By now, you’ve heard of sleep apnea. Snoring is something you’ve known in yourself or your family. Do these breathing issues represent anything serious? How can this be a big problem that needs an urgent solution?
While you are reading this, negative pressure in your chest draws air through your throat and your nose so oxygen is supplied to your body, and waste gas, primarily carbon dioxide, is purged. You have very flexible tissues in your throat that allow you to speak, sing, and swallow. That flexibility means the negative air pressure of breathing can collapse the airway like a straw in a milkshake.
While you are awake, the muscles surrounding your flexible throat tighten when they get signals of negative pressure. You don’t snore while you are awake!
During sleep, about half the population loses the protective effect of muscle function and the airway collapses completely, shutting off the airflow (sleep apnea), or narrows enough to pinch the air, making the tissue vibrate, snoring.
Breathing is our most powerful reflex. Trained divers can hold their breath for many minutes, but most of us feel strong air hunger within seconds. If your airway closes during sleep, your brain takes over to signal the muscles to open your airway to keep you alive. More brain activity when it should be resting means less refreshing sleep. If you get up in the morning and don’t feel ready for your day, you’re not getting refreshing sleep. While breathing naturally slows during sleep, imagine if every twelve minutes your brain was irritated by having to work to open your airway. People with severe sleep apnea have this happen every two minutes. Some have it happen more than once every minute!
Snoring is less irritating to the brain because air doesn’t stop moving, but the extra work to pass air through a narrow space still requires more muscle activity. Vibration from snoring can spread to nearby carotid blood vessels – the big ones supplying blood to the brain. Atherosclerotic plaques, precursors to heart attack and stroke, form in the walls of blood vessels that vibrate. We don’t understand how snorers can make that much noise yet not wake themselves up, but the reactions of their bed partners and families testify about the social problems created by snoring.
The best way to address a narrow, collapsible, airway is to identify it while it is being formed – during the growth years of childhood. Trained dentists can spot a growth deficiency and bad habits early in life and intervene with simple guidance therapy. Once growth is complete, treatment becomes more troublesome, but every therapy is better than a lifetime of brain irritation, social isolation, and serious medical consequences that come from poor breathing during sleep.
Early problems with sleep breathing can be treated with habit correction or low-level interventions. Left undiscovered or undertreated, people suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, cognitive decline and poor quality of life.
Ask your dentist and your primary care physician about sleep and breathing. There are simple ways to find out how much risk you may be in, and therapies are getting easier every year.
Above all, be curious about any child’s breathing – do they ever mouth breathe or make any breathing sounds? Time for action! And do not let anyone tell you ‘they’ll grow out of it!’ People do not grow OUT of sleep breathing problems; they grow INTO them.