7 Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when a person’s upper airway becomes blocked while they are asleep, causing him or her to stop breathing for several seconds at a time. During this time, the bloodstream does not receive enough oxygen. It’s a serious condition that is usually diagnosed via a sleep study, but it can be treated with a continuous positive air pressure or CPAP machine. Doctors may also recommend lifestyle changes, depending on the cause of the sleep apnea.

When left untreated, sleep apnea can have severe consequences, such as chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, heart attack, type II diabetes, and even death. It can also lead to disruptions during your day-to-day life, particularly leaving you exhausted even after a full night of sleep. This exhaustion may cause you to fall asleep while working, driving, taking care of children, or during other dangerous situations.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, there are signs to watch for. They include frequent loud snoring, waking up with shortness of breath, headaches, high blood pressure, dry mouth, insomnia, sore throat, and irritability during the daytime. If you sleep with a partner, he or she may notice the signs and symptoms before you do. If you do suffer from the condition, it’s important to understand what may be the culprit. These are the most common causes:

1. Excess Weight

The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea in the United States is excess weight. Individuals who are overweight or obese have additional tissue in the area around their mouths and throats. While sleeping, the muscles in this part of the body relax, and the extra fatty tissue can cause an obstruction in the airway, which, in turn, causes sleep apnea.

Of course, losing weight can help improve the condition. Unfortunately, many overweight people who suffer from sleep apnea find that starting a healthy diet and exercise regimen is difficult because the condition leads to daytime exhaustion. Studies have also shown that the lack of sleep and general tiredness can wreak havoc on the person’s metabolism, hormone levels, and insulin levels, all of which can impact the ability to lose weight. In many cases, bariatric surgery has shown to be successful in improving the outcome of overweight individuals with sleep apnea.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all people with sleep apnea are overweight, and not all overweight people will suffer from sleep apnea in their lifetimes. If you are overweight or obese and feel like it is impacting your ability to get a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor. A sleep study may be in your future. Addressing any problems you have getting good quality sleep may even be incorporated into a healthy weight loss plan.

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2. Neck Circumference

The size of your neck alone can also impact sleep apnea. In general, men with a neck circumference that is greater than 17 inches and women with a neck circumference larger than 16 inches are at risk for developing sleep problems. The size of the neck may be caused by excess fatty tissue in individuals who are overweight or obese, though it may also just be the way your body is shaped. Football players and bodybuilders tend to have thicker necks. This may also be a trait that is inherited from your ancestors. Again, weight loss may help reduce symptoms of sleep apnea if the size of your neck is a result of obesity.

3. Narrow Airway

While a large neck may have an external impact on sleep apnea, internally, a narrow airway may be the cause. This is actually the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea in children. Swollen or enlarged tonsils and adenoids can cause the airway to become narrow which prevents enough oxygen from making its way through while sleeping. A tumor or unexpected growth may also cause a narrower passageway. People with Down syndrome typically have enlarged tonsils and tongues that put them at risk for sleep apnea, too. Adults who do not suffer from any of these issues may have simply been born with a naturally narrow airway.

4. Age

Age is another factor that you cannot control, but it may impact your ability to breathe well at night. The older you are, the more at risk you are for sleep apnea and similar sleeping conditions due to the fact that muscles in the throat and mouth area lose their tone and definition over time. These muscles eventually begin to flap into the airway while a person sleeps. While men in general are more prone to developing the condition, women may see symptoms develop after they have gone through menopause. Senior citizens of both sexes are at a greater risk than their younger counterparts.

5. Genetics

Unfortunately, like with many diseases and conditions, sometimes it all comes down to your family history. If your parents, grandparents, and other relatives had issues with sleep apnea, there is a stronger chance you will, too. This is especially true if you have one of the other risk factors like carrying excess weight. This does not mean you will definitely develop the condition in your lifetime, but you’re less likely to if you can cut back on elective behaviors like smoking and drinking that can eventually lead to problems with sleep apnea. Genetics can also increase your risk if you inherited a parent or grandparent’s narrow airway, large neck, large overbite, narrow sinuses, round head, and other physical features that may contribute to sleep disorders.

6. Alcohol

While many risk factors for sleep apnea are beyond your control, some of them come down to a change in lifestyle. For example, drinking alcohol regularly may be the culprit, especially when you drink it in excess. Alcohol slows down the body and relaxes the muscles, including those surrounding your airway, which can lead to obstruction. If you already suffer from the condition and begin drinking, it can actually increase the severity of your symptoms. Alcohol consumption is also related to several other sleep disorders, including insomnia and the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. It can also impact the amount of time you stay asleep on any given night.

7. Smoking

Smoking seems to impact your health from every angle, and the role it plays in sleep apnea is no different. It irritates your body, particularly the respiratory system. This can lead to inflammation, swelling, and excess fluid in the airway, which can cause an obstruction. Also, while you are sleeping, your body begins to go into nicotine withdrawals which can also impact the muscles in your mouth and throat, making it harder for you to breathe. Multiple studies have shown that smokers are three times as likely to develop the condition than those who do not smoke.