe sleep apnea can go through this process countless periods each night. Often, people have no recollection of this happening and think that they have slept normally even though they were likely displaying symptoms of sleep apnea such as snoring, choking, and tossing and turning. When they awake, the individual may feel fatigued and un-rested. 

Oxygen deprivation and lack of sleep can make a dramatic impact on your brain over extended periods of time if left untreated. Research has shown that sleep apnea decreases the amount of white and gray matter in the brain, resulting in decreased cognitive function and memory loss, which puts individuals at greater risk of developing dementia over 10 years earlier than normal sleepers as well as other irreparable mental and emotional damage. Prolonged periods of sleep deprivation can cause mental stress, moodiness, and irritability, leading to depression. This emotional state can make it extremely difficult to sustain fulfilling and meaningful relationships. Sleep apnea can impact your love life and reproductive health. Men will more often likely suffer from erectile dysfunction twice as much as individuals without sleep apnea. Moreover, Sleep deprivation has been shown to decrease sexual desire in women and impacts fertility, making it harder to conceive. 

However, it is not completely hopeless. Due to how common this sleeping disorder has become, sleep apnea is easily diagnosed and treated. If you feel like you are experiencing any of these symptoms reach out to your family physician to seek a diagnosis.  Once you take the first step to determine whether you suffer from this common disorder, your physician can refer you to a sleep doctor, who will provide you with several options to address the underlying causes of your sleep disruption, which may include oral dental appliance, surgery, weight loss, positional therapy or the most common treatment, CPAP therapy.